The Crisis of Sexual Abuse in Juvenile Detention Centers
Religion & Liberty Online

The Crisis of Sexual Abuse in Juvenile Detention Centers

juvi“Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons,” says Acton research fellow Jordan Ballor. “One of the things it means to treat someone with the dignity they deserve as a human being is to not subject them to conditions where the threat of rape is rampant.”

Earlier this year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported on one of the most overlooked threats to prisoner dignity — sexual victimization by correctional authorities. One of the most surprising findings was that more than half (54 percent) of all substantiated incidents of staff sexual misconduct and a quarter (26 percent) of all incidents of staff sexual harassment were committed by female staff. The problem is even more pronounced at juvenile detention centers where, as Josh Voorhees points out, nine out of every 10 reporters of sexual abuse are males victimized by female staffers:

In the most recent federal survey of detained juveniles, nearly 8 percent of respondents reported being sexually victimized by a staff member at least once in the previous 12 months. For those who reported being abused, two things proved overwhelmingly true, as they were in Woodland Hills: They were teenage boys, and their alleged assailants were female employees tasked with looking out for their well-being. Nine in 10 of those who reported being victimized were males reporting incidents with female staff. Women, meanwhile, typically make up less than half of a juvenile facility’s staff.

These were not one-time occurrences. Among those who said they were abused by staff, 86 percent reported more than one incident in the previous year; 20 percent of those who reported sexual misconduct said it happened at least 11 times over that period. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, the use or threat of force was present in only one in five victims. Instead, the research suggests that female guards are more likely to establish a relationship with the boys, writing them letters, giving them gifts of alcohol or even drugs, or granting them special favors to build their trust. Such activity—often called “grooming”—not only sets the stage for the abuse that follows but also makes the teens less likely to report their abusers after the victimization happens—or even to consider it abuse in the first place. Consider, nearly one in five of the victimized youth reported that they “always” made the first move, while an additional 46 percent said they “sometimes” did. Even if the teens are of age—and at least some were likely over the age of consent—that changes nothing: No one being kept in custody can consent to having sex, regardless of age or gender.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).