Federal Study Finds Increase in Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse by Staff in Juvenile Detention Facilities


The Justice Department recently reported that the rate of sexual abuse allegations in state, local, and private juvenile detention facilities has more than doubled in the past six years.

The department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics analyzed nearly 9500 formal allegations of sexual victimization reported by juvenile correctional authorities between 2007 and 2012. In state juvenile facilities, it found the rate doubled from 19 per 1000 youth in 2005 to 47 per 1000 in 2012, and based on 2-year rolling averages, the rate in local and private facilities rose from 7 per 1000 youth in 2010 to 14 per 1000 in 2012.

Staff-on-youth sexual misconduct or staff sexual harassment directed toward a child was involved in 45 percent of these allegations, according to a special report released in January. The data showed that, when reported, staff-on-youth victimization was reported most often by the victim or another youth, not by other staff.

Internal investigations by facility administrators failed to uncover enough evidence to support the allegations in all but 10 percent of these cases. As ProPublica reported, advocates have raised questions about the “rigor and quality” of these internal investigations. But even when the institution’s own investigation confirms that a staff member has sexually abused a child, most staff members do not face consequences apart from being discharged from their jobs or allowed to resign. The study shows that fewer than half of the staff members who were found to have abused children were subjected to legal action. Only about 37 percent were referred for possible criminal prosecution, and only about 17 percent were arrested. Nearly 20 percent kept their jobs.

The study further shows a distressing lack of care for the victims of staff sexual abuse, some of whom are younger than 12. More than half of these confirmed victims (52 percent) did not receive any medical follow-up. Among all facilities, only 10 percent of victims were given a medical examination, and fewer than 8 percent were tested for HIV/AIDS and other STDs.

Juvenile correctional authorities told the Bureau of Justice Statistics that in half of the confirmed staff-on-youth sexual victimization cases, the sexual contact between the child and the staff member “appeared to be willing.” The study’s authors disavowed this characterization, writing that “[r]egardless of how juvenile correctional authorities reported these incidents, they were considered an abuse of power, involved an unknown level of coercion, and were illegal.” In nearly 69 percent of the confirmed staff-on-youth sexual victimization cases, the victims were boys, and the majority of staff perpetrators (55 percent) were female. The facilities’ classification of the sexual abuse of boys by female staff as “willing” raises concerns that juvenile correctional authorities are failing to appreciate the seriousness of this abuse and take necessary steps to protect boys in their custody.