Staff woes handcuff DYS: Skill level, sex abuse are issues

Front-line DYS workers make less than some janitors and don't even need a high school diploma, leaving the state's most troubled kids too often supervised by incompetent and sometimes predatory staff, a Herald investigation has found. Instead of getting counseling, Sorphia Chhay got a proposition one night from a Department of Youth Services worker who wanted to watch her have sex with another girl in a Dorchester lockup. “He asked us, ‘Can I see something going on between you two,’ ” said Chhay, who is now 19 and out of state custody. “I looked at him and said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ”'

Sources inside and out of the state's juvenile justice system say Massachusetts is poorly equipped to handle the growing number of mentally ill kids locked up for minor crimes because staff are not qualified. With two recent suicides and 94 attempts in two years, experts say it's time to take a close look at who's watching the kids.

Marvette Neal is a worst-case example. Fired from his DYS job at Spectrum in Dorchester in April 2001 for snapping pictures of girls taking showers, Neal was arrested months later for preying on a 14-year-old girl who had been under his care in lockup and had since been released, sources said. “The suspect took her to his house on numerous occasions and made the victim touch his penis and watch pornographic movies,” a Boston police report says.

The 33-year-old man also allegedly punched the former foster child in the face and molested her several times over two months. Neal is now charged in Dorchester District Court with indecent assault and assault and battery. His lawyer didn't return phone calls. He isn't the only employee to allegedly cross the line. Stories abound among those who work with DYS girls about staffers carrying on with female residents.

“One of the things important to girls' success is developing positive relationships,” said Francine Sherman, director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project. “That's great, but they have a big trust and when they abuse that trust there's nothing worse.”

The DYS worker who tried to entice Chhay went to another girl's room later that night. She said she saw the man leave “red-faced.” The girl, who was 14 or 15, told Chhay she had just performed a sex act on him.

Several DYS sources said a female worker was dismissed nearly two years ago for kissing a female resident. “There were female workers that were doing stuff with the other girls, too,” said Chhay.

Even DYS officials privately admit their applicant pool is poor. Other than passing a criminal background check, there are no minimum requirements for an entry-level job. The lack of qualifications is reflected in the salary. Starting pay to work at Northeast Family Institute in Dorchester, run by a contractor for DYS, where Charish Williams hanged herself last month, is $20,600, or $9.90 an hour. Other facilities staffed by DYS employees pay $23,897 to start. The low pay, coupled with challenging work conditions, leads to high turnover. At Metro lockup in Dorchester, “a few” employees are fired every month, said DYS official Peter Forbes.

Ronald Preston, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said staff quality is under review. “At least as far as the girls is concerned, there is probably going to have to be a higher standard,” he said. “Issues of quality of these individuals is a true and genuine issue, and we're looking into it.”

Mary Glover, whose granddaughter hanged herself last month in the Dorchester lockup, says the people hired to care for 17-year-old Charish Williams were not qualified. “A lot of these people, they grew up with my children,” said the Roxbury woman. “All of them are from right around the neighborhood who are working there. They can't even take care of their own kids.”

Two months before Williams died, 15-year-old Myron Watkins hanged himself in an adjacent facility.

DYS Commissioner Michael C. Bolden said staffing could improve but insists all of his employees are trained. “I just want to kind of dispel the myth that might be out there that we might not be prepared for this. We are,” he said. “We train for suicide prevention.”

Yet it's not just entry-level workers who are often unqualified. A DYS report acknowledges problems with the clinical staff — the experts on the units who are supposed to be the first line of defense in suicide prevention.

“For the most part, clinicians in the DYS system are not licensed, but are bachelor-level staff and new to the work force,” according to the report in support of a pay raise for clinicians. “Many of these clinicians become overwhelmed by the varied needs presented by these young women.”

By Kevin Rothstein
17 March 2004

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