Sexual Abuse and the Juvenile Justice System

Sexual violence is rampant in youth detention facilities. We know this because many kids who were victimized while in custody have bravely spoken out. We also know this because of the overwhelming evidence provided by new government research.

The government’s latest study on youth in detention was released in June 2013. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the agency that conducted the research, found that nearly one in ten youth detainees reported being sexually abused in the past year.

Perhaps the report’s most alarming finding is the percentage of assaults committed by juvenile corrections staff. Among all youth who reported abuse, an astonishing 81 percent were victimized by the men and women whose job it is to keep detained kids safe. And in the vast majority of these cases, it’s women who are perpetrating the abuse; among boys who were sexually abused in custody, more than nine in ten were victimized by female staff. The notion that the primary staff abusers in youth detention facilities are women runs counter to popular stereotypes, but it’s consistent with past findings. Unlike prior BJS reports, last month’s survey asked youth about the circumstances surrounding their abuse. Kids were asked, for example, if they received favors or special treatment from perpetrators who were members of staff; another set of questions asked how they perceive their “relationships” with these staff. The answers reveal a highly disturbing pattern of inappropriate staff conduct and staff’s utter lack of respect for professional boundaries. Roughly half of all victimized youth said the abusive staff member gave them pictures or sent them letters, while nearly a third said that staff contacted them from outside the facility. Almost two-thirds said that the staff treated them like their favorite.

Despite these findings, the report also provided some reasons for hope. Of the 326 facilities nationwide that were surveyed, 26 had no reported incidents at all. And in three states – Delaware, New York, and Massachusetts, as well as the District of Columbia – youth reported no abuse. These well-performing facilities are concrete proof that sexual abuse is preventable. To date, the corrections agencies that have attracted the most attention in the wake of the new BJS survey are the ones with extremely high rates. Indeed, the negative press directed toward the juvenile agencies in states like Ohio and Georgia – whose facilities have average abuse rates of 17.1 percent and 15 percent, respectively – is well deserved. Still, it’s essential that agencies with safe facilities receive their due praise, and advocates must continue to highlight their successes.

Why are some facilities doing such a good job of preventing abuse while so many others are failing miserably? A big part of the answer lies in facility management. When facility leaders don’t hold staff accountable for breaching the most basic standards of professional conduct, no young person can be safe in their care. The new BJS data also strongly suggest that there is a connection between the number of young people held at a facility and its levels of abuse, and between the length of a detainee’s stay and the likelihood that he or she will be victimized. These findings should inform discussions about what must change in agencies where sexual violence is a problem. Ultimately, however, the eradication of this abuse will happen only in facilities with good management and well-trained trained, respectful staff.

The BJS reports are incredibly illuminating, and have helped shed light on one of the worst human rights crises in the U.S. today. Beyond the statistics, though, it’s important to remember the stories of countless young people who have been abused in custody. One of those individuals is Troy Isaac, who, at the age of 12, was raped repeatedly by older boys at a youth facility. Troy’s life was shattered by the abuse, and he spent the next two decades in and out of adult prisons. Today, Troy, who is now 38, is one of the most prominent advocates fighting to stop prisoner rape. As a member of JDI’s Survivor Council, he has testified before Congress and has been profiled by national media.

Advocates can use the BJS data as a tool to combat the crisis of prisoner rape. But it’s the people behind the numbers, like Troy, who remind us just how urgent this fight is – and whose determination to speak out will end this abuse, once and for all.