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8 female workers at Chino juvenile lockup sue state

They say officials do little to cope with sexual harassment by young inmates at the facility. A state report makes similar allegations.

March 28, 2007|Maeve Reston | Times Staff Writer

Eight women who work at a juvenile facility in San Bernardino County are suing the state's corrections department, alleging that their superiors failed to crack down on wards who repeatedly harassed them sexually and that they ostracized some employees who reported the sexual misconduct.

The women, all of whom are youth counselors or correctional officers at the Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino, allege that juvenile wards repeatedly masturbated in front of them, exposed themselves, grabbed the employees and threatened sexual assault.

The women argue that officials at Stark and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not adequately punish the offenders and in many instances failed to refer cases of sexual assault to the San Bernardino County district attorney for prosecution.

The women said many of their reports were dismissed and discounted. When they confronted management about the misconduct and the alleged lack of consequences, several of the women said they were either ostracized by team members or told they could work elsewhere if they could not handle the job. One woman said she was unfairly investigated and not promoted for three years after she reflexively slapped a ward who grabbed her.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Superior Court in Rancho Cucamonga, comes after a critical report on Stark by the state's inspector general, which found that morale was low among female employees who feel "victimized yet powerless" because the administration had used "ineffective or inadequate sanctions" to deal with sexual misconduct by wards, causing them to have "little incentive to curtail their negative behavior."

The inspector general said in the report that Stark officials failed "to consistently" refer wards accused of sexual misconduct to the district attorney.

"Not only do the facility's inadequate sanctions for ward sexual misconduct allow its staff to be subjected to continued inappropriate behavior, but it may allow these same wards to ultimately pose a risk to public safety," the inspector general wrote.

The Stark facility holds 779 male offenders from ages 18 to 25 for crimes including theft and murder.

"The consequences of not imposing accountability ... are that there is a workplace that is hostile because of sexual harassment and that is dangerous as a result of sexual harassment," said Gloria Allred, the Los Angeles-based lead attorney for the women. "The idea that someone would get more of a punishment for possessing cigarettes than for sexual assault is just totally unacceptable."

Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the corrections department, said he could not comment on the lawsuit or the complaints by the eight employees because the department had not seen the legal action.

But he said corrections officials were in the process of "refining" discipline procedures at California's juvenile facilities and that there are a wide array of punishments for wards who exhibit inappropriate sexual behavior -- ranging from revoking canteen privileges to referring serious cases to local prosecutors.

"In general, we do not condone sexual misconduct on the part of wards," Sessa said. "We have a disciplinary system that imposes consequences for inappropriate sexual behavior, and obviously each incident has to be judged on its own facts."

Sessa said the inspector general's audit uncovered many problems that corrections officials were already addressing.

"We didn't disagree with the inspector general that problems existed," Sessa said. "We are in the process of some very significant wholesale changes in the juvenile-justice system."

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