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DYS Chalkville abuse charges go back to ’94

DYS officials knew years before firing any staffers that teens at the agency’s Chalkville campus had repeatedly complained about physical and sexual abuse by employees, according to a recently released federal court opinion.

Memos, letters, and written complaints from within the Department of Youth Services about mistreatment as far back as 1994 have surfaced during investigations in lawsuits filed by delinquent young women sentenced to the woodsy, secluded campus for punishment.

In 2001, more than a dozen girls went public, saying male staff had fondled, raped, and sexually harassed them. There were also allegations of physical abuse and consensual sex between teen girls and adult staff.

Eleven employees were immediately placed on leave, and eventually, about 15 were fired or allowed to resign or retire.

But not until last week’s opinion from U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler has evidence surfaced that the supervisors at Chalkville had for years received detailed complaints about some of the same employees who weren’t fired until 2001.

DYS spokesman Allen Peaton declined comment Monday, citing ongoing litigation.

Coogler’s Aug. 1 opinion allows the case against former Chalkville Superintendent James Caldwell to move forward over the objections of his attorneys. Caldwell is not accused of direct abuse, but of failing to discipline offending employees.

“Plaintiffs have provided evidence that Mr. Caldwell had notice of alleged sexual abuse by employees at the Chalkville campus through complaint forms, notes, letters, internal memoranda, and reports, which are dated as early as 1994 and continue through-2001 ,” Coogler wrote.

Over the years, some of the complaints pertained to ex-employees John Zeigler and John Mack, men accused by six of the seven young plaintiffs.

Mack has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault for punching a girl. Zeigler was charged with misdemeanor sexual misconduct, but the charge was dismissed when his accuser didn’t show up for trial.

A May 1994 memo is included in the court record. Caldwell wrote the memo after a conversation with Zeigler after female students had accused him of physical abuse and improper touching. “I made you aware that this is not the first time that accusations of this nature have come up about you and also noted that I had been told that you had a similar problem before transferring from Mt. Meigs,” Caldwell wrote.

Urged to be ‘discreet’

He cautioned Zeigler to be “discreet” in dealings with students, particularly the girls, and not say or do anything that could “fall into a realm of impropriety.”

He found that Caldwell investigated or ordered disciplinary hearings on some complaints, but not all. DYS officials presumed the girls were liars and troublemakers and handled the matters internally rather than notifying outside law enforcement, the judge found.

Caldwell, superintendent from 1990 to 2001, is one of several defendants in the lawsuit. His retirement, after 25 years with the state, was not a result of the Chalkville controversy, said his attorney, Peter Burke.

Much of the order concerns Caldwell because of the new information that has surfaced about alleged abuse during his tenure.

Caldwell did receive complaints, Burke said, but he took appropriate action.

“Our position is, when an allegation came to Caldwell, it was investigated; if it had merit, he would recommend whatever he thought was appropriate within his discretion,” Burke said.

Over the years, he recommended punishments for excessive force by staff such as “docking of pay, suspension for a few days,” Burke said.

He emphasized that the juveniles detained at Chalkville, 120 at a time, were sent there for behavior problems and criminal offenses. It was difficult to determine whether they were truthful at times.

“I’m not trying to cast aspersions, but these students were there for a reason. There were complaint boxes, and they could complain about everything. They could complain about the food; they could complain about the showers not being warm enough,” Burke said. “These are the kinds of people who are going to make allegations.”

Court monitors

A federal consent decree governing care for DYS youths was in place during much of the time in question.

Burke said court monitors and attorneys had access to records and could visit the campus but found none of the improprieties alleged in the lawsuit.

Attorney Rick Drummond, who represented the teens in the A.W. case that resulted in the consent decree, said the evidence of abuse dating back to the early 1990s was not revealed during his work on that case.

“It’s pretty clear that the superintendent of Chalkville was not disclosing information to monitors, perhaps to his bosses and to various counsel in the cases,” Drummond said.

Currently, he is representing five other former Chalkville students in another lawsuit against DYS employees based on claims of sexual and physical abuse.

The lawsuits are filed under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits educational discrimination based on gender.

Coogler’s August opinion rejects Caldwell’s claim for qualified immunity. Burke said he’ll file a motion asking the court to reconsider, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll appeal to the I lth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The order also allows the case against the Department of Youth Services to move forward.

E-mail: [email protected]

2005 The Birmingham News

2005 al.com All Rights Reserved.

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