Most juvenile detention staff who sexually victimized children faced no legal repercussions for their actions, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report that examined substantiated incidents from 2013 through 2018.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics study released Friday found that among 499 substantiated incidents, perpetrators faced legal action 31% of the time, and that incidents were typically handled internally, with a reprimand or discipline, demotion or temporary suspension. In half the cases, the violator was discharged, terminated or their contract not renewed.
“These findings are a grim illustration of how children in youth detention facilities are being failed by the adults whose job is to keep them safe,” Linda McFarlane, executive director of Just Detention International, said in a statement. The Los Angeles-based organization seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.
“Youth detention facilities are supposed to give kids a chance to heal and rebuild their lives. Instead, they are being traumatized – and the people responsible are getting off Scot-free.”
The juvenile study echoed results of an earlier study this year. In January, the Justice Department released a special report that found sexual victimization of adult inmates to be an ongoing problem in U.S. jails and prisons, with thousands of victims of inmate-on-inmate abuse and staff-on-inmate abuse from 2016 through 2018. That report found that prison and jail staff are rarely held legally accountable – only about 38% of staffers faced any legal action.
A ‘miniscule percentage of overall incidents of sexual abuse’
Just Detention noted that the 1,762 substantiated cases of sexual abuse committed by staff and other youths nationwide in juvenile detention facilities represents “only a minuscule percentage of the overall incidents of sexual abuse; most kids in custody who endure abuse don’t speak out, and those who do usually see their reports go nowhere.”
More than 27% of kids who were abused by staff were subject to actions that could be viewed as punishment, such as being issued a disciplinary report, losing privileges, being placed in a separate housing unit, or confined to their cell or room.
The majority of the cases involving staff victimizing youth were more serious in nature: 68% involved sexual misconduct, which the study defined as indecent exposure, intentionally touching sexual areas, and actions up through completed sexual acts. The remainder involved sexual harassment, defined as verbal comments or gestures.
In all, 657 youths were sexually victimized by 511 staffers. The majority, or 61% of workers who perpetrated sexual misconduct were female; 29% of the sexual harassment perpetrators were female.
Short-term workers account for many incidents
“An important finding is that nearly half of all staff-perpetrated incidents involved staff who had worked at the facility for one year or less,” said Alexis Piquero, director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in a statement.
The majority of more serious sexual misconduct cases were perpetrated by such short-term workers. And less than half of staff sexual misconduct was reported by the victim.
The report also looked at substantiated cases of youth-on-youth sexual victimization, and found 1,054 victims of abusive sexual contact, thrice the number of victims of nonconsensual sex acts at 358. Both the victims and perpetrators of these acts were mostly male, according to the study.
Just Detention noted one “encouraging sign” was the fact that one in 10 of the substantiated reports of youth-on-youth sexual abuse and one in 12 of staff sexual misconduct were made through methods – such as grievance counselors, attorneys, legal guardians, monitoring, confidential or anonymous tips, victim or perpetrator family members, and more – many of which were previously unavailable.
“Their use suggests that the expanded reporting options required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act standards are making a difference,” the organization noted.