She once was kept in an underground cell for more than two weeks. Another time while she was confined there, she heard the cries of a deaf girl as she was physically and sexually assaulted by male workers and guards.
This didn't happen in a Third World country, but in Oklahoma nearly 40 years ago.
Laura Choate, 51, recounted her experiences Wednesday of being incarcerated from 1975 until 1978 at Girls Town, a facility that could handle 250 girls. The Tecumseh facility was managed by the state Department of Human Services.
Choate, of Oklahoma City, was one of the original plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against DHS; the lawsuit lasted six years until an agreement was reached in 1984 that placed the oversight functions of DHS under the recently formed Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.
Choate spoke at an event marking the 30th anniversary of the Institute for Child Advocacy, which was founded in 1983 as a result of the lawsuit over the maltreatment of youth in state custody.
Choate said she was 13 when she was sent to Girls Town, the only state-run facility to hold juvenile girls. She kept running away from an abusive home just to be returned there; when she asked police how she could get away, she said she was told to commit a crime so, with the help of a telephone book to serve as a booster seat, she began stealing cars.
Choate said she was rebellious and was sent 28 times to one of the small, 5-by-8-foot cells in the basement during the 3½ years she was at Girls Town. Those in the basement cells were allowed only one shower per week and meals consisted mostly of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One cell had no bedding so the girl would have to sleep on the floor.
“It was used as punishment and I spent two and a half weeks the longest down there,” she said. “I came out pretty sick.
“It was not a good place to be,” she said. “The padded cell was the worst because of the rules that the males (guards and workers) had set up so that they could sexually assault the girls after they stripped them naked and hog-tied them,” Choate said.
Once while in one of the cells, Choate said a girl named Caroline, who suffered brain injuries in a motor vehicle accident that killed both her parents, arrived and was put in another cell. Caroline was a deaf mute and no one tried to communicate with her; instead male workers physically and sexually abused her.
“I had to listen what they did to her,” Choate said.
“Nobody could understand what she was asking for so they would drag her down there and do that to her,” she said. “Finally they quit doing that to her, and they just kept her belly-chained and shackled so she would have to hop around the cottage and they heavily medicated her.”
Caroline was transferred to a hospital for violent offenders when she turned 16, Choate said.
“I don't know what happened to her,” Choate said.
Choate said her social worker told her that a lawsuit was being filed against DHS over the conditions of Girls Town and other juvenile facilities. An attorney secretly met with her, despite efforts from Girls Town officials trying to prevent the meeting.
Choate said she got in more trouble after she joined the lawsuit.
“I was beaten a couple of times,” she said.
Choate was released from Girls Town when she was 16. She said she was dropped off in downtown Oklahoma City; at that time she was the only plaintiff in the case who wasn't in prison or dead.
Most workers at Girls Town lived in the area and had no training, she said.
“Many of them were strictly pedophiles so they took great pleasure in what they did us,” Choate said. “We had no voice.”
Choate found employment as a typographer and graphic artist at an Oklahoma City hospital and eventually worked for the Institute for Child Advocacy and other child welfare programs.
Girls Town closed after the lawsuit was settled. The underground cells were removed and the facility was renamed the Central Oklahoma Juvenile Center. It is operated by the Office of Juvenile Affairs.
Officials are honored
The Institute for Child Advocacy, which works to help improve the lives of children across the state, passed out several awards to lawmakers and the governor for their work in developing the Pinnacle Plan, which was the result of a settlement last year of a federal class-action lawsuit against DHS. The plan, intended to improve child welfare operations, among other things calls for hiring more child welfare workers, recruiting more foster parents and moving away from caring for abused and neglected children at shelters.