Report documents sexual victimization of youths in custody

By Elinor Nelson
March 1st, 2010

It was 24 years ago at age 12 that Troy Erik Isaac of Los Angeles was first gang raped by other youths while in California state custody. “I was a troubled youth,” he says now. “No counselors pulled me to the side and said that because of the way you look and sound you may get hurt,” and over the years, the abuse from other youths continued. Isaac describes a system where “often there was no oversight,” and where many juvenile workers would break up fights or riots but didn’t seem to consider rape to be all that important. And Isaac talks of his fear and reluctance to report the rapes because “if you snitch they better take you seriously or you’re dead.”

Unfortunately, a recent Department of Justice report detailing the sexual victimization of youths in custody describes a system that in many places is just as broken now. According to the report, victimization by staff is even more frequent than by other youth, with 2.6 percent of youth reporting victimization by another youth and 10.3 percent reporting an incident with facility staff. A little more than half of the sexual contact with staff was described as resulting from some type of force, although sexual victimization was defined to include forced or non-forced contact with staff or forced contact with another youth.

Ninety-five percent of the staff contact was said to be with female staff. Thirteen facilities were identified as “high rate;” none of those facilities were in New England. Eleven facilities were identified as low rate, including one New England facility, Rhode Island Training School.

Linda McFarlane, LCSW, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a Washington and Los Angeles-based organization with the mission of ending sexual abuse in all forms of detention, states that this report shows rates of sexual abuse nearly three times higher than those for adults in detention. Not surprisingly, McFarlane finds these results troubling. “The mission of juvenile corrections is rehabilitation,” she explains. “We believe if you’re a kid you still have a chance. If you’re abused by those there to give a second chance then the whole mission is compromised.” Like other experts, she expresses surprise at the greater numbers of women staff abusers, though she suggests that an explanation may be the greater number of male youth reporting (91 percent were male) and the fact that most males reported female staff abusers and most females reported male staff abusers. Nevertheless, this is “different from adults and from sexual abuse in the community.”

McFarlane suggests that staff sexual abuse may be due in part to the fact that unlike psychologists or social workers, “for the most part . . . they are not given the same level of tools to manage boundaries and dual relationships and the level of power they have over people in their custody.” Improved training is critical to break the cycle, she states.

When abuse occurs, whether by another youth or by staff, McFarlane says that victims should be given medical care, a forensic examination if prosecution is possible, counseling and follow-up care. “They are living in a structured environment where the abuse happened,” she cautions, “and the potential for re-victimization is very high.”

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