The Dark Secret of Juvenile Detention Centers

Nine out of every 10 reporters of sexual abuse are males victimized by female staffers.

Photo by bigjohn36/Thinkstock
The perpetrators and victims of abuse behind bars aren’t always who you might think.

Photo by bigjohn36/Thinkstock

Thirty-two teens escaped from a Tennessee juvenile detention center late Monday night, taking advantage of an overnight shift change to leave the building before slipping underneath a chain-link fence to freedom. By the next evening, all but seven had either been caught by police or turned themselves in. “Was [the escape] a fluke? Was that planned? We don’t know yet,” said Rob Johnson, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Children’s Services. It wasn’t the first time that teens at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center made a break for it. In May, a half-dozen escaped their bedrooms early one morning and made it to the facility’s outdoor courtyard before being convinced by staff to return to their rooms.

It’s too soon to speculate about what motivated the kids to escape. But while we await details, now is the perfect time to recount the troubling history of staff sexually abusing children in facilities like Woodland Hills. That’s not to suggest that misconduct is what motivated the kids to flee—we don’t know if it even played a role. Woodland Hills does, though, have a well-documented record of alleged sexual misconduct. This sort of abuse happens outside the country’s field of vision, behind fences and closed doors, where authorities can too easily brush aside allegations from troubled youth. That’s all the more reason to give the abuse a fuller accounting whenever news from a facility like Woodland Hills spills over (or in this case, under) its walls.

So, what has been going on at Woodland Hills? A 2010 investigation by the Tennessean found a series of allegations that had gone largely uninvestigated and unpunished by authorities. One of the facilities’ kitchen employees, the newspaper discovered, had reportedly given a 17-year-old boy chlamydia, and later lived with a different male juvenile who she had been accused of abusing while he was in the facility. The woman was cleared in four separate state investigations despite failing a lie detector test. She was ultimately convicted only after she turned herself in to police. In another case uncovered by the paper, a different female guard went on to marry a former inmate after he was released from the facility. The woman kept her job even after her marriage came to light.

Such incidents are sadly common inside our juvenile justice system. 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.

The Justice Department first documented the surprising prevalence of female staff sexually abusing male juveniles in 2010 after surveying a limited sample of detention centers and group homes. Three years later the DOJ released a second report with a broader sample, finding the same trend. While there is cautious hope that the problem will be addressed through policy changes required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act—which bans guards of the opposite gender from performing body searches or otherwise being present when a juvenile is undressed, among other things—the issue remains largely off the nation’s radar, popping up on those rare occasions when a parent of a victim contacts the press, but then quickly receding back into the darkness that so often envelops our justice system.

In that regard it is not unlike what happens in the nation’s adult prisons, where routine sexual assault among inmates is often unfairly brushed aside as simply part of the punishment. For the young males in juvenile homes, that it-happens-but-what-can-you-do-about-it attitude comes with a twist: It’s the boys who are being abused who often receive much of the blame. In an interview with ProPublica last summer, Reggie Wilkinson, a former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, conceded there is no such thing as consensual sex in a detention center. He followed that by saying, “[T]he reality of it is that some of the guys in prison are very persuasive and some of the women are very persuasive.”

“Sadly, again and again, we still have corrections officials talking about manipulative youth,” says Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse in prisons and jails. “Stop and think about that: We’re talking about troubled kids who need help turning around their lives. This is not rocket science: If you are a corrections officer, you need to abide by the law.”

The attitude that these boys bear some blame, however small, is dangerous in a vacuum. It’s downright reckless when we know that 90 percent of reported incidents involve male juveniles and female guards. “That minimizing of a serious crime is really contributing to the crisis,” says Stannow, “and we are talking about a crisis here.”