Lovisa Stannow and Melissa Coretz Goemann, Virginia Should Stand for Children’s Safety, Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 11, 2010

In a groundbreaking study released Thursday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an unconscionable 12.1 percent of youth confined in juvenile detention facilities reported being sexually abused at their current facility in the past year. As shocking as this statistic is, Virginian children in custody fared even worse. All four facilities run by the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice included in the survey had rates of sexual victimization above 13 percent, and three had rates above 20 percent. Thirty percent of the children at the Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center reported being abused by staff or other youth at the facility in the past year.

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 correctional systems like the Department 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 very government officials supposed to keep them safe.

Sexual abuse of children in detention is an affront to our most basic values. Those victimized in this way 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. 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 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 simply 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 the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 -- a federal law co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott and Frank Wolf -- 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. These are common sense measures, and if adopted they will make an enormous 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 both adult and juvenile 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 -- maybe as much as an extra 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 Department 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. Reps. Scott and Wolf should continue their leadership on juvenile justice and sexual violence in detention by pressuring the Obama administration to take swift action to formalize the standards.

Virginia lawmakers should do the same, while working to establish a robust state ombudsman's office to provide oversight of juvenile detention. 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.

This op-ed was also featured in the Culpeper Star Exponent.

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