The Illinois Office of State Guardian is suing Jefferson County (Mount Vernon) and law enforcement officers there, alleging that a sheriff's deputy repeatedly shocked three foster children with a Taser "without any physical provocation" and that other officials tried to cover up the incident.
The suit, which claims violations of the children's rights under the Fourth and 14th Amendments, seeks damages on behalf of the children and also seeks changes in the training and administration of the sheriff's department. Filed three weeks ago in U.S. District Court in East St. Louis, Ill., the lawsuit - Ortega-Piron v. County of Jefferson, Ill. - names deputies David Bowers and Lonnie Lawler as the two officers who entered Southern Thirty Adolescent Center on July 4, 2008, in response to a call about unruly children.
Also named in the suit are the County of Jefferson, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department and Sheriff Roger Mulch, both individually and in his job as sheriff. The suit alleges that Mulch authorized the use of excessive force when it was unwarranted
Mulch said in an interview that there have been three separate investigations into the incident - an internal office review, and investigations from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the Illinois State Police - all of which he said showed no evidence of criminal activity or wrongdoing.
He said the internal review, by the Jefferson County Police Department, is standard any time an officer uses a Taser and he said the review showed the deputies followed protocol. He declined to discuss the details of the Taser policy.
Mulch would not elaborate on the deputies' actions, but he said the Southern Thirty Adolescent Center has a history of housing physically imposing residents.
"Just because it's reported that a youth is 12 or 13 years old does not mean they are four-foot-eight and 100 pounds," Mulch said. ".... These individuals are very violent and very large and very strong."
"It is my understanding that the children involved in the lawsuit were not the same children that the law enforcement officers were called about," said Gene Svebakken, president and CEO of Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois (LCFS), which runs the residential facility and provides additional social services from about 30 sites in the state.
According to the lawsuit, Bowers shocked the three boys - identified only as B.B., R.E. and Z.P. - without provocation. The lawsuit does not give the ages of the children, but states that residents of the facility are between 10 and 18. The lawsuit also alleges that both officers used excessive force on a fourth foster child, Megan Geisler, after she pleaded with the deputies to stop shocking one of the boys. Geisler, whose age was not given, was not a resident of the center but attended the program there.
The suit alleges that Geisler was handcuffed, choked and pressed against a wall, threatened with death and then thrown into a closet.
Svebakken said he doesn't know all the facts of the situation and only recently learned of the suit. He said members of the shelter's staff were present at the time of the incident, but he does not think they would have intervened in a law enforcement process.
"I have read the petition and it's certainly alarming what the allegations are," Svebakken said.