Sex, therapy, isolation: Concerns pile up in Arkansas’ juvenile lockups

State watchdogs respond to host of allegations against operator in weeks after new contract took effect

By: - Wednesday July 26, 2023 6:00 am

Sex, therapy, isolation: Concerns pile up in Arkansas’ juvenile lockups

State watchdogs respond to host of allegations against operator in weeks after new contract took effect

By: - 6:00 am

Aerial view of Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Center. (Arkansas Department of Human Services)

Aerial view of Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Center. (Arkansas Department of Human Services)

Kids in Arkansas’ youth lockups over the last year were sexually assaulted, denied access to requisite therapy services and improperly isolated for extended periods, an Advocate investigation has found.

A guard sexually abused two minors at a west Arkansas facility.

Some children have had to spend more time incarcerated than planned due to a lack of proper treatment. 

A juvenile was forced to spend a weekend confined in his room. 

The abuses and failures have led to criminal and regulatory investigations into the staff of Rite of Passage (ROP), the out-of-state contractor that runs Arkansas’ four youth detention centers.

An explosive July 3 letter from Arkansas’ juvenile justice watchdog outlining many concerns at ROP’s facilities drew the attention of top state officials, including Human Services Secretary Kristi Putnam. 

The letter came three days after the state’s new pact with the Colorado-based firm took effect. ROP was the only company to bid on the contract.

“I need your help in addressing serious matters across Arkansas as soon as possible,” Arkansas Juvenile Ombudsman Brooke Digby wrote in an email addressed to ROP CEO Ski Broman and also sent to top state Department of Human Services officials.

“I have been patient and understanding throughout the trying times with the pandemic. At some point, we have to get the facilities back in order — the time is now. I am absolutely appalled at what I am seeing inside of the DYS [Division of Youth Services] facilities. Many courts are furious, parents are angry and hopeless, and a lot of kids have given up. To be honest with you, I don’t blame them.”



The letter focused on the sexual abuse, treatment shortfalls and improper isolations, but Digby’s concerns also covered a wide array of other issues: staff verbal abuse, racial slurs, failure to seek medical care in a timely manner for a youth with an infected toe, juveniles repeatedly climbing onto the roof of a lockup in Dermott and more.

Digby’s correspondence got the attention of top DHS brass, who in recent weeks have been conducting reviews of their own. The agency is developing a formal corrective action plan it will issue to ROP, and it has already asked that several ROP leaders be removed from Arkansas. 

The state isn’t taking any action against ROP’s contract now, but agency leaders said the formal citations will establish a paper trail in case contractual action is needed in the future.

In an interview, Putnam acknowledged serious concerns with the state’s youth lockups, but she praised ROP’s response in recent weeks.

Arkansas DHS Secretary Kristi Putnam (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Her agency’s review, Putnam said, has offered an opportunity to engage ROP as well as judges and other stakeholders in conversations about improved working relationships.  

“I think it has given us a chance to elevate the challenges in ways that unfortunately we might not have, but this opportunity has come to us and given us a chance to talk with other leadership and really focus on how do we care for youth in our care and have better mentorship and interactions with community leaders who support them.”

Many of the claims in Digby’s letter are backed up by court records and state documents as well as by officials with the Division of Youth Services and ROP.

Still, ROP expressed disappointment with “the manner in which” Digby’s letter was presented. 

“Our agency and our staff take every allegation of abuse seriously,” said Suzanne Smith, ROP’s director of development. “To ensure continued safety and quality therapeutic services, we are conducting a thorough review of each valid concern, providing additional clinical and staffing resources, reviewing and re-training our policies, and utilizing our quality assurance systems to maintain program fidelity. We continue to hold discussions with our DYS partners and look forward to implementing our mutually agreed-upon plan.

“Our program refutes most of the allegations and believes they will be unsubstantiated once the facts are reviewed.”

Digby noted that she is a mandated reporter and must report allegations of child maltreatment immediately and that she reports all concerns to DYS and ROP promptly, as required by law. 

“One of the most important attributes of a leader is the ability to accept responsibility for mistakes, decisions, and outcomes,” Digby said in a statement to the Advocate. “I believe the facts will speak for themselves and the focus needs to be on an appropriate, necessary response.”

Rite of Passage has run Arkansas’ four juvenile treatment centers since 2020, and it has run the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander since 2016.

The juveniles, who can be up to 21 years old but have been as young as 11, are at these facilities under court-ordered sentences and for treatment. As of last week, there were about 318 kids in state custody. All but several dozen in group homes or in county detention centers awaiting assessment are in ROP facilities.

Juveniles are treated differently from adults who commit crimes in the U.S. because children’s cognitive development isn’t complete. This can lead to poor decision making, but it also means there is greater capacity for rehabilitation, making treatment while in state custody all the more critical.

Sex on campus

The campus with the most pronounced problems has been Mansfield.

In October, allegations surfaced that an ROP employee at Mansfield had sexually assaulted multiple juveniles in the facility.

A criminal investigation found that ROP employee Aileen Ledesma had sex with one minor in state custody and engaged in “deviate sexual activity” with another.

Ledesma was arrested in March on two counts of first-degree sexual assault. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison with 25 years suspended on each count. She also must register as a sex offender.

ROP removed Ledesma from campus when the company became aware of the allegations, state records show.

Digby, though, wrote that there has been a pattern of improper sexual activity at Mansfield, pointing to past allegations at the campus. 

She also said that youth and staff at the facility recently reported two staff members accidentally broadcasted their sexual encounter over staff radios because they forgot to turn them off. 

The daily average number of juvenile offenders in state custody since 2012. (Arkansas Division of Youth Services)

DYS installed cameras in a laundry room at Mansfield where past allegations of sexual misconduct have been reported.

While there have been six “critical incidents” involving allegations of physical abuse by ROP staff this year, DYS officials said there have been no reported allegations of sexual abuse involving treatment center employees in 2023.

Broman, the Right of Passage CEO, in a response to Digby said the company wasn’t aware of any continued sexual assaults at Mansfield, but would take any allegations seriously. He also noted that the campus, along with the other Arkansas campuses, would seek certification under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

Digby also reported inappropriate comments from senior Mansfield staff members to job applicants and new hires. 

One applicant told Digby that she was asked by a male employee using vulgar language how she would respond to a juvenile masturbating. 

A DYS memo notes that the agency wasn’t able to contact the applicant for a therapist position, but it did report that one former employee told state investigators that they were told during training that “sometimes you need to ask these kids if they like p***y or d**k.”

“This is unacceptable,” DYS Director Michael Crump wrote in the memo.


Also at Mansfield, youth have been improperly isolated and facility leaders lied to investigators who asked about it, according to documents obtained by the Advocate. 

Under DYS policy, youth should only be isolated in their room when other interventions have failed and the youth is exhibiting extremely disruptive behavior that poses a danger to others. Isolations that exceed one hour require permission from the facility’s director or assistant director. If a hold is going to exceed four hours, DYS must sign off on the continued isolation.

In one instance last month, a juvenile was confined to his room for 36 straight hours, except for bathroom breaks, over the weekend due to fighting, DHS investigators wrote in a report after reviewing surveillance footage.

Five of eight juveniles interviewed by DYS investigators said that Mansfield staff would confine five youths to their rooms for 59 minutes at a time before rotating them out with five others in an apparent attempt to circumvent DYS isolation policy.

Probe finds cheating in GED program at Arkansas’ youth lockups

“This is an unacceptable manipulation of the isolation policy,” Crump wrote. 

When staff at the facility were approached about the isolation practice, Crump wrote that DYS staff believed the response was dishonest.

Broman in his response to allegations noted there was a lapse in adherence to DYS policy in the case of the 36-hour isolation, but he added that he didn’t believe the issue was systemic.

“To ensure alignment with DYS and best-practices in secure settings, we are conducting an investigation of this matter, retraining staff, and continuing to communicate with DYS during this process,” Smith told the Advocate.

In her letter, Digby asked that the ROP leader in charge at Mansfield be removed. Crump agreed, and in an email to Broman asked that Mansfield’s director no longer be assigned to a leadership role in Arkansas after the isolations and dishonesty with DYS investigators.

ROP declined to share any personnel changes it had made, but Smith said the company was conducting its own internal investigation in response to DYS and Digby’s concerns and cooperating with state investigators.


ROP has also acknowledged struggles with hiring and retaining therapists.

Digby said in her letter that she audited 50 treatment charts at Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment in Alexander, and all were out of compliance.

“Youth are going months without individual therapy services and over half of the charts did not indicate any family therapy services were provided,” Digby wrote. “This is putting a tremendous amount of stress on direct care staff, prolonging length of stays in DYS, and/or creating safety risks in the communities youth are being released back into due to their lack of treatment services.”

Broman responded that services were deficient, but added that some were provided and never properly recorded. 

The therapy problems reached a tipping point in the spring when four therapists and two case managers walked off the job at the Alexander facility with a set of demands.

Forged paperwork allowed special ed students’ move into GED program at youth lockup

Two of the therapists returned, but one only remained for 30 days. A third took another position.

DHS officials said it has become clearer in recent months that ROP’s clinical leader at AJATC, who has clashed with therapy staff, should not continue to work in Arkansas facilities because she wasn’t willing to implement a model that aligned with DYS’ values, according to Crump.

ROP and DYS nevertheless both expressed optimism about the direction of therapeutic services. The new contract increased the daily rate the state will pay ROP for housing an offender from $292 a day to $320, with the increase going to higher pay for clinical and direct care staff.

Broman said ROP this month increased base pay for licensed clinicians to between $65,000 and $70,000 annually, an increase of more than $13,000 a year.

“Our agency is approaching the new contract year with renewed energy, a commitment to our DYS partnership, and additional resources for our direct care and clinical staff,” ROP’s Smith said. “Our current contract is a bundled rate for education, medical, assessment and residential services and did not substantially change from the prior year. Yet we are pleased any increase we did receive went to our direct care and clinical staff.”

The new contract also includes changes that DYS believes will offer greater flexibility to the agency, youth and ROP to determine the amount of therapy services to meet each offender's unique needs.

Bright spots

While acknowledging legitimate concerns, state officials have consistently expressed confidence in Rite of Passage. 

With hundreds of employees dealing with the youth offender population, issues are bound to arise. ROP has been quick to take action when problems do come up, DHS officials said. 

“There are some bright spots when it comes to ROP and the work that they have done. That gives me hope,” said Mischa Martin, DHS’ deputy secretary for youth and families. “Now, these incidents were serious, and I don’t want to take away from that. But the way they responded and said, ‘You know what, we agree with you. We value our kids, some things have to change, we’ve seen some patterns too.’ If they hadn’t taken that action, I would be a lot less hopeful.”


ROP also highlighted that serious incidents have decreased since the company took over the facilities in 2020. Smith also noted that the company’s community safety and security protocols have prevented successful escapes. 

The company has also expanded the number of community stakeholders, workforce training opportunities and provided 3,000 hours of positive development through athletics, cultural activities and student clubs.

Digby too said she has seen improvements since her July 3 letter.

“DHS Secretary Putnam, DHS Deputy Secretary Martin, and DYS directors have been extremely responsive to my recent concerns,” Digby told the Advocate. “They have worked swiftly with my office to further investigate allegations and to explore possible solutions. 

“I am happy to report that ROP is now taking necessary steps to improve overall safety and service delivery since their involvement. I believe DYS has strengthened their oversight and improved the performance indicators to create better outcomes for our youth. I am hopeful for the future.”

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.