Locked up and vulnerable, The Washington Post, February 21, 2010

TROY ERIK ISAAC was 12 years old and one week into a court-ordered detention for vandalism when he was sexually assaulted by an older, bigger boy. It would not be the last time. "I was effeminate, thin and looked vulnerable," he says now, 24 years after the fact. "Nobody tells you when you go in, 'You better be careful.' "

Mr. Isaac, who described himself as a "troubled child," spent the better part of his life in juvenile and adult correctional centers and says that he was raped or sexually abused numerous times. He will tell his story Tuesday to a House panel chaired by Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.).

Mr. Isaac is not alone. A recent study by the Justice Department reported that roughly 12 percent of minors suffered some form of sexual abuse while in custody, including abuse by staff members. Mr. Scott should pay particular attention to two centers in his home state that were identified as having among the highest rates of sexual abuse in the country: the Culpeper Juvenile Correctional Center in Culpeper County and the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, just outside Richmond. Backbone Mountain Youth Center in Western Maryland was also among the institutions with the highest rate of abuse.

Mr. Scott's hearing helps to keep attention on the problem of sexual abuse of juvenile offenders. But in many ways this problem is already well-known and understood. What is needed is action. Members of Congress should move from talking about the problem to implementing solutions. They could start by reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, which requires, among other things, that juveniles and adults be kept apart while awaiting trial or serving sentences. The bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee but has yet to be voted on by the full Senate or considered in the House.

The Justice Department must implement the reforms recommended last summer by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. The department will probably miss a June 2010 deadline by which it was supposed to have determined which recommendations to adopt. Corrections officials say that they want to eliminate all manner of sexual abuse in their facilities but argue that they do not have the money to fund all reforms.

These concerns must be taken seriously, especially in these difficult budgetary times, but they cannot be used as an excuse to block progress. After all, it does not cost a cent for the director of a facility to let it be known that sexual abuse by staff or offenders will not be tolerated. It does not cost a cent, but it could save a child from the horrors that Mr. Isaac describes.

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