Audit: Youth ‘felt very safe’ at Casa Isla, days before shutdown amid allegations of abuse

By Shira Schoenberg
August 4, 2015

Note:  This article was originally published on MassLive.com

5 Men standing in court accused of assault
Five of the men accused of abusing juveniles at a state-run facility stand for their arraignments at Suffolk County Superior court on July 22, 2015. (SHIRA SCHOENBERG / THE REPUBLICAN)

BOSTON – On Aug. 21, 2014, an auditor who was trained in monitoring prisons to ensure that they complied with anti-sexual assault policies conducted an audit of a Boston juvenile detention facility.

Auditor Kurt Pfisterer interviewed four boys in the facility, called Casa Isla, spoke to staff members and toured the place.

“All youth knew multiple ways to report abuse and felt very confident that any complaint they made would be properly addressed,” Pfisterer, an independent auditor certified by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, concluded in the audit. “None of the youth reported ever having fear for their safety while at the facility.” He wrote that the youth “felt very safe.”

By the end of that month, the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services had shut Casa Isla down amid reports of physical abuse. Last month, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office charged eight Casa Isla employees with assaulting adolescent boys at the facility. All have pleaded not guilty. The audit, which The Republican/MassLive.com obtained through a records request to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, could play a role in the court case.

Pfisterer said in an interview that there is an important distinction between sexual abuse, which was the subject of the audit, and physical abuse.

The facility was run by Volunteers of America through a contract with the state. According to prosecutors, staff members would pull down the pants of residents and hit them on their naked backsides with an orange, state-issued sandal, a ritual referred to as “orange chicken.” Residents were threatened with physical harm if they told anyone about the assaults.

The audit, required once every three years by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), was meant to ensure that the facility complied with federal standards on sexual assault.

Pfisterer is not allowed to comment on a specific audit he conducted. But, Pfisterer said, “Physical abuse is not necessarily sexual abuse….Physical abuse, if it doesn’t fall within the Department of Justice’s standard related to sexual violence, is not within the scope of the audit.”

The federal standards do prohibit intentional touching of the buttocks. But Pfisterer said anything the state knew about and disclosed at the time did not fall under the sexual abuse standards.

“There could be activity someone at the facility does that while it’s dead wrong, that should not happen to anybody’s child, that doesn’t fall under the standards,” Pfisterer said. “(The audit is) strictly related to sexual violence… The inappropriate use of physical force doesn’t fit.”

In a statement immediately after the criminal charges were filed, a spokesman for Volunteers of America pointed to the audit as an indication that the facility was in full compliance in areas related to safety protocols and security cameras.

Renee Nadeau Algarin, a spokeswoman for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors are aware of the audit, which was conducted as the Suffolk County District Attorney’s investigation was in its early stages.

“The investigation remains open and ongoing, and as such I am necessarily limited in what can be said about the evidence,” Algarin said. “However, in every case that we bring charges, we’re acting in good faith and in keeping with our ethical obligations as prosecutors. Here, the indictments brought against these eight defendants are consistent with the evidence collected over the course of nearly a year and speak to the seriousness of the defendants’ alleged acts.”

Michael Doolin, an attorney for former Casa Isla staffer Ainsley Laroche, who was charged in the assaults, said the audit is “very positive for our case.”

“It’s my position that my client didn’t assault anybody, and that he’s in fact not guilty of these charges. This type of evidence would certainly bolster that claim,” Doolin said. Doolin had not seen the audit, since defense lawyers have not yet been given discovery material from prosecutors.

Patrick Noonan, an attorney for Casa Isla supervisor Jalise Andrade, who was also charged, said he has not received documents from the prosecution, so he could not comment on the specific audit. “It’s a little premature for me to comment on any materials, because I haven’t been provided with any,” Noonan said. But Noonan called the audits generally “extremely relevant.”

Like Doolin, Noonan declined to comment on whether he believes abuse occurred at the facility. He said his client, who worked there for four years, was not involved in any abuse. “He did not abuse any of the youths there,” Noonan said. “We are very eager to review all these materials to prove that my client did not do anything wrong.”

The PREA audit found that there was one allegation of sexually inappropriate behavior by staff in the past year, and the involved staff members were suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. Overall, it found that the facility met or exceeded every standard related to preventing sexual assault.

Pfisterer said compliance does not mean there will never be a case of sexual assault, but it means the facility will respond appropriately under federal law.

“It’s not a guarantee that everybody’s fine. It’s a statement that the facility has the policies in place to comply with the federal standards,” Pfisterer said.

Pfisterer stressed that Massachusetts is unique, as the only state that pays for audits of facilities run by contracted vendors, rather than making the vendor pay. He said Massachusetts provides training and support to vendors. “The state of Massachusetts has gone way beyond what the rest of the country does,” Pfisterer said. “Massachusetts is the only state I’ve ever come across where state government is paying for private contracted providers to conduct these audits. To me, that’s a huge commitment to how important compliance is to Massachusetts…and how important it is that the kids that they’re responsible for are safe.”

Other more general reviews of Casa Isla, which occurred before the period of the alleged assaults, identified generally minor problems, but some that could come up in this case, particularly problems with surveillance video equipment and training.

Noonan said he anticipates receiving an extensive amount of video footage from prosecutors.

A March 2014 review of Casa Isla by the Department of Youth Services found that the program appeared to be running well. But the review did find that surveillance video equipment was malfunctioning, so monitors could not review footage from earlier dates. According to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, nine additional video cameras were installed in July 2014.

Prosecutors allege that the abuse occurred between April and August 2014.

The PREA audit found that video surveillance covered 90 percent of program areas. The audit found that with high levels of staffing, “excellent supervision practices fully mitigate any concerns regarding blind spots.”

Otherwise, the general audit identified mostly small problems, such as with documentation practices. It did say that some staffers still needed to attend required trainings, such as suicide prevention training – something that had been identified as a problem consistently since 2010. It found that concern by a staff member about security in a classroom area was unfounded

Monitoring visits in prior years also identified mostly small problems not directly related to physical safety – things like juveniles listening to inappropriate music or keeping open soda containers in their rooms.

Asked about the audits, Rhonda Mann, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said, “DYS takes all allegations of abuse seriously and is fully cooperating with law enforcement in its investigation into this matter. In response to this situation DYS has, and will continue to, increase its monitoring visits and program reviews to ensure that we are providing quality services, and that youth are being treated in a safe and respectful manner.”

© 2015 MassLive LLC. All rights reserved.