Gossett Center accused by ex-workers of abuses
Lifton request triggers Inspector General's office probe

By Jennie Daley, Journal Staff, The Ithaca Journal, January 20, 2006

Journal File Photo

The Louis Gossett Jr. Residential Center for youth, at 250 Auburn Road in Lansing. The center is the subject of an investigation by the state Inspector General's office into allegations of abuse of residents at the facility.

BILL WARREN/Journal Staff

Dwayne Robinson worked as a youth division aide from 1993 to 2004 at Louis Gossett, Jr. Residential Center in Lansing. Robinson interviewed four former residents of the center while working on his master's degree, and their stories were what he needed to bring his allegations of abuse to the fore.

LANSING — Broken arms and scraped faces inflicted by guards at the Louis Gossett, Junior Residential Center are being investigated by the state Inspector General since former guards and residents brought allegations against the facility.

These injuries are most often the result of restraints that go beyond the techniques guards are trained to use. Those who have witnessed such restraints say they are all too common.

To find out if these allegations have merit, the state Inspector General's office is looking into the center and its operations. They are doing so at the behest of Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-125th District.

“They are here and they are moving very quickly to talk to people and get a sense of what is happening at Gossett,” Lifton said.

She expects the investigation, which the Inspector General's office confirmed, could take several months.

Conrad Lewallen, 17, remembers vividly the crack he heard during one of the many restraints he noted in roughly two years at Gossett that ended in December 2004.

The injury resulted from his friend Tyrell having a problem with a female officer, Lewallen said.

“She told him to get up and he wouldn't,” Lewallen said. “Then (a guard) came over and picked him up, like in a restraint. He put him on the floor and bent his arms up. I heard it snap.”

That snap was the sound of Tyrell's arms breaking, an event at least two other residents said they remember hearing.

It's a sound Dwayne Robinson, a former Youth Division Aide, was tired of hearing.

So, when a project for his master's degree led him to interview former residents, Robinson realized their stories were what he needed to bring his allegations of abuse to the fore.

Robinson, 40, who worked at Gossett from 1993 until 2004, sent a DVD with the interviews of four former residents to the state Department of Justice and other government agencies this winter. The Journal also obtained a copy of the DVD and reviewed it in preparing this report.

A call to Gossett director Lawrence Black Thursday to respond to these allegations was directed to Brian Marchetti, an Albany-based spokesperson for the state Office of Children and Family Services, which oversees adjudicated youth.

Marchetti was the principal contact for The Journal over the weeks of investigation.

“OCFS has a zero tolerance policy for staff on resident assaults and resident on staff assaults,” Marchetti said. “We do take whatever steps necessary to ensure the safety of our residents and staff.”

He noted that OCFS policy keeps all instances of abuse within centers for adjudicated youth confidential.

Rug burns, concussion In his 11 years at the center, Robinson said he witnessed everything from intentional rug burns, which cause severe abrasions on a resident's face by rubbing it against the acrylic carpet, to a teenager with a broken arm and concussion going without medical treatment for two days.

These injuries are often the result of restraints, a regular part of life in a limited security facility such as Gossett, according to those familiar with the environment.

Restraints are a legal and, many would say, necessary part of dealing with convicted juveniles.

“Force would be permissible in some circumstances,” said Dave Roush, director of the National Juvenile Detention Association Center for Research and Professional Development at Michigan State University.

It is the state's mandate, according to Roush, to protect public safety, and that precedes the rights of most people convicted of a felony in New York state.

This means that if a person, such as a guard, has exhausted all options to ensure public safety and there is still an imminent threat, then that person may use any form of force available.

What Robinson said he objects to is when guards use more force than necessary to control a situation.

His persistent objections, which he said were ignored, along with what he perceived as racial discrimination directed at him, eventually led Robinson to resign from his job.

Robert Veney, another Youth Development Aide, or YDA, who is still employed at Gossett but out on stress leave, expressed similar frustrations.

Veney, 45, remembers being responsible for the legs of a resident about to be restrained.

Rather than take the youth down using the standard procedure, which forces the resident to bend at the knees, the other guard grabbed the boy, picked him up and “slammed the kid to the floor so hard it broke his arm in two places,” according to Veney.

The boy was also knocked unconscious, he said.

“You know the force that it takes to break an arm in two places?” Veney asked with incredulity. “They continued to let him work around children.”

Other residents found themselves with a less traumatic but more common injury — rug burns.

“There are some rug burns that are accidents,” Robinson said. “You look and you can tell if it's deliberate — it's deeper and the wounds are longer.”

Robinson said YDAs who want to inflict this type of injury will use a fellow employee or wall to push off of and inflict the wound, giving them greater leverage while rubbing the restrained youth's face against the rough carpet.

It's a tactic former residents said they'd seen numerous times.

Tyleek Johnson remembered one fellow resident after a restraint — “Half his face wasn't there.”

Seeing this kind of abuse matched with what Johnson was told to expect. Just before he was sent to Gossett, staff at the assigning facility told him that Gossett was “rug burn city.”

Jason Verkey recalled a similar situation where one boy had “half his face rug-burned off.”

“On the left side there was meat there. The skin was off,” Verkey said. “I felt more safe with the residents than the staff. Staff are grimy.”

Medical reports documenting such incidents involving residents are not public records. The Journal is still awaiting a response to its Freedom of Information request, filed on Jan. 6, for these and other records. According to Bangs Ambulance, a private Ithaca carrier, in the past four years the company responded to 48 calls at Gossett. Of those, 36 calls were for medical conditions. The other 12 were trauma calls, which would include broken arms and other injuries, according to Brad Marzolf, a Bangs supervisor.

Numbers for December were not available, Marzolf noted, but the first 11 months of 2005 had the fewest calls from Gossett of the past four years, with two medical calls and one trauma call answered by Bangs.

Tricked into discipline Guards allegedly have another move they use to trick residents into restraints, even when their behavior does not merit it, according to Robinson and others.

“They set kids up and put 'em in a stressful situation where you snap,” Veney said.

An example of this might be a YDA walking with a charge who is on arms'-length supervision, or ALS. When put on ALS, often because of disciplinary issues, the resident is obligated to stay with the YDA, particularly when walking the halls to and from the cafeteria or classes.

To force the resident into a restraint, the YDA will intentionally fall slightly behind the resident, making it appear as though he is trying to get out of arms reach, a restrainable offense, according to Robinson.

Other means of instigating an unnecessary restraint that guards interviewed by The Journal mentioned included pinches, which can cause residents to flinch and appear aggressive, or verbal harassment.

“It's an ego control thing about being macho,” Robinson said. “You don't like his looks, his mouth; you had a bad day at home; he's intelligent, a gang member; it can be for whatever. So you lay back, wait for the (others) to be gone and then hook 'em up.”

Veney saw similar attitudes.

“There's no general penalty for abusing kids. There's prestige in abusing kids in that place, a false pride built on assaulting these kids,” he said.

Several of the former residents interviewed said they knew they were in for this kind of trouble even before they got to Gossett. Throughout the system, and even in neighboring juvenile detention centers, Gossett has a reputation for being a place where kids get hurt.

“‘Oh, those guys are crazy,' they said. They told me they break arms,” said Lewallen, the former resident.

This is what he was told by staff and others at Pyramid Residential House, a reception center in the Bronx for kids who have been sentenced but not assigned to a long-term facility yet.

Former guards at George Junior Republic, a private facility in Dryden — now the William George Agency for Children's Services — that offers services similar to those of Gossett, would hear kids talking about Gossett with fear.

“There's no games there,” Tom Terwilliger said. A guard at George Junior from 1994 to '97, Terwilliger said he was glad at the time that he didn't work at Gossett.

“Clients definitely feared the prospect of going to Gossett. Gossett's a scary place, it's like the gallows,” he said.

Robinson said part of that reputation was attributable to the way Gossett guards were taught during mandatory training sessions.

“They trained us to be like pit bulls in the beginning,” he said. “I'm not saying restraints aren't necessary, but Gossett has gone over the top in humiliation, rug burns, the broken arms.”

The question then becomes, what does enduring and witnessing this kind of abuse mean for the rehabilitation youth are supposed to receive while under state supervision?

Comments from the former residents suggest the prospects are bleak.

Jordan Turner, a 17-year-old former resident, said he was either the same or worse since getting out of Gossett.

“They ain't never teach me nothin'. All they did was swear at me all day. We supposed to have groups to help us out, and they just curse at us all day,” Turner said.

Lewallen had a similarly pessimistic take on the experience.

“I'm looking at everybody as my enemy,” Lewallen said. “Before I was locked up, I was cool with everybody. Now I'm angrier. It just builds up and builds up and builds up.”

Contact: jdaley@ithacajournal.com

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