Lovisa Stannow, Protect the safety of juvenile offenders in Texas facilities, The Austin American-Statesman,
January 8, 2010
In a groundbreaking study released Jan. 7 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an unconscionable 12.1 percent of youth confined in juvenile detention facilities reported being sexually abused in the past year. As shocking as this statistic is, Texas children in custody fared even worse. Of the 13 Texas facilities included in the survey, seven had rates of sexual victimization over 20 percent and all but two facilities had rates above 14 percent. Two Texas youth facilities Corsicana Residential Treatment Center and Victory Field Correctional Academy at Vernon were identified as among the worst performing facilities nationwide, with sexual abuse rates of about 32 percent and 25 percent, respectively.
Young and scared, incarcerated children typically lack the prison savvy to protect themselves — street smarts they shouldn't even need, as the mission of youth detention systems is rehabilitation. The report shows that corrections systems like the Texas Youth Commission are failing in that mission. Nothing could be more grotesquely opposed to helping troubled kids turn their lives around than allowing them to be raped. Yet, most appallingly of all, the report shows that the vast majority of those who abuse these children are the very government officials supposed to keep them safe.
The survey was conducted in 2008 and 2009, long after the public learned that TYC facilities were rife with sexual abuse. Between January 2000 and March 2007, detained Texas youth filed more than 750 complaints of sexual misconduct by TYC staff. Despite legislative attention, a change in TYC leadership and policy reforms, Texas remains a state where children are most likely to be victimized while in the government's care.
But there is hope. Prisoner rape is preventable. Some facilities are plagued by sexual abuse while others are virtually free from this type of violence; sexual abuse is not an inevitable part of juvenile detention. Stopping it is a matter of committed leadership, staff members who understand professional boundaries, and strong policies. For example, juvenile facilities that consistently separate detainees who are particularly vulnerable to abuse (such as gay youth) from likely predators are able dramatically to reduce sexual violence. Those who make it clear to staff — in policy as well as practice — that sexual abuse of detainees will not be tolerated are able to minimize this type of violence.
Last June, an expert commission issued the first-ever national standards addressing sexual abuse behind bars, specifying exactly such policies and practices. Mandated by a federal law — the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 — the standards were informed by extensive research, public hearings, expert committees and hundreds of public comments on a draft version. The final recommendations represent a hard-reached consensus on best practices. Specific standards for juvenile detention facilities address core issues such as staff training, detainee education, housing, investigations, and medical and mental health care in the aftermath of an assault. If adopted, the common-sense measures will make a huge difference.
The standards were proposed in June 2009. According to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, the U.S. attorney general shall take no more than a year to formalize them as binding federal regulations. Unfortunately, instead of acting quickly to ensure that detainees are protected from sexual abuse, Attorney General Eric Holder has allowed the process to drag on. Now he may ask for more time to codify them, perhaps as much as an extra year.
In a year's time, thousands more youths would be sexually abused in juvenile detention across the country. Waiting another year would mean letting bureaucracy trump child safety. If the government delays needlessly, it will be failing its constitutional responsibility to protect the safety of those it locks up, who can no longer protect themselves.
The Texas Youth Commission doesn't have to wait for the standards to be finalized. It can copy the efforts of other corrections officials who have become early adopters of pivotal measures. And Texas' congressional delegation and other leaders can pressure the Obama administration to take swift action. No one supports the sexual abuse of children — and there can be no excuse for delaying an important tool in the effort to stop prisoner rape.