Last week was momentous for those interested in the elusive goal of juvenile justice reform. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people serving mandatory life sentences for murders they committed as juveniles must be allowed to petition for new sentencing or parole hearings. The same day, President Obama issued a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system, citing studies of lasting psychological damage linked to the practice.
Amid the significant developments, it was easy to miss a Justice Department study released the following day. The report found that between 2007 and 2012, the rate of formal sex abuse allegations against guards and other staff in state juvenile justice facilities has doubled, even as the number of children entering those systems has dropped. The report, one of the largest of its kind, draws on data collected directly from the administrators at more than 1,400 state, local and private juvenile detention facilities.
For more than a decade, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics has conducted anonymous surveys of youngsters in custody. Those surveys have produced startling estimates: that some 10 percent of children in detention have reported sexual abuse by either staff or peers, often repeatedly, and often at the hands of female guards who victimize boys.
But many juvenile detention administrators have consistently downplayed the findings, suggesting children may have fabricated claims of abuse or misunderstood the survey. Even advocates and scholars recognized the limits of the data.
The new report offers some additional support for the teens’ anonymous claims. It’s based largely on allegations filed directly by juveniles to the administrators who detain them. Some still might be false, prompted by an urge to retaliate against a targeted staffer, or to undermine a facility’s administration. But it’s widely accepted that juveniles put themselves at substantial risk by coming forward against alleged abusers, one of several reasons why experts attach additional significance to this particular iteration of the Justice Department’s work.
"These latest findings on sexual abuse in detention are deeply troubling — but not at all surprising,” said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, an inmate advocacy group that specializes in sexual abuse.
In the vast majority of cases where youngsters formally report being abused, investigations done by facility administrators fail to support the claim. Advocates such as Stannow have long questioned the rigor and quality of those investigations. And they point to an incontrovertible truth the report lays bare: when investigations confirm that staff members sexually abused a youngster, the staff members too often receive no punishment beyond losing their jobs, if that. Only 36 percent of staff members found to have abused children, the report found, were referred to the authorities for possible criminal prosecution. Only 16 percent wound up arrested. And roughly 20 percent actually kept their jobs.
“When staff who sexually abuse kids in their custody are allowed to get off scot-free and, in some cases, continue to be employed in the very facility where they committed the abuse, it’s a clear sign that the system is failing,” Stannow said. “We are talking about known perpetrators, adults who are typically employed in public facilities supported by our tax dollars. The lack of accountability described in the new BJS report is simply outrageous.”
The report also found that more than half the victims of staff sexual misconduct, some younger than 12, receive no medical follow up care. Fewer than 8 percent of confirmed victims of staff sexual misconduct were tested for sexually transmitted disease.
The report examined the paperwork involving 9,494 allegations of sexual abuse. Roughly 45 percent of the allegations were leveled at staff, the rest at other youngsters in the facilities.
The data also reflect a trend previously reported by ProPublica: some 64 percent of the confirmed abuse allegations involved a female perpetrator. The Justice Department notes that in many of these incidents, the minor, typically male, “appeared to be willing.”
American University law professor Brenda Smith, who has studied this phenomenon, said the phrase undermines the severity and impact of such abuse.
“The danger of using that language is that you get into this no harm, no foul kind of characterization,” she said. “The reality is that because so much of it involves boys, it continues to reify the abuse. It elevates the belief that because these are boys being molested by female staff, it’s not harmful. There is a sense that boys always want sex, even if there is a significant age difference and significant power difference between the adult and the child.”
Allen Beck, a Justice Department statistician who co-authored the report, acknowledged Smith’s point, but defended his characterization of the dynamic.
“It means there was no explicit coercion,” he said. “It can be coercive in the sense that there is a difference in power. So the youth might think that it’s consensual, but by law, it cannot be. It’s an abuse of the position.”
Beck also noted that the rising rate of abuse allegations likely reflects growing awareness of sex abuse in detention and efforts to stop it.
The reports are mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which has had a long, controversial path toward realization. As ProPublica has reported, Congress first passed the legislation in 2003, but it then took the Justice Department nearly 10 years to study the issue and release rules for prisons and juvenile detention centers to implement.