BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE — (The Wichita Eagle)

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The Wichita Eagle (KS)

December 15, 1996 

Author: Fox Butterfield, New York Times News Service Contributing: Erin Kennedy of The Wichita Eagle and Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – Everyone – the judge, psychiatrists, her friends and her lawyers – agrees that Donna Ratliff needs someone to talk to.   Last year, when she was 14, she burned down her house, killing her mother, Glissie Ratliff, and her 16-year-old sister, Jamie.  She acted after enduring a lifetime of physical and sexual abuse.  An uncle was sentenced to five years in prison for sexually molesting her when she was 8. Her mother, who was sexually assaulted by her own father, admitted that she regularly beat and threatened to kill Donna, social service records assert. And, the records say, Donna was sexually abused by at least one other member of her family as well.

But at the maximum-security Indiana Women’s Prison, where Donna is serving a 25-year sentence for arson and manslaughter, the authorities have ordered her not to talk about her history of abuse during group therapy sessions. For she is housed in the special-needs unit of the prison with older women, some of whom killed or abused their own children, and Donna’s stories upset them.

Donna Ratliff’s case has become a touchstone for a host of issues roiling the nation’s juvenile justice system – the consequences of the rush to try juveniles in adult courts, the impact of abuse on girls, the increasing numbers of those girls who turn to violence. Such topics are being debated by law-enforcement and court officials across the country as more juveniles are being convicted in adult courts and then sent to adult prisons, where they are less likely to get education and therapy and more likely to be physically or sexually assaulted by older inmates.

There are now, by Justice Department estimates, about 6,500 juveniles younger than 18 in state prisons, more than 250 of them 15 years old or younger. In Kansas, 122 juveniles are in state prison – including one 15-year-old and one 16-year-old.

“I think the politicians have been blissfully unaware of the consequences of the laws they pass waiving kids to adult court,” said Larry Hayes, the editorial page editor of The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, who has urged the state to place Donna in an institution for juveniles and who visits her in prison.

Although the judge who sentenced Donna recommended that she be placed in a juvenile institution, Chris DeBruyn, the commissioner of the Indiana Department of Correction, said at the time that he believed Donna should be kept in an adult prison to insure public safety and to provide long-term continuity in her treatment, because she would still have to be transferred to an adult prison at some point when she was 18 to 21 years old.

Donna was placed in the special-needs unit of the prison with women who have serious emotional problems, correction officials said, because there are more guards in that unit and they felt Donna would be safer.

Hayes said, however, that Donna had received physical and sexual threats from older inmates in the prison. Under Indiana law, Donna may be eligible for parole when she is 25, and if she leaves prison without proper counseling, Hayes said, “she is going to have children and they are going to be abused and set fires.”

His assumption is borne out by several studies showing that childhood physical and sexual abuse heightens the risk of delinquency and adult criminality.

Criminologists have long believed that abused boys tended to direct their feelings outward into violence against others, while girls manifested their troubles inward in depression, drug use or alcoholism. But Cathy Spatz Widom, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany and a leading expert on the ways violence is passed on through generations in families, has found that abused girls may also turn to violence. Violent crime by girls is rising faster than violence by boys.

“It is important to pay attention to these girls,” Widom said, “because they may pass on the violence and problem behavior in their living to their offspring.”

When Donna set fire to her home on May 8, 1995, in Huntington, Ind., her crime sharply divided the small, blue-collar factory city.  Judge Mark McIntosh, who presided over the case in Huntington Circuit Court, was swamped with letters either urging leniency or demanding a life sentence.

Donna’s father, Perry Ratliff, appeared in court to denounce a decision by the prosecutor to accept a plea bargain reducing the original charges against her from murder to manslaughter in exchange for her guilty plea. “I think they should have given her a lot more,” Ratliff complained at the time.   Later, at her sentencing hearing, Ratliff testified in favor of the maximum punishment, arguing that Donna “is a compulsive liar” who deserved the beatings she received from his wife.

Donna’s troubles began virtually at birth, said Connie Winkler, a former aunt who was married to one of Glissie Ratliff’s brothers, though she is now divorced from him. The family, from rural Kentucky, was very poor, with both parents often out of work, and Donna and her two sisters slept on the floor, Winkler said.

Sometimes there was no food in the house for days, Winkler recalled, and once, when she went to visit, Perry Ratliff was eating a submarine sandwich he had brought home while the girls “begged for something to eat.”  Rose Stouder, who runs the local Salvation Army, said that in later years she saw bright red marks on Donna where her mother had hit her with a broomstick.

When Donna was in second grade, her sister Jamie came to school alone one day and said, “Donna didn’t come because of a horrible secret in the family,” according to a social worker’s report. An investigation was begun, and police reports show that her mother’s brother, Glenn Burke, admitted that he had fondled Donna, and was later convicted of sexual assault.

“I tried to forget it,” Donna said in a prison interview, “but my mother wouldn’t let me because she blamed me for her brother getting arrested.”    Over the years, Donna said, she had many flashbacks and nightmares about the incident, and in March 1994 she was hospitalized for depression and attempted suicide and put on anti-depressant medication, according to her social worker’s report. Donna also ran away from home repeatedly, once getting as far as Nashville, for which she was declared a juvenile delinquent and placed on probation.

Social service records also assert that Donna was sexually abused by an older sister, an account supported by Ratliff.   As a result, Ratliff said, he had to send the older sister to her grandmother’s home back in Kentucky.

On the night of the fire, by Donna’s account, she and her mother argued when she said she wanted to go see her father at the factory where he then worked the late shift. Glissie Ratliff refused to let her go, saying, “Dad doesn’t love you,” and also yelling, “I’ll kill you.”

Donna waited till her mother was asleep, then poured kerosene she had gotten from the garage on the first and second floors, as well as on all of her own possessions, as if to obliterate her past. Her mother and Jamie died of smoke inhalation.

At Donna’s sentencing hearing, William Mills, a lawyer for Perry Ratliff, ridiculed Donna’s claims of repeated physical and sexual abuse as “the Menendez defense,” likening her to Erik and Lyle Menendez, the brothers who shot their wealthy parents to death in Los Angeles and later contended that they had been abused as children.

But McIntosh said in court that records kept by local social service agencies, the schools, the police and probation officers about Donna were so “replete” with evidence that she had been beaten by her mother and sexually abused by members of her family that he was inclined to believe that at least some of it was true. Therefore, the judge said, her crime “was to some extent functional,” intended to send a cry of help to her social worker to get her removed from her home.

The social worker had visited Donna and her family 55 times in the six months preceding the fire, including a last visit only one hour before the arson, a copy of her report shows. In addition, McIntosh said, the troubles in Donna’s family were well known to half a dozen county agencies, and the failure of those agencies to share information and act on Donna’s problems was “heartbreaking.”

Under a new Indiana law, McIntosh “strongly and sincerely” recommended that the Department of Correction place Donna in a juvenile institution so that she would have an opportunity to rehabilitate herself, a chance she was less likely to have in an adult prison where there is less therapy and schooling.   Instead, Donna was placed in the Indiana Women’s Prison, the oldest women’s prison in the nation. The next youngest person in her unit is 22.

Hayes, the editor, said he believed “money played a role in the decision,” because it would have cost $82,000 a year to put Donna in Crossroads, a private residential treatment center for juveniles in Fort Wayne, near her home, compared with about $25,000 a year in a regular state prison.

Lawyers acting for Donna have filed two appeals, one to move her to a juvenile institution and another challenging her conviction. State law requires that an adult be present whose interests are not adverse to the juvenile’s when that juvenile waives her rights and confesses to a crime; the lawyers say Donna’s father, who was there the night she confessed, was not disinterested.

Indiana now has 79 juveniles younger than 18 in its prisons, and the number is likely to grow because of recent changes in the law that allow juveniles to be tried as adults for an expanded list of crimes.

Across the United States, 24 states in the past four years have expanded the crimes for which juveniles can be prosecuted as adults.

In Kansas, a law going into effect July 1, 1997, allows prosecutors to file a motion to try 14- to 17-year-olds as adults if they commit a serious violent crime, use a firearm to commit a crime or have a prior offense that would be a felony if they had been adults. The law puts the burden on the juvenile to defeat the motion.

Wardens who run prisons around the nation are often reluctant to accept youthful offenders like Donna, said Richard Gable, director of applied research at the National Center for Juvenile Justice. They worry about protecting the juveniles from physical and sexual assaults by older inmates, and they often find the younger prisoners harder to discipline, Gable said.

Pam Pattison, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Correction, said that her agency was discussing building an institution just for juveniles tried in adult courts that would keep them away both from other adolescents convicted in juvenile courts and from adult prisoners, if the state has enough money.

Bonnie Shipman, a high school English teacher in Huntington, first met Donna after the fire when she was assigned to teach her in the county jail. Shipman had looked at her eighth grade record, with marks of C’s, D’s and F’s, and had been warned by the sheriff that Donna was a liar and a troublemaker with no interest in education.

But Donna proved an enthusiastic student, devouring books such as “The Babysitters Club” series, and earning A’s and B’s. “It was ironic that she found stability in jail that she could never find at home,” Shipman said.

At the Indiana Women’s Prison, Donna has made one friend, Barbara Tompkins, a 32-year-old convicted murderer who was also sexually abused as a child and has three children of her own. “She is the closest thing to a mom I ever had,” Donna said.

Donna’s father has never been to visit her. All Donna knows is that he has had a succession of girlfriends since the fire, and when she calls home, all she hears is his voice on the answering machine. He did send her a card on her birthday. Enclosed were some pictures of the burned house, “just to make me feel worse,” Donna said.

Record Number: 9612150120
Copyright (c) 1996 The Wichita Eagle