Texas Mom Explains Daughter's Claims of Abuse

A young girl, who is white and whose identity has not been released, alleges that she was sexually assaulted at a juvenile detention facility in Texas. Her story first made headlines when she set fire to her parents' home and was sentenced to probation, while a 14-year-old black girl in the same court was sentenced to seven years in jail for pushing a school monitor. Bobbie, mother of the unidentified girl, shares her daughter's story.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, a look back at the life of one of this country's best-known Native American activists, and a Wisdom Watch conversation with one of this country's most admired but least-known African-American filmmakers.

But first, we want to remind you about a conversation we had last week with Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt. He told us about an article he wrote about a young girl in Paris, Texas. The girl's story first came to light almost by accident - a side note, really - to a piece about what some critics see as the racial biases in the criminal justice system.

The young lady in question is white. She was sentenced to probation for setting fire to her parents' house, while a 14-year-old black girl, Shaquanda Cotton, was sentenced to seven years in prison by the same judge for pushing a hall monitor at her school who wasn't injured. Shaquanda was rushing to get to the school nurse.

Now, after a national attention focused on this story, Shaquanda Cotton was released. But it turns out that the story of that white girl is far more complicated than it first appeared. The white girl not only wound up in juvenile detention, but became the alleged victim of sexual abuse while there -abuse which is now at the center of a statewide investigation.

We talked with her mother a little while ago. We are only using her first name, Bobbie, to protect her daughter's identity, which is customary among news organizations reporting on alleged victims of sexual assault.

Bobbie joined us by phone from her home in Paris, Texas, and described how she found out about her daughter's allegations.

BOBBIE: We actually received a paper from the facility in Brownwood regarding a statement that a JCO had inappropriately touched her.

MARTIN: A JCO being juvenile correctional officer?

BOBBIE: Yes. We never heard anything bad going there. It wasn't until July the 18th of this year that two sergeants from the attorney general's office in Austin made us aware that this JCO had been indicted.

MARTIN: He'd been indicted.

BOBBIE: Yes.

MARTIN: And what is the status of the case now?

BOBBIE: Right now, my daughter's case has not been taken to the grand jury. That is to go before the grand jury in Brownwood, Texas, November of this year. While he has been arrested and indicted right now is there was other allegations…

MARTIN: But what you're saying is there was a lag between the time he was observed touching your daughter…

BOBBIE: Yes, there was.

MARTIN: …and then when he was actually arrested. So what you're saying is he actually stayed in his job for a while afterwards.

BOBBIE: About a month, maybe two. I'm not just real accurate on that. I do know that when the other allegations from the other girls started surfacing, that is when the attorney general's office got involved, and he was actually suspended from his job with pay.

MARTIN: Well, you must have been very upset when you got that first notice saying that there had been this allegation, that he had touched her.

BOBBIE: Yes, we were.

MARTIN: You must have been upset.

BOBBIE: Yes, we were.

MARTIN: Have you noticed any change in your daughter? Have you been able to talk to her or see her? Had you seen any change in her behavior that led you to think something might be going on?

BOBBIE: Yes. Because prior to all of these events happening, my daughter was struggling - and we didn't understand it at that time - with bipolar and depression. And on several occasions, she had cut herself and was just real depressed the majority of the time.

When I first received the letter of the allegation of the sexual abuse, we really didn't know how to take it. We received the letter, and when we went for a visit, we tried to talk to her and communicated about it, but she kind of just was withdrawn. She would cry and just say, you know, that she really needed to get out.

So we really didn't know what this man had done to her. And on another visit, she had carved why - W-H-Y - in her arm, and the reason being now she has told us is because when she filed the grievance on the JCO, the staff wouldn't believe her. And that's when she actually tried to commit suicide two other times.

MARTIN: And I understand that after one of those suicide attempts in February, a guard entered her cell to try to intervene. She fought back. Apparently, this was used to add time to her sentence?

BOBBIE: Yes, it was. She was taking someone else's medicine, and they did observe that she was - the pupils were dilated and that she was just acting, you know, very strange. So they were trying to restrain her to put her in security. And in the struggle, they were trying to handcuff her - was my understanding - and she squatted down to the floor, and when she come up, she knocked a staff member down. And that did add a six-month extended stay on her time.

MARTIN: Did they say there were other offenses that led to her sentence being extended? Did they say there was any other reason?

BOBBIE: There has been, I think, what they call as some 225s, like where you get in trouble for misbehavior or conduct. But to my understanding, it's not anything that was alleged, other than the knocking the staff member down for her added time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Bobbie. She is the mother a teenager in Paris, Texas, who became the target of alleged sexual abuse while in the juvenile system.

This whole thing must be very confusing and difficult for you. I don't know, when she first went to juvenile corrections, did you think that this was for the good? Did you think that something good might come out of it?

BOBBIE: Yes, we did. We knew that it was something that we knew was going to happen eventually because, like I said, at the time, we did not understand the symptoms and the signs of the depression. And we felt that if she was detained like that that, you know, she would get counseling, and maybe we could all learn how to deal with the problems that were at hand. Yet, we never dreamed it would go the other way, that she would actually be abused and threatened.

MARTIN: How is she now? How is she doing?

BOBBIE: She has her days, ups and downs, you know. She knows some of what me and her father are working on, on trying to get the time reduced. But she has taken responsibility for her crime. She knows…

MARTIN: The crime was setting fire to the house, the arson.

BOBBIE: Setting fire to the home.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. I do understand that you were upset about the stories that compared your daughter's case to the Shaquanda Cotton case. Why were you upset?

BOBBIE: I never viewed or expressed my opinion towards the Cotton case. I just felt that it was two different stories. I felt that we were put in the middle of theirs because of what they say it appears being, you know, the racist community. And yes, I do believe that racism does exist here, which I'm sure it does in all towns.

MARTIN: I'm wondering about the fact that, you know, race is part of the reason that these stories came to light, but what I hear you saying is race is not the only story that there is.

BOBBIE: When I started my daughter's story, no, race had nothing to do with this issue. Mr. Witt did refer our story - in my daughter's story, and I understand that.

MARTIN: Howard Witt, of course, is the Chicago Tribune reporter who reported the story of Shaquanda Cotton, and also the story about your daughter.

BOBBIE: Yes. But I don't know, really, what to say on that issue. My focus is my daughter right now, and the fact that she has been sexually abused by a 30-year-old man, and that is not right for any child, regardless as to what your race is. No child should have to be going through that situation.

MARTIN: But I would like to ask, though, you have taken the step toward allowing our daughter's story to come to light. What would you like people to know about your situation? And how would you like people to think about what's happened to your daughter and to your family?

BOBBIE: Any family that is out there right now and has a child in any of these facilities, please, stay in good communication with your children. If you even think at the slightest, that that child is acting in the behavior that you think that they should be, talk to them and ask questions.

I'm not only fighting for my daughter, I have plans to also link up with another gentleman whose son was in a facility that was abused. And I'm hoping that we can come out and make some kind of bond with these parents just to let them know of the things that are happening in these facilities that shouldn't be.

MARTIN: Do you hold out any hope that either by bringing the story to light or through what other efforts you're able to make - you and your husband are able to make, do you feel that there might be some hope for your daughter that she might be able to be released soon or at least get the help that she should be getting?

BOBBIE: Yes, and we're hoping. And it may be that they don't consider any of this. But me and my daughter have talked and we are going to try to start some kind of group that even if it's just for the parents to get together and help each other learns and helps to deal with the situation that their child has been in with the sexual abuse.

MARTIN: And finally, I know that we are protecting your identity and your daughter's identity, but Howard's reporting has brought the details of your daughter's story to light. Have you had any reaction since then?

BOBBIE: We have had several people call and put out their support and concern for my daughter, and there has been stories published. We have run across a couple that was negative. The Associated Press put her as being, in the front of their headline, a troublemaker. I wasn't too pleased with that. But in stories, you're going to have your negativity to a two.

MARTIN: Well, good luck to you and your family.

BOBBIE: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: I've been speaking with Bobbie. It's a mother of a young girl in Paris, Texas, who was a victim of alleged sexual assault while in juvenile detention. We're only using the mother's first name to protect her daughter's identity. We spoke to Bobbie from her home in Paris, Texas.

Thank you so much again for speaking with us.

BOBBIE: Thank you.

MARTIN: We contacted the Texas Youth Commission to ask about the apparent lag time between the girl's first allegations of sexual assault and action taken by the commission.

Tim Savoy, a spokesman, said he could not comment directly on detainees in the youth system, but he recounted a report of an assault that you will hear him call unconfirmed from last year.

Mr. TIM SAVOY (Spokesman, Texas Youth Commission): We had an allegation that was reported in October of 2006. And ultimately, that allegation - the investigation into that - turned out to be unconfirmed. And so the employee remained on staff with us. There was a second allegation that we got in February of '07 and at that allegation, he was placed on suspension with pay.

MARTIN: The guard was indicted by a grand jury in August and has since been suspended without pay pending the outcome of the case. And the Texas Youth Commission's Tim Savoy says new procedures have been implemented to ensure a quick action on sexual assault allegations.

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