Lovisa Stannow, Michigan quickly should improve youth inmate safety, The Detroit News, January 8, 2010

In a groundbreaking study released Thursday, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that a shocking 27 percent of youth confined in the Shawono Center in Grayland and 23 percent of youth confined in the Maxey Training School in Whitmore Lake report being sexually abused in the past year. That makes Michigan one of the states where children are most likely to be victimized while in the government's care.

Nationwide, the federal government found that an unconscionable 12.1 percent of juvenile inmates say they have been victimized.

Young and scared, incarcerated children typically lack the prison savvy to protect themselves -- street smarts they shouldn't even need since the mission of youth detention systems is rehabilitation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows that agencies like the Michigan Department of Human Services' Bureau of Juvenile Justice 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 government officials who are supposed to keep them safe.

Sexual abuse of children in detention is an affront to our most basic values. The victims suffer long-term psychological problems, learned violent behavior and serious medical conditions, including HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Often, they fall into a cycle of imprisonment and further abuse. These consequences ripple through their families and communities.

But there is hope. Prisoner rape is preventable. Other facilities 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 who understand professional boundaries and strong policies. Juvenile facilities that consistently separate detainees who are particularly vulnerable to abuse (such as gay youth) from likely predators dramatically 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 minimize this type of violence.

In June, an expert commission issued the first-ever national standards addressing sexual abuse behind bars, specifying such policies and practices. Required 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. 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. These are common-sense measures and, if adopted, will make an enormous difference.

The U.S. attorney general is supposed to take no more than a year to formalize the standards as binding federal regulations. Unfortunately, Attorney General Eric Holder has allowed the process to drag on. Now, he may ask for more time to codify them -- maybe as much as a year.

In a year's time, thousands more youth 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 Michigan Bureau of Juvenile Justice 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 these pivotal measures. And Michigan's congressional delegation and other leaders can pressure the Obama administration to take swift action to formalize the standards.

No one supports the sexual abuse of children -- and there can be no excuse for further delaying the most important tool so far in the effort to stop prisoner rape.

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