Some 12 percent of minors held in government custody are sexually abused, and in some facilities the rate reaches a stunning one in three children, says a report released Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The first-ever National Survey of Youth in Custody found that no less than 10 percent of the 26,550 juveniles being held in detention facilities in the US are abused by staff at the facility, while another 2.6 percent report abuse at the hands of other inmates.
Among the facilities studied were six identified to have rates of sexual abuse as high as three in 10. According to the Associated Press, those six facilities are Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility in Indiana; Corsicana Residential Treatment Center in Texas; Backbone Mountain Youth Center in Swanton, Maryland; Samarkand Youth Development Center in Eagle Springs, North Carolina.; Cresson Secure Treatment Unit in Pennsylvania; and the Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center, Long Term, in Mitchells, Virginia.
"The widespread sexual abuse of children in juvenile facilities shows that public officials either aren't paying attention or can't be bothered to do the right thing," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch. "The high rates of victimization are powerful testimony to the failure of governments to safeguard the boys and girls in their care."
The study was mandated by a 2003 law, the National Prison Rape Elimination Act, which also created the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Human Rights Watch notes that six months ago the commission set out "comprehensive, effective standards for the prevention, detection, and punishment of prison rape," but the Justice Department has yet to act on those recommendations.
"Every day Attorney General Eric Holder fails to promulgate national prison rape elimination standards is another day in which kids and adults are being abused behind bars," Fellner said. "The attorney general already has on his desk proposed standards that reflect the best thinking and effective practices to end this widespread scourge. There is no need to reinvent the wheel or to delay moving forward."
The survey found that gay youth were at higher risk than heterosexual youth, with one in five reporting abuse at the hands of a staffer or fellow inmate. Males were more likely to report being abused than females (10.8 percent to 4.7 percent). And 95 percent of those abused by staff reported that the abuser was female. But that number may be influenced by the fact that 91 percent of youth in custody are male.
The AP reports:
Although advocates said the level of abuse wasn't surprising, the prevalence of sexual abuse by staff, particularly female workers, was shocking, said Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, which fights to end sexual abuse of those who are detained.
"Many of these are already the most vulnerable and traumatized youth from all of our communities and they're placed for custody because they're considered to be a danger," she said. "If sexually abused in those very institutions that are supposed to help them prepare for life in the community, then it's just an incredible travesty."
The Associated Press also notes that sex abuse by staffers was higher in state-run facilities than in privately-run or municipal detention centers, and smaller facilities appear to have lower abuse rates than larger ones.
The study investigated a 12-month period, and was carried out from June, 2008, to April, 2009.