Federal Report Spotlights Lack of Accountability in Youth Detention
- March 31, 2023
Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Match 31, 2023 — Most youth detention facility staff who sexually abuse children in their care avoid criminal sanctions, according to a report released today by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The study, titled Substantiated Incidents of Sexual Victimization Reported by Juvenile Justice Authorities, 2013–2018, examines the rare instances where reports of staff sexually abusing youth in detention are substantiated — meaning that facility officials determined that the abuse occurred. Instead of resulting in an arrest or referral for prosecution, staff sexual misconduct is typically handled internally, often through light punishments that allow known perpetrators ongoing access to children. The BJS findings also demonstrate a system-wide tendency to neglect, and sometimes even punish, children who are sexually abused.
“These findings are a grim illustration of how children in youth detention facilities are being failed by the adults whose job is to keep them safe,” said Linda McFarlane, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “Youth detention facilities are supposed to give kids a chance to heal and rebuild their lives. Instead, they are being traumatized — and the people responsible are getting off scot free.”
For this study, BJS looked at reports of sexual abuse that were substantiated in youth detention facilities nationwide from 2013-2018. These substantiated cases — 1,762 total, committed by staff and other youth — represent only a miniscule percentage of the overall incidents of sexual abuse; most kids in custody who endure abuse don’t speak out, and those who do usually see their reports go nowhere. Among staff who are found to have committed sexual abuse against children in their custody, fewer than half (42 percent) faced any legal action, and fewer than one in seven (15.8 percent) were convicted, pled guilty, sentenced, or even fined.
“To be clear, the report is not just an indictment of people running youth detention facilities,” said McFarlane. “It’s a damning exposé of how children are being let down by every part of the system. Even when facility staff conduct proper investigations, prosecutors, judges, and other government officials in charge of employment practices are failing to do their part.”
While the report found that juvenile detention agencies often take action against abusive staff, far too often their efforts are woefully inadequate. In many cases, known perpetrators were allowed to stay on the job. Nearly 1 in 12 staff (8.1 percent) found to have committed sexual abuse — and more than 2 in 5 staff (40.1 percent) found to have committed sexual harassment — were reprimanded or disciplined. More than 1 in 8 (13.7 percent) of sexually abusive staff were subjected to a range of penalties that hardly count as such, including being sent to counseling, being given training, or being transferred to a different facility. In an encouraging sign, the study found that nearly 1 in 10 reports of youth-on-youth sexual abuse (9.2 percent) and 1 in 12 reports of staff sexual misconduct (8.2 percent) were made through “grievance coordinators or processes, attorneys or legal guardians, monitoring, confidential or anonymous tips, victim or perpetrator family members, and other sources.” Many of these options previously had been unavailable, and their use suggests that the expanded reporting options required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act standards are making a difference.
Today’s report also shed light on what happens to children after making a report. Fewer than half of the children who were victimized by staff or by other kids got follow up counseling or mental health treatment (49.9 percent victimized by staff versus 48.2 percent victimized by kids). Some children were treated as if they themselves did something wrong — 2.6 percent of children abused by other kids were placed in administrative segregation, and 5.1 percent were disciplined or lost privileges. More than a quarter of children (27.8 percent) who were abused by staff were subjected to any of a range of punishments that included being issued a disciplinary report or loss of privileges, placed in administrative segregation, or confined to their own cell or room.
“It’s as if we are doing more to protect abusive staff than we are to protect the kids they abuse,” said McFarlane. “No one wants children to be sexually abused in detention. It’s long past time for those responsible for our children’s safety to end this abuse, once for and all.”
Just Detention International is a health and human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.