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New Report Sheds Light on the Decrease in Sexual Abuse in Youth Detention

  • November 10, 2022

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., November 10, 2022 — Children held in youth detention facilities are significantly safer from sexual abuse when they are made aware of their rights and are treated with basic decency by staff, according to a new Bureau of Justice (BJS) report based on direct surveys with youth in custody. The report presents the most compelling evidence yet that the sharp drop in sexual abuse in youth detention nationwide — which was revealed in a BJS analysis of the same data released in 2019 — is due to changes in facility practices mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) standards. At the same time, today’s report demonstrates that many of the staff screening measures and training programs are having little impact on kids’ safety.

“The new BJS report clearly shows that ending sexual abuse in youth detention is not some pie-in-the-sky vision, but an achievable goal,” said Linda McFarlane, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “Figuring out how to keep kids safe in custody isn’t rocket science. When staff treat kids with respect, sexual abuse goes down. When they don’t, this violence is rampant.”

The BJS report, called Sexual Victimization Reported by Youth in Juvenile Facilities, 2018, examines the factors that set apart safe facilities from dangerous ones. Facilities where a majority of youth have positive perceptions of staff, and the facility overall, have low rates of sexual abuse. In these facilities, kids believe staff are honest, fair, and care genuinely about them. Conversely, negative views of staff among kids correlated with high rates of sexual abuse in the facility — and staff sexual misconduct in particular.

The report also reveals the extent to which sexual violence in youth detention is tied to overall facility culture. Rates of staff sexual abuse are roughly four times higher in facilities where a majority of kids believe that staff are unable to control what happens, compared to those where they believe staff are able to do so (7.4 percent versus 1.7 percent of youth reporting staff sexual abuse). In addition, sexual abuse is more than three times as common in facilities where staff fail to educate every child about zero tolerance policies than in facilities where staff succeed in providing such education (6.4 percent versus 2 percent of youth reporting any sexual abuse).

By contrast, facilities with attributes that are linked to a positive culture have lower rates of sexual violence. For example, the report identified that children’s knowledge of reporting options is a significant factor in making facilities safer. Facilities where children learn five or six  methods of reporting had rates of sexual abuse that are less than half of those in facilities where they learn between zero and two ways to report (4.6 versus 8.6 percent of youth reporting sexual abuse). The availability of multiple reporting channels — including to an entity not affiliated with the agency — is essential to keeping kids safe, and a cornerstone of the PREA standards.

The data in the new report underscores the inadequacy of current staff screening and training measures. While criminal background checks are used as a screening tool at every facility surveyed by BJS, staff sexual misconduct remains rampant. What’s more, the youth detention system’s embrace of trainings for staff on professional conduct and the needs of children, especially the most vulnerable, have made a negligible impact. Per the study, nearly 9 out of 10 facilities reported that in 2018 they trained frontline staff on LGBTQI+ responsiveness. Yet BJS data covering the same period shows that LGBTQI+ children are routinely preyed upon in youth detention.

“What these numbers plainly show is that officials won’t end sexual abuse simply by checking off boxes on a list of requirements,” explained McFarlane. “Youth detention leaders can’t simply run a staff training program on LGBTQI+ responsiveness or professional boundaries and think they’ve done their job. They need to work every day on building a culture where staff are respectful and trustworthy — and where those who violate that trust are held accountable. It’s what all children deserve.”

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