Ohio’s juvenile prison system has nation’s highest rate of sexual victimization, survey finds
- Jeremy Pelzer
- December 18, 2019
COLUMBUS, Ohio—More than 15 percent of juveniles behind bars in Ohio reported being forced or coerced into sexual activity with another youth or staff member in the previous year, according to a newly released U.S. Department of Justice survey.
That’s the worst rate in the nation and is more than twice the national average, according to the study, which was conducted in 2018.
The findings prompted renewed criticism of the Ohio Department of Youth Services, which oversees juveniles at three facilities around the state. However, the department’s director notes that reports of sexual victimization are lower in Ohio than the state’s 17.1-percent rate in 2012, the last time the survey was taken.
In particular, the survey found that 16.7 percent of prisoners at the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility reported being sexually victimized – the second-highest rate of any juvenile facility in the country, and making it one of only three facilities in the U.S. designated as a “high-rate” facility.
Nationwide, an estimated 7.1 percent of youth in juvenile facilities reported being sexually victimized, which the survey defined as any forced or coerced sexual activity with another youth – ranging from being shown explicit pictures to sexual contact that involved physical force or rewards such as money – as well as sexual activity of any kind with facility staff.
Less than two percent of Ohio youth surveyed reported being forced or coerced into sexual acts that involved touching or penetration of body parts with other youth or staff.
Ohio was one of 23 states that required respondents to get permission from a parent or guardian to participate in the survey.
DYS Director Ryan Gies, in an interview, questioned the accuracy of the numbers, noting that only about one-third of facilities eligible to be surveyed nationwide had a sufficient number of completed interviews to calculate reliable estimates.
In Ohio, the survey was completed by 140 of the 452 juveniles at DYS facilities, who range in age from 10 to 21. Only two of the three facilities operated by DYS – Circleville and Indian River – returned enough surveys to have reliable numbers (the survey also included three other facilities in Ohio that were operated by regional or local authorities, not the state).
“It puts a little bit of a question, I think, into where actually rankings fall,” Gies said, adding later, “We can’t honestly say where we are as a state.”
Gies said DYS investigates every report made about improper sexual activity to see whether it’s substantiated. “Our numbers of substantiated cases are quite low, actually,” he said.
While he questioned the survey’s numbers, Gies also noted that the number of juveniles reporting sexual victimization at DYS’ Circleville facility in 2018 was almost half the rate found in the 2012 survey.
Since the survey was taken more than a year ago, he continued, the housing layout at the Circleville facility has been changed so there are only 12 youth per unit instead of 24, with one staffer for every six juveniles.
While youths at Circleville and Indian River previously had to share communal bathrooms, each individual now has their own private bathroom, he said.
Gies said those are “some really big systematic changes that we’ve made, and we think will dramatically add to the reductions that we’ve had since the last survey.”
But Gies’ comments didn’t draw sympathy from Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, a Los Angeles-based group that works to end sexual abuse in prisons and detention centers.
“It is stunning that the Department of Youth Services’ response to rampant sexual abuse in its facilities is to quibble with the data,” Stannow said in a statement. “We’re talking about children being raped in the department’s custody. The time for excuses is over.”
Stannow added that it’s “pitiful” that the agency is “patting itself on the back” for reducing sexual abuse by half at its Circleville facility.
“If the DYS think that 15 percent of kids getting sexually assaulted represents success, then I shudder to think what counts as a failure,” she stated.
It’s hardly the first time the Ohio Department of Youth Services has come under fire. From 2008 until 2015, the department was placed under federal monitoring in response to a class-action lawsuit alleging, among other things, excessive use of force against children, improper seclusion of children, inadequate health-care and education services, and insufficient staff training.
Originally posted here