CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — The agency responsible for investigating Natrona County’s Juvenile Detention Center won’t say whether it has done so in the wake of allegations a worker there sexually assaulted a female inmate.
The Wyoming Department of Family Services oversees substitute care facilities in the state, including juvenile detention centers like the Casper facility, where a then-staff member is alleged to have groped a girl being held in the facility.
The former staff member, John R. Gallagher, pleaded not guilty earlier this month to two felonies alleging he reached through the bars of a cell and grabbed a girl’s breast. Court documents do not list the girl’s exact age at the time of the alleged assault but indicate she was no older than 16, the Casper Star-Tribune reported .
While local law enforcement is tasked with investigating individual crimes at a juvenile detention center, DFS has the power to examine whether any state regulations related to the running of such facilities were violated.
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When contacted by the Star-Tribune, a DFS administrator declined to say whether the facility had been investigated in relation to the incident.
Roxanne O’Connor confirmed that the agency does have the authority to investigate the facility but would not say whether any investigations into the facility’s license had been recently conducted. She said RJDC’s license was in good standing.
When asked if an investigation was conducted into the allegations against Gallagher or into the facility, O’Connor said the agency could not disclose any information regarding child protection.
When O’Connor was told that a criminal case had already disclosed the allegation of a sexual assault at the facility, she said she still could not say whether an investigation had been conducted, even without revealing any information about the alleged assault or the child.
The Star-Tribune first contacted DFS six months ago to ask whether an investigation was being conducted into the facility. Agency representatives declined to comment.
In a January email to an attorney representing the Star-Tribune, a DFS lawyer said “any information relating to reports and investigations of child abuse and neglect is confidential; which would naturally include whether or not a report of abuse or neglect was made or whether that report was being investigated.”
The detention center is operated by Cornerstone Programs, a Colorado company that contracted with the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office to run the facility.
Cornerstone’s Colorado office declined to comment on the criminal investigation regarding sexual assault alleged to have taken place at the facility. The company directed the Star-Tribune to seek comment from the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office, which likewise declined comment, citing juvenile privacy laws.
A decade ago, before Cornerstone took over the facility, a DFS investigation found a sexual assault in the facility went unreported. The news came via a letter released by the agency, which had also detailed the nature of the investigation as it was being undertaken.
At the time, a DFS spokeswoman also commented on the case to media outlets.
Bruce Moats, a First Amendment lawyer who represents the Star-Tribune as it seeks DFS records pertaining to the facility, said the criminal case indicates that it is possible to release law enforcement records without compromising the privacy of juvenile victims. Administrators for the facility have chosen to interpret the law in an unnecessarily restrictive way, he said.
“Government entities are hiding behind individual privacy,” Moats said.
The agency’s refusal to say whether it has conducted an investigation is in keeping with a nationwide trend away from transparency, Moats said. A decade ago, government agencies would more frequently try to strike a balance between individual privacy and public interest, he said. That’s changed.
“There seems to be less of a willingness to find that middle ground now,” Moats said.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com