The Detroit News

Friday, December 17, 1999

Suits detail jail sex assaults

Whistleblowers claim officials covered up abuse of teens in Wayne juvenile center

By David Josar
The Detroit News

DETROIT -- Sexual assaults of teen-age inmates by employees at Wayne County's juvenile detention center are prompting alarm among parents concerned about the safety of their children.

And county officials are facing criticism that they are slow to investigate the charges.

This year, three inmates at the detention center were sexually assaulted and two employees were fired for inappropriate sexual contact. Early next year, one former social worker goes on trial on a charge of criminal sexual conduct with a 16-year-old inmate, according to county and court records.

Ronald Bond, of Livonia whose son spent three days in the center last month after stealing a car, had heard about the sexual assaults and is worried.

"Your child's in trouble and you want him in a place where he's going to get help -- not be attacked," said Bond, a long-haul truck driver.

Bond said he was reassured about his son's safety when he visited the detention center. "It looked very safe. The staff seemed very professional. But I'm still going to worry. What parent wouldn't?"

Two whistleblower lawsuits have been filed in Wayne County Circuit Court charging that county executives have "covered up" the sexual assaults and thwarted any investigations.

County Commission Vice-Chair Jewel Ware bristled at charges that county officials are covering up the assaults.

"Sometimes, it just takes time for administration to investigate the allegations. When you have juveniles, extra precautions have to be taken to protect them," she said.

Staff at the detention center, which houses less than 200 teen-agers at any time, have prudently investigated any sex-abuse allegations, Ware said.

County officials hope the attacks will stop now that the inmates have moved into the new detention center in Greektown from the old facility at Forest and Interstate 75 because the new facility has security cameras in all areas. That makes it more difficult for an inmate to be assaulted.

On Monday, Leonard Dixon, the center's executive director, told Ware's Juvenile Detention Center Committee that there had been no new assaults in November.

Dixon said all abuse allegations are investigated. In court filings, county lawyers also deny allegations of covering up allegations of assaults.

Statistics aren't kept on sexual assaults at detention centers, which makes knowing the full extent of the problem locally and nationally difficult, said Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center, a public interest law firm based in Washington and San Francisco.

"There clearly is a problem with these types of assaults. But detention centers are going to be very reluctant to report the incidents because it's embarrassing to them," he said.

Soler also categorized sexual assaults of juvenile inmates by their guards a "hidden problem" because, he suspects, just a handful of the incidents are reported.

"Youth who have been assaulted aren't going to report it," he said. "Kids are different than adults. They think that if they're mistreated, it's their fault."

Thomas Moore of Inkster had worked at the Wayne County detention center since 1976 and claims he urged county officials and city police to investigate the assaults, but his claims fell on deaf ears, according to a lawsuit he filed in October.

Finally in July, he persuaded Detroit Police Chief Benny Napolean to launch a probe. Moore was fired shortly afterward. County officials said Moore was terminated for excessive use of county leave and absenteeism policies.

Detroit police officials declined to discuss their investigation.

"The problems in Wayne County with the sexual assaults are getting worse, and the only thing the county cares about is" hiding its problems from the public, said Jamil Akhtar, the Troy attorney representing Moore.

Early next year, the public will get a look at what's behind some of the sexual-assault allegations when Julie Bellhorn, 38, of Grosse Pointe, a former social-service specialist at the facility, goes on trial for fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, a misdemeanor. She has pleaded not guilty.

Bellhorn, according to court records, sneaked a 16-year-old inmate past security cameras and into her office last January under the guise that the boy needed to make a phone call.

She performed a sex act on him, removed her clothes and had the teen touch her. According to police, she also "consumed numerous pills and that she appeared to be very intoxicated."

The accusations

Copyright 1999, The Detroit News