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Turning a blind eye? Teen not alone in claims of sexual assault in Georgia youth detention center

He was only 15 when he said an officer started sexually assaulting him

COLUMBUS, Ga. — The family of a teen once incarcerated at a facility run by the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice said they’re in the process of filing a lawsuit, alleging the minor was sexually assaulted by an officer.

The incident happened at the Muscogee Youth Development Campus outside Columbus, Georgia in 2016.

According to a termination letter, the DJJ fired 29-year-old Phoenicia Hill after she “admitted to having sexual contact with a youth.”

Credit: WXIA

To protect the juvenile’s identity, The Reveal is identifying the minor as "James." He and his mother agreed to speak about what happened on the condition of anonymity.

During his incarceration, James says Hill wrote him letters, gave him food and spoke to him for hours on the phone. 

“Other officers knew about. They knew about what was going on. They would hand me the phone,” said James.

The teen said the two had sex after Hill allegedly took James to an area without security cameras watching. 

“It was a little room. A chemical closet ...You know, I didn’t know what to do. I was 15,” said James.

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This past October, a Muscogee County grand jury indicted Hill for sexual assault of an inmate and violation of oath by a public defender.

An investigation by The Reveal uncovered thousands of alleged cases of sexual misconduct and inappropriate relationships at DJJ facilities across the state. The cases involve juveniles having sex with officers or other minors, identified in reports as sexual abuse, exploitation, harassment and lewd or lascivious behavior.

Credit: WXIA

RELATED | Family says officer broke teen's arm over a sandwich

According to records obtained by The Reveal, staff reported at least 5,256 sex-related misconduct incidents or violations involving two more people at its secure facilities. Of those cases, DJJ opened an investigation into eight percent of them - or 484 cases. The cases span from 2014 to July 2018.

Youth offenders, like James, aren’t the only ones claiming the agency looks the other way while these relationships happen.

Jay Lockaby is the former head of security at the agency’s Augusta Youth Detention Center facility. He worked nearly a year at the facility before leaving in May 2016. He said, during his time there, sex between staff and juveniles was pervasive.

“And the thing that dumbfounds me is that the officers would talk openly about these relationships to each other … and they don’t think there is anything wrong with it. They’ll do it in front of other staff members,” said Lockaby.

WATCH | The Reveal airs Sundays at 6 p.m. on 11Alive 

The long-time law enforcement veteran said the DJJ fired him after he punched a juvenile, who he said attacked him first. Before he left, he said he gave up trying to report incidents. 

“Because it was just easier to hide it than to deal with it,” Lockaby said.

Repeated requests for an interview with the agency were declined -- the agency citing pending litigation as the reason.

About a year after Hill’s arrest, James said the former corrections officer continued contacting him. Screenshots provided by James’ attorney show Hill sending selfies. 

“You haven’t heard from me in a while … gotta be in disguise,” Hill allegedly wrote in one message provided to The Reveal.

Credit: WXIA

“What the officers had going on, that they know we had going on, and they didn’t bring it to the director’s attention - I feel like that was wrong,” said James.

State Senator Emanuel Jones, who helped lead the state’s last criminal justice reform legislation, said he’s disturbed by The Reveal’s findings. He plans to compel the state auditor to launch an audit into DJJ to further look into claims of staff not reporting abuse and other violations inside facilities.

The Reveal is an investigative show exposing inequality, injustice, and ineptitude created by people in power throughout Georgia and across the country.  It airs Sunday nights at 6 on 11Alive.

More of The Reveal:

Teen following police commands is brutally attacked by Roswell K-9

Sophie's Nightmare: How a Georgia mother allowed her boyfriend to impregnate her 10-year-old

A brilliant musician and student, behind bars accused of threatening to kill teacher

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