Jordan Schrader and Martha T. Moore, Swannanoa youth inmates allege sex abuse, Ashville Citizen-Times, January 10, 2010

One in four boys at Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center report being sexually abused while in custody, according to a U.S. Justice Department study that finds 12 percent of youths in juvenile prisons across the country report sexual abuse.

Most of the reports nationwide involve female staff abusing boys. Allegations by the young male offenders housed at Swannanoa Valley came against staff members, not fellow inmates.

The study, the first of its kind, shows a rate of sexual assault more than seven times higher than that indicated by a 2008 Justice Department report that collected sexual abuse claims to juvenile facility administrators. It is also higher than a similar study of adult prisons because of the “very high rate of staff sexual misconduct,” said Allen Beck, who directed the survey for the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

North Carolina officials said the study overestimates abuse.

Officials looked into three false reports of sexual abuse at Swannanoa Valley in the 2008-09 period studied, said William Lassiter, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice.

“Two said they completely made it up, and the other said they were just really mad at the staff and how they handled something,” Lassiter said.

The survey of 9,198 youths ages 13-21 — all in custody by order of a juvenile court — included methods to eliminate interviews considered unreliable. The survey covered 195 facilities, at least one in each state. About 26,550 juveniles — 91 percent of them boys — are held in more than 500 such facilities around the country.

The survey showed that 10.3 percent of youths reported the sexual contact was with staff, compared with 2.6 percent who reported sexual victimization by other youths. In nearly half the incidents with staff, youths reported having sexual contact as a result of force.

The study sets a wider definition of sexual contact than rape, Beck said. Nonetheless, “these are all things that in the outside world would be considered violent or, by definition in law, they are illegal,” he said.

Sexual victimization of youths in custody “is one of those hidden closets of the system,” said Bart Lubow, director of the juvenile justice and strategy group for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which advocates for children. The rates at the worst facilities are “so high they're stunning,” he said. “I am, on the other hand, never surprised as people peel the layers of the youth corrections onion and expose more and more things that make you cry.”

Linda McFarlane of Just Detention International, an advocacy group focused on eliminating sexual abuse in prison, called the highest rates of abuse “shocking beyond belief.”

“The incredibly high rates of staff misconduct is shocking and disturbing,” McFarlane said. “We just need to do a better job with training and recruitment and hiring and supervision.”

The survey showed that gay youths reported higher levels of sexual abuse from other juveniles, and so did youths who had been abused before coming to the facility.

That makes the survey valuable for juvenile facilities other than the type covered in the survey, she said. “While we can't say we know what's happening in, say, the smaller group-home settings … we can look at the information in this report and use it to protect those (particularly vulnerable) kids.”

In Maryland, where 36 percent of youths surveyed at Backbone Mountain Youth Center said they had been victimized, the state Department of Juvenile Services said in a statement Thursday there will be an independent investigation by the state human resources and health agencies.

In North Carolina, where the state runs nine long-term lockups called youth development centers, the study found a third of girls at Samarkand Youth Development Center in Eagle Springs reported being victimized.

At Swannanoa Valley, 17 of 51 youth responded to the survey, and 25 percent reported sexual abuse.

Lassiter said the state's own surveys have showed abuse to be much more rare.

N.C. Juvenile Justice Secretary Linda Hayes called the federal findings “suspect” in a statement.

“Given these findings that some juveniles were making false allegations during the period that surveys were being done on campus, the data become suspect,” Hayes said.

Swannanoa Valley faced a series of lawsuits in 2002 alleging routine sexual abuse there. A year later, former Swannanoa counselor Brian Wayne Harkins pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and was sentenced to four years in prison.

Buncombe County District Attorney Ron Moore said he hasn't heard a whisper of allegations of sexual abuse by staff since Harkins' prosecution.

Employees have been vigilant against abuse, he said.

“If that much sexual abuse by staff was occurring,” he said, “that is not the type of thing that everybody working there wouldn't know.”

Moore said the survey probably overestimates staff abuse and underestimates abuse by other students.

“Traditionally, they had a lot of sex offenders housed at Swannanoa,” said Moore, who favors tighter security there. “One would expect some of them to continue to offend.”

The department provides ways for youth to report misconduct and abuse, Lassiter said, including twice-annual anonymous surveys, access to chaplains and special boxes in dormitories where students can drop anonymous letters to Hayes.

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