DECATUR — Avery Niles believes everything happens for a reason, including a blown knee he suffered playing college football.
The injury nixed a scholarship and left him with only two paths to choose from — the military or law enforcement.
He chose the latter and made a career of it, capped by his recent appointment by Gov. Nathan Deal to lead the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.
"It’s one of those things where I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunities," Niles said, reflecting on his career up to this point, during an interview last week at DJJ offices in Decatur.
"I’m a praying person. I believe in prayer. I believe that Christ will never put you in a position that he doesn’t allow to see you in. I just like the impact we have here with (the DJJ); I feel like it’s a calling and everyone has a calling."
A Gainesville native and North Hall resident, he spent 26 years with Hall County, starting his career as a patrolman with the sheriff’s office.
Niles, 46, quickly worked his way up the ladder. He was promoted to captain in 2003, becoming commander of the Hall County Detention Center and warden of the Hall County Correctional Institution in 2007.
Deal, also from Hall County, appointed Niles to the DJJ board in October 2011. Niles became the board’s chairman in March 2012.
In October, Niles was named interim commissioner to replace L. Gale Buckner, who retired from the DJJ Nov. 1 to become chief magistrate judge in Murray County.
"He has worked hand in hand with Commissioner Buckner, and the board has been extremely supportive of all the measures she has put into place," said Jim Shuler, department spokesman, at the time.
About a year ago, after the department suffered a fatality at the Augusta facility, Buckner "immediately went about the job of strengthening the safety and security measures ... and had the full support of the board," Shuler said.
Deal swore in Niles as the DJJ commissioner Nov. 1.
In that job, Niles oversees some 4,000 employees and operations at 28 juvenile facilities and 92 court service offices. His department also wields a $300 million budget.
"My first challenge is to make sure we’re fully staffed," he said. "The challenge to me personally is to visit all the locations so they can put name and face with an actual person."
Niles went into office facing a crisis.
Last month, five youth escaped from the Augusta facility, prompting an internal investigation. Several security improvements were ordered.
The DJJ "failed to protect the community," Niles said in a Nov. 15 news release.
"Safety and security — public safety — is top shelf," he said in last week’s interview. "That’s far and above any other areas. If you have a youth in a safe and secure area, chances are they are going to be in a better learning environment.
Niles said the DJJ has "to maintain and provide an education component to those that are entrusted in our care."
Overall, the new post "has its challenges, but at the end of the day, it’s what you do for the least of these that matters," he said.