One in Eight Juveniles Report Sexual Victimization in Large Facilities

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Twelve percent – or about one in eight – of youths held in large juvenile facilities in the U.S. report being victimized sexually while behind bars, and the majority of the abusive sexual relationships are between male inmates and female staff members rather than youth-on-youth incidents 

However, non-heterosexual youth are nearly twice as likely as heterosexual youth to be abused in juvenile facilities – and most of those do involve youth-on-youth incidents – according to a just-released Justice Department survey.  

The survey, conducted with a sampling of about one-third of all juveniles held in large state and private facilities, found that of the approximately 2,730 youth engaged in sexual activity with staff, 92 percent were male wards who had engaged in sexual activity with a female staff member. Male juvenile-female staff relationships accounted for virtually all of the reported unforced relations with staff, and 86 percent of the sexual incidents where staff used the threat of force or bribery to elicit sexual favors. A small number of youths reported being victimized both by other juveniles and by staff members.

Of the estimated 3,210 non-heterosexual youth confined in large facilities, 20.4 percent – or one in five – experienced sexual victimization. That is nearly twice the rate of victimization reported by heterosexual youths

The survey provides figures for each facility in which it was administered, but singles out 13 facilities for which the rate of reported victimization was close to one in three juveniles. Of those 13 facilities, six are in Texas, Indiana or Virginia. Another is the ever-embattled L.E. Rader Center in Oklahoma, which is cutting its population in half this year and may be torn down in the near future.

The survey is the first attempt by the Justice Department to gauge the level of reported sexual victimization – which includes nonconsensual sex between youth or any sex between youth and staff – in large facilities that house youth who have been sentenced by a judge.

“It confirms the problems we know are happening in facilities,” said Dana Shoenberg, senior staff attorney for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. “It’s good to have data now.”

The report is based on statistics from 2008 and 2009, marking the first time in years that a juvenile justice report from the department has been released in nearly real time, rather than years later.

The report says that 3,200 youths -- about one of every eight youth locked up at a large state or locally controlled facility -- reported some form of sexual victimization; in some cases, the reported rates were one of every three youths.

But the report’s statistics have some states questioning the methodology of the report.

Michael Dempsey oversees juvenile justice for the state of Indiana now, but last year he was the superintendent at Indiana’s Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility. Pendleton is one of 13 facilities identified in the report as having the highest rates of victimization.

Dempsey said he doesn’t dispute that sexual victimization is a problem, and that he recently had to suspend four staffers indefinitely after a relationship between a female guard and a juvenile was brought to light.

But Pendleton has participated in Performance-based Standards for years, Dempsey said, and therein has regularly surveyed its youth about sexual activity in the facilities.

“The data reported on those [PbS] surveys was not close to these numbers,” Dempsey said. “I question the methodology used to put this report together.”

Officials in Maryland and Virginia, which also have facilities on the list of highest reported victimization rates, voiced concern over the report in a Washington Post article published today.

The survey was administered at 166 state-owned facilities and 29 large private or locally run-facilities. Every state-run facility with more than 90 youth residents participated.

Using computers, youth were asked a relatively short series of questions and answered the questions using a touch-screen application.

A total of  9,198 youths took the survey, which BJS said in the report represents a sample of  “26,551 adjudicated youth held nationwide in state-operated large locally or privately operated juvenile facilities.”

For additional thoughts on the Justice Department survey, check the JJ Today blog at www.youthtoday.org/jjtoday