Crime

Lawsuits, criminal investigation cloud Nampa juvenile detention center

The grooming of a 15-year-old boy began in 2012 when Julie McCormick, a 30-year-old safety and security supervisor at the Juvenile Corrections Center in Nampa, began laundering his clothes and blankets.

McCormick returned the items, heavy with perfume, to the boy. She slipped him personal “love notes” and removed from his cell letters and photographs from his girlfriend. Later, she took him to her private office and other areas of the detention center beyond the view of security cameras.

That July, McCormick, who had worked at the center for seven years, began a monthlong series of sexual encounters with the boy in her office. He later showed another employee a note from McCormick containing her home address and words of affection. McCormick flaunted her relationship by wearing a distinctive silver necklace that belonged to the boy in plain view of inmates, employees and managers.

McCormick, now 33, was fired that August, arrested three months later on a lewd conduct charge, convicted and sent to prison in March 2014. The arrest rocked the Nampa detention center, coming amid allegations from nine other teenage boys and a girl who said they were sexually abused by other staff members as far back as 2008.

The revelations brought a criminal investigation by Nampa police and led to the retirement of the center’s superintendent and the firing of several additional employees. It also caused the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections to institute changes to protect the safety of youthful offenders in the 84-bed Nampa center and two others in Lewiston and St. Anthony.

The Department of Juvenile Corrections says significant improvements have been made, and no new cases have been reported under the new superintendent. An auditor who visited early this year says the center is in compliance with tough new federal standards meant to protect juveniles who are locked up.

But the fallout persists. Two lawsuits have been filed over the past year, seeking damages from the state and the employees the alleged victims say were responsible.

“I’m appalled that this happened in Idaho,” said Bruce Skaug, a Nampa lawyer who represents all 10 plaintiffs. “I’m also appalled that no one in the department has been disciplined other than the person who went to prison.”

The Nampa, Lewiston and St. Anthony centers were established to rehabilitate youths ages 13 to 20 through schooling and training. The goal is to provide them with the skills needed to lead positive lives and not land in prison as adults.

One of two programs within the Nampa center helps offenders with serious drug, alcohol and other behavioral problems. The other is tailored to treat those with less-severe mental-health and substance-abuse needs. Offenders are locked within housing units but can receive passes to return to their hometowns for short visits with family members.

Juveniles are three times more likely than adult prisoners to be sexually abused by prison staff members, according to national inmate surveys. The National Survey of Youth in Custody found that 10 percent of the youths surveyed in 2012 reported they were sexually abused, with 80 percent of the illegal acts committed by staff members.

Of those, 89 percent of the victims were boys who reported sexual abuse by female staff members.

In that survey, 3.8 percent of the 53 Nampa youth inmates who responded said they had been victimized sexually. Two percent reported sexual misconduct by staff members. The percentages from juvenile inmates at the state detention centers in Lewiston and St. Anthony were similar.

Children who are victims of sexual abuse are more likely to become involved in criminal behavior — including committing violent crimes — later in life, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Promises of special favors or threats of discipline make teenagers in a confined setting especially vulnerable to sexual coercion by corrections staff.

MULTIPLE ABUSERS ALLEGED

Valerie Lieteau, a former licensed practical nurse at the Nampa detention center, is accused in one lawsuit of sexually abusing three boys. She allegedly took one teenage boy into a private examination room or other areas out of camera range between July 2009 and March 2010 and had sex with him at least 15 times. Lieteau, who was in her mid-30s, also reportedly went to the boy’s hometown at least twice and had sex with him there.

Lieteau allegedly provided the boy with street drugs while he was at the center and stalked him by telephone and through text messages after he left and was still a minor. The boy said he feared for his safety after she threatened him.

Another boy said Esperanza Jimenez, a student intern from a medical assisting program at the Milan Institute in Nampa, engaged in inappropriate touching, kissing and oral sex acts with him. She was also accused of having sex with the boy while he was out on home leave.

Lieteau was accused of abusing the same boy. One lawsuit said she and Jimenez held animosity toward each other over the boy.

The victims declined, through Skaug, to speak with a reporter. One of Lieteau’s alleged victims told the Wall Street Journal that she gave him money, candy and soft drinks and then threatened to turn him in for having the cash, which was considered contraband, if he refused her advances.

“You’re an easy target,” the man, now in his mid 20s and a college student, told the Journal. “You have to think, ‘Why wouldn’t they do this with some young guy in the street?’”

McCormick pleaded guilty to lewd conduct and admitted having sex three times with the boy she abused. She told the judge she fell in love him. She was released from prison in February, after serving less than a year. In a lawsuit, she is accused of abusing a second boy, in 2009 and 2010.

Two other female workers at the juvenile center who were not named in the lawsuits or in a tort claim a precursor to a lawsuit were accused of inappropriate conduct. One allegedly provided nude photos of herself to boy offenders and took nude photos of some of them. The other woman encouraged some of the boys to masturbate in her presence. Both women were also accused of touching boys inappropriately. An unnamed man was also accused of sexually abusing a teenage girl.

None of the workers other than McCormick has been charged criminally. The Nampa Police Department finished its investigation earlier this year and sent its reports to Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Taylor. He is expected to decide soon on possible charges.

Efforts to reach Lieteau, Jimenez and McCormick for comment were unsuccessful.

Betty Grimm, the former superintendent of the Nampa facility, retired in November 2012, the same month McCormick was arrested. Grimm, a nurse by training, is accused in one of the lawsuits of failing to respond when several of the victims wrote notes to her saying they had been sexually abused. One of the boys was told he “had to go through proper channels to make a complaint about staff.”

The lawsuit said Grimm ignored emails sent by staff members warning her that McCormick spent an unusual amount of time with some of the boys and even came in on her days off to see them.

A telephone listing for Grimm could not be found.

POOR SCREENING AND SUPERVISION

Skaug said the department failed to properly screen its employees and hired people who had no experience supervising offenders.

“They simply hired incompetent, untrained people and they had no good policies and procedures for follow-up,” he said.

Policies and procedures meant to safeguard the teen offenders were routinely ignored, Skaug said. “That’s how the predators were able to do as they pleased, because the place was so poorly run. And for years.”

Skaug, who filed the lawsuits along with Boise lawyer Eric Rossman, said he has heard of no new allegations of sexual abuse since the change in administration. Still, Skaug says it should have never happened in the first place.

“It’s just so sad to see all of these kids hurt,” he said.

IMPROVEMENTS MADE

The Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections said it has made significant policy changes to ensure the safety of its youthful offenders.

“Protecting all those for whom we are responsible, and the public, will always be our first priority,” said Jeff Ray, the department’s spokesman.

The department declined to make available either Corrections Director Sharon Harrigfield or center Superintendent Lynn Viner, who was hired to replace Grimm. Last fall, in an column published in the Idaho Statesman, Harrigfeld, who has led the department since 2009, assured the public that steps were being taken to improve safety and accountability throughout her agency.

Statesman questions to agency officials were referred to Ray. Citing pending litigation, he would not comment on the lawsuits’ allegations. However, he did list enhancements to security policies and practices.

Ray said juvenile department policies have undergone a “top-to-bottom review to make absolutely clear that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated by anyone in any form anywhere in our organization,” following implementation of tough new regulations under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act and work by a Zero Tolerance Task Force appointed by Gov. Butch Otter. The task force, which includes corrections officials, the state’s public defender and representatives from a juvenile center and the Idaho Sheriff’s Association, is charged with addressing the detection of and response to inmate sexual abuse.

New protocols for training staff members have been adopted, and offenders have been told how they can anonymously report misconduct by center personnel. Department officials now conduct unannounced, around-the-clock spot checks at the centers in Nampa, Lewiston and St. Anthony, Ray said.

The department has added three positions to its quality-improvement unit, which is charged with ensuring that the agency follows the guidelines of the prison rape elimination law. The three employees provide training, technical assistance and timely follow-up to prevent, detect and respond to sexual-assault allegations, Ray said.

The quality-improvement employees report directly to Harrigfeld and her headquarters staff.

Lynn Viner, who was hired to replace Grimm, came to the department after 25 years with the Idaho Youth Ranch. She oversaw the operation of three Youth Ranch child-treatment facilities. “Viner is an exceptionally engaged leader, certified by the Idaho Peace Officers Standards and Training Academy and with a thorough knowledge and understanding of the facility, its personnel, operations and juveniles,” Ray said.

AUDITOR’S REPORT

An auditor with the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, a unit of the Justice Department, called the Nampa detention center an “excellent juvenile facility” after a three-day visit in January. Auditor Kurt Pfisterer evaluated the center’s compliance with the federal rape rules.

Pfisterer wrote that staff members were “very knowledgeable” about their jobs and were “highly committed” to keeping the youth offenders safe.

“Staff members were not only aware of their agency’s policies and procedures, but were able to discuss (the Prison Rape Elimination Act) and how it related to the overall mission of the program and the agency’s mission as a whole,” he wrote.

Pfisterer said he interviewed 13 offenders ages 13 to 18 out of the 55 housed there during his visit. None reported any abuse allegations or told Pfisterer they feared for their safety.

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, chairman of the Idaho House Judiciary Committee, said he’s glad improvements have been made. The allegations against the workers “absolutely stunned everyone, including me,” he said.

“You put your trust in those people and you make assumptions that they’re going to be on the level and they’re going to report things and see things right,” Wills said.

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