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In Juvenile Justice System, Staff Sexual Abuse Runs Rampant

  • November 24, 2020

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., November 24, 2020 — Newly released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows a direct link between widespread sexual abuse in youth detention facilities and blatantly unprofessional behavior by staff. The findings detail how staff perpetrators routinely crossed boundaries with children prior to abusing them, in ways that should have been obvious to fellow staff and higher ups — including showing kids preferential treatment, sharing intimate details with them about their lives, and providing them forbidden items like alcohol and other drugs. Perpetrators most often targeted children who identify as LGBT, children who have disabilities, and children who have endured prior victimization in another facility.

“The BJS data paints a portrait of a juvenile detention system that is failing in its core mission to keep children safe,” said Linda McFarlane, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “Shamefully, the kids who are being targeted for sexual abuse are the kids who are most in need of support — who often were ensnared in the youth system because of the intense marginalization they faced due to their disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Instead of being treated with compassion, many are being preyed upon, usually by the very people entrusted with their care.”

The data released today was collected as part of the BJS’ National Survey of Youth in Custody, 2018. JDI and its supporters — including people who have survived sexual abuse in juvenile facilities — pushed for months for the release of this data, which provides key details left out of a BJS report from December 2019 and follow-up up data released in May 2020. In the December 2019 report, the BJS showed that 7.1 percent of youth nationwide were sexually abused in their current facility — a rate that is unacceptably high but trending in the right direction from the previous BJS youth survey, published in 2013, which found that 9.5 percent of youth had been abused. Staff sexual abuse remains the most common form of this violence in youth detention; roughly three times as many youth reported that they were abused by staff than by other youth (5.8 percent versus 1.9 percent).

Today’s findings shed light on the dynamics behind staff sexual violence. An overwhelming majority of youth who were victimized by staff reported prior inappropriate contact with their abuser. More than four out of five victimized youth (81.9 percent) said the prior behavior involved the staff member talking or joking about sex, or sharing sexual stories; roughly three quarters (74.4 percent) said staff told them they felt emotionally close or had special feelings for them; nearly half (49.1 percent) said staff gave them pictures or wrote them letters; and more than two out of five (42.7 percent) said staff offered them drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, or other prohibited items. Shockingly, more than nine out of ten victimized youth (91 percent) were sexually abused by staff more than once; a quarter were abused more than ten times.

“Let’s not mistake what’s happening for a few bad apples or a sly perpetrator who somehow manages to escape undetected,” said McFarlane. “This is sexual abuse that occurs repeatedly, after flagrant breaches in basic professional conduct. It speaks to a total breakdown in leadership, and it’s the kids who pay the price.”

The BJS data also showed that some youth were far more likely to be targeted for sexual abuse than others. Youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual were about twice as likely as their straight peers to be abused (12 percent versus 6.5 percent). For the first time ever, the BJS included data on transgender and nonbinary youth, finding that nearly one in five (19.1 percent) reported being sexually abused. Youth who have a disability or mental illness — whose experiences with sexual abuse also were not reflected in prior BJS surveys — faced high rates of sexual abuse, especially at the hands of staff. Horrifyingly, more than one in five youth (22.6 percent) who have serious difficulty walking and climbing stairs were abused by staff. Youth who had been sexually abused at a previous facility were also exceptionally vulnerable, with more than half reporting they were re-victimized at their current facility, either by other residents or by staff.

Other findings include:

  • Among youth who were sexually abused by staff, more than nine in ten (91.1 percent) reported that they were abused by a female staff member — a stereotype-defying data point that matches previous studies.
  • In further contrast to popular perceptions, youth in girls facilities were more likely to be sexually abused by other residents than youth in boys facilities (4.7 percent versus 1.6 percent).
  • Consistent with prior studies, Black youth reported higher rates of staff sexual abuse (6.7 percent) than white youth (6.3 percent) and Hispanic youth (3.2 percent); white youth reported higher rates of abuse by another resident (3.1 percent) than did Black youth (1.2 percent) and Hispanic youth (1 percent).
  • Youth are most at risk during their first month at the facility. Half of youth victimized by other residents, and just under half (47 percent) of youth victimized by staff, were sexually abused in their first month.

“There’s plenty of depressing news to be found in this new data, but the silver lining is that sexual abuse in youth detention is completely preventable,” said McFarlane. “We know who is committing abuse, and how. It’s long been time for juvenile detention leaders to step up, change the culture of their facility, and end the impunity in which abusive staff operate.”


Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.