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Amid staffing shortages, Louisiana youth prisons ease abuse screening process for applicants

The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice — which is planning to reopen the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker — is struggling to hire staff for its incarcerated youth facilities. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)
The Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice — which is planning to reopen the Jetson Center for Youth in Baker — is struggling to hire staff for its incarcerated youth facilities. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

This story was first published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

Facing a chronic shortage of workers, Louisiana’s Office of Juvenile Justice is providing more flexibility to job applicants who want to work as guards in the state’s youth incarceration facilities, including when it comes to screening for the threat of pedophilia.

People are no longer being automatically removed from the pool of potential juvenile justice employees if they fail a computerized test that is supposed to weed out those who are considered high risk for sexually abusing children.

Instead, some applicants are being allowed to move forward even if they fail that test as long as they can pass a four-hour, one-on-one assessment with a psychologist.

The Office of Juvenile Justice uses a program called the Diana Screen to flag job applicants who “fail to recognize adult-child sexual boundaries or who are at high risk for having abused a child in the past,” according to a written policy published in July 2021.

The screening involves a 30-minute test on the computer as part of the interview process. The job applicant must sign a consent form before the Diana Screen is administered, and the results of the test are confidential and not disclosed to the applicant.

Traditionally, a person who passed the Diana Screen proceeded to the next stage of the hiring process, which includes a criminal background check. A person who failed was no longer eligible to work in a Louisiana youth incarcerated facility.

“Those applicants whose results indicate a failing score shall not be considered for employment with [Youth Services] and shall not be offered employment. The hiring manager shall discontinue the pre-employment process at that time,” reads the 2021 written policy from the Office of Juvenile Justice.

But Deputy Secretary Bill Sommers, from the Office of Juvenile Justice, indicated Monday that policy is no longer in place. Job applicants still have to take the Diana Screen, but can now be offered work at a youth incarcerated facility if they fail it, as long as a psychologist evaluates them and signs off on their hiring.

Sommers said the state agency has hired six or seven people recently who initially failed the Diana Screen but then cleared a psychologist’s additional evaluation.

“What we’ve done is we’ve built in an additional test, for those that fail the Diana screen, that want to come to work,” Sommers said at a hearing with the Louisiana Senate Select Committee on Women and Children Monday. “We hope that those progressive types of procedures will help us with our recruiting.”

Sommers repeatedly mentioned during the legislative hearing that the Office of Juvenile Justice was struggling to hire and retain staff. There are currently 320 vacancies, and Sommers believes low staffing contributed to the recent violent outbursts and escapes at facilities for incarcerated youth.

“Everything comes down to staffing,” he said.

Last year, juvenile justice employees were almost killed at the Acadiana Center for Youth in Bunkie and Swanson Center for Youth in Monroe. In July, a group of incarcerated young people at the Bridge City Center for Youth in Jefferson Parish overpowered a guard, escaped the facility and stole a vehicle. One of the escapees then allegedly shot a man during a carjacking in Uptown New Orleans.

Legislators have suggested the Office of Juvenile Justice has problems hiring because their facilities have a reputation for being dangerous places to work. The pay, at $37,000 per year for a guard, is also low.

Sommers and other juvenile justice administrators said one of the agency’s challenges is that many job applicants are being automatically disqualified during the hiring screening process.

“We’re definitely getting responses [from people who want to work at the Office of Juvenile Justice], and then unfortunately we’re losing some people because they can’t meet the criteria to actually come into our facilities and work,” Curtis Nelson, assistant secretary for the agency, told legislators attending Monday’s meeting.

At the public hearing, Sommers described the Diana Screen as a “sex offender-type, predator-type of test that leads people to think that they’re maybe not a good fit” for an Office of Juvenile Justice job.

In an interview, Sommers likened the Diana Screen to the ACT, a standardized test used for college admissions. A low score on the ACT doesn’t necessarily mean a person won’t be able to succeed in college. Similarly, a person who raises flags on the Diana Screen might not be a poor fit for the Office of Juvenile Justice, he said.

Deron Patin, an executive management adviser in the Office of Juvenile Justice, also said he believes the Diana Screen might produce “false positives” – in which a person is inappropriately flagged as being problematic.

“We are making sure that the person is being evaluated completely and correctly,” by sometimes bringing a psychologist to perform a second assessment, he said.

Patin said the East Baton Rouge Juvenile Detention Center, where he previously worked, exclusively relies on psychologist assessments to evaluate job applicants who want to work there. They don’t use a computerized evaluation system at all.

Yet child welfare advocates expressed alarm at the new process for hiring.

“It’s concerning for obvious reasons,” said Hector Linares, who oversees the youth justice section of the law clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans. “OJJ needs to be doing everything they can to attract highly qualified applicants for these positions that have the right mindset and are given the right training to work with our youth.”

“So we bought some software to screen people for risk and we can’t even rely on it?” said Andrew Clark-Rizzio, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which provides legal representation to incarcerated minors.

“All of this speaks to the problem of running youth prisons,” Clark-Rizzio said.