Study: Youths sexually abused in juvenile prisons
- Martha T. Moore
- January 8, 2010
- USA Today
More than 12% of youths in juvenile prisons are sexually abused while in custody there, according to a Justice Department study out Thursday, and the vast majority of cases involve female staff and boys under their supervision.
In the worst facilities surveyed — in Indiana, Maryland, North Carolina and Texas — more than 30% of youths reported they had been sexually victimized. The study, the first of its kind, shows a rate of sexual assault more than seven times higher than that indicated by a 2008 Justice Department report that collected sexual abuse claims to juvenile facility administrators. It is also higher than a similar study of adult prisons because of the “very high rate of staff sexual misconduct,” said Allen Beck, who directed the survey for the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The survey of 9,198 youths ages 13 to 21 — all in custody by order of a juvenile court — included methods to eliminate interviews considered unreliable. The survey covered 195 facilities, at least one in each state. Approximately 26,550 juveniles — 91% of them boys — are held in more than 500 such facilities around the country.
The survey showed that 10.3% of youths reported the sexual contact was with staff, compared with 2.6% who reported sexual victimization by other youths. In nearly half the incidents with staff, youths reported having sexual contact as a result of force.
The study sets a wider definition of sexual contact than rape, Beck said. Nonetheless, “these are all things that in the outside world would be considered violent or, by definition in law, they are illegal,” he said.
Sexual victimization of youths in custody “is one of those hidden closets of the system,” said Bart Lubow, director of the juvenile justice and strategy group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which advocates for children. The rates at the worst facilities are “so high they’re stunning,” he said. “I am, on the other hand, never surprised as people peel the layers of the youth corrections onion and expose more and more things that make you cry.”
Linda McFarlane of Just Detention International, an advocacy group focused on eliminating sexual abuse in prison, called the highest rates of abuse “shocking beyond belief.”
“The incredibly high rates of staff misconduct is shocking and disturbing,” McFarlane said. “We just need to do a better job with training and recruitment and hiring and supervision.”
The survey showed that gay youths reported higher levels of sexual abuse from other juveniles, and so did youths who had been abused before coming to the facility.
That makes the survey valuable for juvenile facilities other than the type covered in the survey, she said. “While we can’t say we know what’s happening in, say, the smaller group-home settings … we can look at the information in this report and use it to protect those (particularly vulnerable) kids.”
In Maryland, where 36% of youths surveyed at Backbone Mountain Youth Center said they had been victimized, the state Department of Juvenile Services said in a statement Thursday there will be an independent investigation by the state human resources and health agencies.
At Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility in Indiana, which also had among the highest rates of abuse in the study, four female guards were suspended a month ago after a report of sexual abuse, said Edwin Buss, state corrections commissioner.
Indiana officials say their own surveys show a much lower rate of sexual victimization.
“We’re not denying that this happens,” said Amanda Copeland, executive director of research and technology for the state Corrections Department. “We would be foolish to say that it never happens. We’re just questioning the extent to which it’s being reported” by the Justice Department. But the survey “gives us something to work with. Whether we agree with the percentages or the ratings or not, we recognize that we have issues and we need to address them, and we’re taking steps to do so.”