ATLANTA — The state Department of Juvenile Justice has suspended with pay 19 investigators and the former head of DJJ's office of investigations.
The move came Thursday after it was discovered little, if anything, had been done with 20 open investigations into allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct between juveniles and staff.
The suspensions come in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice releasing surveys last week that showed Georgia's juveniles were among the most likely in the nation to say to they had been sexually victimized within a state detention facility.
Four Georgia lockups for juveniles were among the 13 nationwide that had the highest percentage of youth reporting inappropriate sexual contact with detention officers. A regional youth detention center in Paulding County led the nation with 32.1 percent of the teenagers surveyed anonymously last year reporting they were victimized sexually by either staff or other juveniles. That was more than three times the national rate of 9.5 percent.
DJJ Commissioner Avery Niles last week ordered a review of the federal findings; as a result he took action Thursday against 20 employees, for "failure to carry out your assigned duties in a timely manner," according to letters that were given to each one. That included the former supervisor, who already had been reassigned.
None of the names of the suspended employees were released.
DJJ policy allows 45 days to close an investigation. Exceptions are made only when circumstances dictate more time. But in these 20 cases no one asked for more time to investigate.
DJJ's office of investigations has 25 employees. Nineteen of them are suspended until there is an individual review of each employee's overall performance. If a pattern of negligence is found, the investigators could be fired.
A new supervisor of investigations was named two weeks ago -- before the incomplete files were discovered -- with a mandate to reorganize the unit.
"It is a disturbing breach of confidence and accountability and it is fundamentally unacceptable," Niles said in a statement. "It's the last thing we expected to find" among the DJJ staff.
Niles, who was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal, asked the GBI and the Department of Corrections, which are experienced with these kinds of cases, to complete the 20 investigations from 2012.
An advocate for reforming youth prisons applauded the suspensions and Avery for "holding the staff accountable."
"For the protection of kids in their care," said Rick McDevitt, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children," I think the highest standards of accountability have to be in place."
Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske, who is on the DJJ board, said he was not surprised by how quickly the commissioner acted, but he found the situation "distressing. That is a real concern and it certainly justifies the commissioner's action."
He noted that Niles also had fired two staffers who were caught with contraband and then turned them over to law enforcement.
"When you're within the field of juvenile justice and you're working with kids and they can become victims by your failure to do you job, that warrants a serious response," Teske said.
In the open cases "the alleged perpetrators would be subject to prosecution if there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal actions," DJJ spokesman Jim Shuler said. "We have unfinished investigations, so it is not known if these cases will be substantiated. It will be up to the GBI to look at these cases to determine if there is any culpability."
It is a felony for a detention officer to have sexual contact with an inmate, even if it's consensual.
The survey released last week is required by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act adopted in 2003. The researchers polled juveniles at 17 of Georgia's 27 juvenile facilities.
The four institutions where the highest percentage of juveniles reported sexual contact with staff were the Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center, a short-term facility akin to a jail for adults, and the youth development campuses in Augusta, Eastman and Sumter, which are long-term lockups similar to prisons for adults.
Researchers found that 15.8 percent of the 497 juveniles in Georgia's criminal justice system who were surveyed reported a sexual encounter with a staff member. At the four Georgia facilities cited among the worst in the nation, nearly 300 boys reported sexual abuse last year.
Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and South Carolina had the worst rates in the survey, while Delaware, Massachusetts, New York and the District of Columbia had no reported incidents of sexual victimization, the report said.