Quick Reads

DOC: Abuse allegations by detained children in 2022, 2023 were unfounded

By: - July 25, 2023 5:31 pm
A sign for the Solem Public Safety Center in Pierre. The center is the home of the South Dakota Department of Corrections administrative offices, as well as the South Dakota Women's Prison. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

A sign for the Solem Public Safety Center in Pierre. The center is the home of the South Dakota Department of Corrections administrative offices, as well as the South Dakota Women’s Prison. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)

All 11 cases of alleged juvenile abuse and neglect in Department of Corrections facilities and its out-of-state contracted facilities since last June were unsubstantiated, according to a DOC official.

DOC Youth Services Director Kristi Bunkers walked through the reports with the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee on Tuesday in Pierre. The group’s daylong meeting saw committee members scrutinize the performance metrics of the DOC, Department of Human Services, Department of Social Services, Department of Health, and Department of Revenue.

The DOC abuse and neglect reports dealt with allegations of misconduct or unnecessary force against DOC employees or contractors who work with youth committed to state custody. Those placements typically follow severe or repeated criminal behavior.


The number of abuse and neglect allegations are a bright spot for the DOC this year, Bunkers said.

“The reports were trending down from last year in terms of numbers, and in terms of substantiated (claims), so that was certainly good news,” Bunkers said.

South Dakota has one DOC group home for young offenders and a range of options for group care, psychiatric and residential care within the state, but it also sends children to facilities in Florida, Utah, Minnesota, Iowa, Nevada and other states.

In-state allegations of abuse and neglect, Bunkers told the committee, are typically investigated by the state Department of Social Services, which is the licensing agency for juvenile care homes. Complaints from out-of-state are handled by the DOC. 

The DOC report to lawmakers on Tuesday only covered allegations involving children in DOC custody, and most of them involved out-of-state placements. No allegations involving children placed by other agencies or placed in a facility by their parents were included. 

Abuse/neglect allegation summaries

Here are summaries of the allegations and their outcomes, as reported by the DOC’s Kristi Bunkers:

  • A child in custody at a facility in Arizona alleged that one of the employees who restrained him as he fought with staff had used unnecessary force. The child was seen by a nurse after calming down and was not seriously injured. The DOC found that the staff had acted appropriately.
  • A child in Utah who’d been acting out and spitting on staff was restrained by multiple staff members as they worked to affix a spit mask over his face. He fell to the ground during the struggle and later said a staff member had leaned on his neck. He was seen twice by medical staff. There was a mark on his neck, but he was not seriously injured. The DOC determined that the injury was related to the struggle, and that staff had not engaged in abuse. 
  • A girl in a Wyoming facility who’d been placed in a standing restraint (which restricts a child’s arms) claimed she’d been pushed into a wall. The claim was determined to be unsubstantiated.
  • A girl who’d been placed in a Nevada facility and was traveling home with a staff member bolted in a Denver airport, got in an elevator and eventually left the airport. She was found and returned to South Dakota. Nevada officials determined that the staff had not acted inappropriately.
  • A boy housed in a South Dakota facility alleged that he’d had a sexual relationship with two female staffers, and that they’d exchanged nude photographs with him. Law enforcement investigated the claim and determined it to be unfounded.
  • A boy who’d been housed at a Minnesota facility that’s no longer operational said he’d had intercourse with a staff member in 2021 and 2022. He refused to offer a staff member’s name and did not offer any additional details during an interview with the Rock County, Minnesota, sheriff. The Minnesota DOC took no action. 
  • A boy housed at a psychiatric facility in Tennessee accused staff members of providing drugs and vape pens to children. Tennessee authorities ruled the allegation unsubstantiated.
  • A boy at an in-state facility who’d been punching a wall struck and tried to bite and trip the staff members who intervened to put him in a seated hold. He later complained of pain to his wrist, and he had a small red mark on his face. The boy was given ice that night and seen at an urgent care clinic the following day. He was not seriously injured. The staff reported the incident, and the DSS determined it to be unsubstantiated. 
  • A boy in a Florida facility was restrained to stop him from fighting with other residents. He fell to the floor during the altercation. He filed a grievance about undue force. The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office investigated, and prosecutors declined to prosecute. 
  • A boy at an Ohio facility alleged sexual abuse by a staff member. Investigators from local police and social services ruled the child’s story to be unreliable and ruled the allegations to be unfounded.
  • The final case, which was filed on July 19, remains under investigation by the South Dakota DSS. A boy accused a staff member of giving nicotine vape pens to residents.

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John Hult
John Hult

John is the senior reporter for South Dakota Searchlight. He has more than 15 years experience covering criminal justice, the environment and public affairs in South Dakota, including more than a decade at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.