State department of Juvenile Justice stands by youth facility operator after sexual assault

Roommates charged in sexual assault on teen

It happened in the dark.

Four larger teens had been talking about raping him -- one of them had been winking at him lately -- but he thought it was just talk. When the lights went out in the C dorm of WestCare-Georgia Intensive Residential Treatment Program, a privately run drug and alcohol recovery center for incarcerated teens off Mike Padgett Highway, they moved on him.

He went for the door to yell for help, but when he clutched the handle, one of them grabbed him by the neck in a choke hold and pulled him to the floor. They fondled him and pulled his pants off. As he thrashed and kicked, one of them took a toilet plunger from the bathroom, rubbed lotion on it, and attacked him with the handle.

"They did not say anything," the victim told an investigator. "They were just laughing."

That account is based on statements by the 16-year-old victim and two accused perpetrators contained in the state Department of Juvenile Justice's investigative file on the Jan. 2 incident, which The Augusta Chronicle obtained through an Open Records Act request.

Four-and-a-half months later, the department is standing by the contractor operating the facility, even though its investigation confirmed that a sexual assault occurred there.

"The investigation did not substantiate any negligence on their part," said Rob Rosenbloom, deputy commissioner for Community Services and Intake, "and we believe the children are still safe there."

NO SANCTIONS have been imposed on WestCare-Georgia, a division of a Las Vegas-based nonprofit in the third year of a five-year contract to run the center at an annual cost of about $2 million, and no employees have been disciplined. According to the department's statistics on the center, this is the only youth-on-youth sexual act, abusive or not, that has occurred under WestCare.

Corrective actions since taken by the company include adopting a zero-tolerance policy for "horse play" and assigning extra keys so counselors overseeing dormitories can keep watch over residents during shift change, according to documents in the file.

Also substantiating the assault were the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Augusta District Attorney's office.

Terrance Tafia Felder, 15, of Riverdale, Ga.; William Mark Richardson, 16, of Gillsville, Ga.; Zyheed Trevron Roberts, 16, of Marietta, Ga.; and Austin Sokol, 15, of Stockbridge, Ga., have been indicted on charges of aggravated sexual battery, one of the so-called "seven deadly sins" that automatically bump their case up to adult court.

Rosenbloom said there's no excuse for a sex crime to be committed on a child in state custody at any facility, especially a small one.

The WestCare program -- housed in four buildings surrounded by a security fence behind the Augusta Youth Development Campus -- has 30 beds, compared to the 120 at the long-term YDC or the 64 at the short-term Augusta Regional Youth Detention Center.

But these things happen, Rosenbloom said.

"You still have the dynamic of kids interacting with kids," he said.

That explanation isn't good enough for the victim's mother or the family's attorney, David Groover, of Calhoun, Ga.

"At this point," Groover said, "there is no indication that any steps have been taken by (the Department of Family and Children Services) or WestCare to ensure that children entrusted to their care are not subject to this kind of trauma and abuse, and that this never happens again to a child in protective custody of the state of Georgia."

ANOTHER CORRECTIVE action was for WestCare to repair its camera surveillance system, which according to e-mails had been knocked out by a lightning strike in early August and would have cost about $660 to repair.

Cameras were aimed at the open sleeping area in C dorm, but WestCare-Georgia Vice President Michael Langford said he doesn't think anything useful would have been captured had they been operable.

That's because the lights were out.

The attack occurred during shift change, about 10 p.m., according to the documents, while the dorm's sole residential counselor on duty was in the control room briefing his reliever, telling him that some of the boys -- there were 10 in the unit that night -- seemed "excited to see him" and might act out on him. The incoming counselor, Harvey Woody, let the other counselor out the main door, then noticed the commotion.

It broke up when he stuck his key in the door to the sleeping area, Woody told a Juvenile Justice investigator. He saw several boys grabbing at another, one of them holding a plunger, but no one had his pants down, he said.

Later, after Woody radioed for help, another counselor, Erika Jordan, turned the lights on and chastised the boys for horseplay. She saw the victim lying in his bed.

"He appeared to have a upset look on his face," Jordan wrote in her statement, "but resident did not say anything."

That was Saturday night. Two days later, the victim reported what happened to a therapist.

"The youth (the four accused assailants) told me that if I told what happened, they would jump me," the victim said, "but I was so mad that I told on Monday.

"I think I should be able to go home."

Of the four, only Felder and Roberts gave statements to the Juvenile Justice investigator. Both said that it was rowdiness that went too far. Felder said it started as slap boxing, but then they "kept messing with (the victim).

"It all started with playing," Felder wrote in his statement, "and it turned into something more serious."

WESTCARE'S OWN investigation, Langford said, didn't substantiate a sexual assault.

He noted that the victim waited two days to report it and cited conflicting statements in his account, but said the company alerted Juvenile Justice, DFCS and police anyway.

"Safety of clients and staff is first and foremost with us," Langford said. "We'd rather have an abundance of caution."

Some of those contradictions are apparent in the investigative file. In the victim's early statements, to the therapist and a WestCare nurse, he said he was fondled and one of the boys tried to assault him with the plunger, but no penetration occurred. The nurse and Trinity Hospital found no evidence of physical injury.

But later he complained of bleeding and changed his account. Visits to University Hospital and Medical College of Georgia Hospital also found no signs of injury.

District Attorney Ashley Wright and GBI Thomson office Special Agent in Charge Gary Nicholson wouldn't say what led them to conclude he told the truth in the second story. A memo from the Juvenile Justice Office of Investigations, reaching the same conclusion, cites corroborating statements by residents whose names are redacted.

GROOVER SAID he has uncovered other records showing that his client, whose name The Chronicle is withholding because he is a sexual assault victim, went to Trinity Hospital a few weeks before the incident, claiming he was hit in the crotch with a football.

"There's evidence in his medical records that he was treated for other injury to his genitals, and for infection, while he was at WestCare," he said. "And those are well-known symptoms, red flags, of child sexual abuse. And, at least, WestCare failed to monitor and supervise these children."

The boy's mother, whose name the newspaper is also withholding so as not to identify her son, said he got embroiled in the state child welfare system while his father was in state prison on methamphetamine charges and she was serving six months in a county jail for driving with a suspended license and giving false information.

"He was just lost without us, you know," she said.

While living with relatives, he repeatedly got in trouble for running away, skipping school and testing positive for marijuana. He was sent to WestCare after running away from a juvenile rehabilitation camp, she said.

He's now at the Georgia Industrial Children's Home in Macon, a group home, and she's petitioning Bartow County Juvenile Court to let him come home.

She said he doesn't want to talk about what happened in Augusta. "He just wants to forget it ever happened," she said. "He was really brave to even tell. I commend him for that. His life was in jeopardy."

Rick McDevitt, president of the Georgia Alliance for Children and a longtime critic of Juvenile Justice, said the incident shows why he opposes locking children up for small crimes. Only the truly dangerous ones should be incarcerated, he said.

TROUBLING NUMBERS of youth-on-youth sexual assaults were part of what led McDevitt to initiate a U.S. Justice Department investigation in 1998 that led to a memorandum of agreement to fix "egregious" conditions, which Juvenile Justice finally emerged from under last year.

"They still put kids in danger," he said, "not only in their own facilities, but with some of their contractors who don't do a better job.

"We've called it for years 'state-sponsored child abuse.' "

Awaiting trial, awaiting justice

Four teens from metro Atlanta have been indicted for aggravated sexual battery in the Jan. 2 assault on a 16-year-old at WestCare-Georgia Intensive Residential Treatment Program.

While two of the accused youths are apparently back with their families, the victim and his mother remain separated.

The teens involved:

TERRANCE TAFIA FELDER

- AGE: 15

- FROM: Riverdale, Ga., Clayton County

- STATUS: Incarcerated at the DeKalb Regional Youth Detention Center

- HEIGHT & WEIGHT: Not available because he has not been formally charged and booked in the Richmond County jail

- JUVENILE RECORD: Conspiracy to commit burglary, burglary, affray, theft by taking, violation of probation, sale/distribution/possession of tobacco products by a minor, loitering and prowling, criminal trespass, possession of marijuana, entering a motor vehicle with intent to commit theft, criminal trespass, truancy

Note: Photograph not available

WILLIAM MARK RICHARDSON

- AGE: 16 (15 at the time of the assault)

- FROM: Gillsville, Ga., Hall County

- STATUS: Under bond conditions, living with his mother. Granted a $20,000 bond by Senior Judge William M. Fleming Jr., on Feb. 12. A bench warrant was issued for his arrest on April 9 when he failed to appear for arraignment, but his attorney, David Steel, said that was done in error because his client was never sent notice of the court date.

- HEIGHT & WEIGHT: 5 feet, 10 inches; 207 pounds

- JUVENILE RECORD: Obstruction of an officer, possession of alcoholic beverages, skipping school, violation of probation, failing drug tests

ZYHEED TREVRON ROBERTS

- AGE: 16 (15 at the time of the assault)

- FROM: Marietta, Ga., Cobb County

- STATUS: Incarcerated at the Augusta Regional Youth Detention Center

- HEIGHT & WEIGHT: 5 feet, 10 inches; 150 pounds

- JUVENILE RECORD: Disorderly conduct, disruption of a public school, burglary, loitering/prowling, criminal trespass, terroristic threats, possession of marijuana, failing drug tests

AUSTIN SOKOL

- AGE: 15

- FROM: Stockbridge, Ga., Henry County

- STATUS: Granted a $20,000 bond by Senior Judge Albert M. Pickett on Jan. 15, which required him to report directly to Henry County Juvenile Probation.

- HEIGHT & WEIGHT: 5 feet, 11 inches; 160 pounds

- JUVENILE RECORD: Not available, as Henry County Juvenile Court has yet to respond to a request for records

THE VICTIM

- AGE: 16

- FROM: Cartersville, Ga., Bartow County

- STATUS: Living at Georgia Industrial Children's Home in Macon. His mother is petitioning Bartow County Juvenile Court to reunite him with her.

- HEIGHT & WEIGHT: 5 feet, 6 inches; 125 pounds

- JUVENILE RECORD: Not available, as Bartow County Juvenile Court has declined to release records. According to his mother, he was in the custody of the Department of Family and Children Services and Juvenile Justice for running away, truancy and failing drug tests.

Sources: Richmond County Sheriff's Office booking records; Richmond County Superior Court Clerk's office records; Clayton County Juvenile Court; Hall County Juvenile Court; Cobb County Juvenile Court; Calhoun, Ga., attorney David Groover and the victim's mother