Lovisa Stannow, Add reforms now to protect youths, The Tennesean, June 13, 2010
On June 4, officials with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services were called to Washington to testify on the high rates of sexual abuse reported by youth at the Woodland Hills Youth Development Center. The federal Review Panel on Prison Rape asked to hear from deputy commissioner Steven Hornsby and other staff after a Department of Justice study released in January found that almost one in four youth at the Nashville facility reported being sexually victimized in the preceding year.
Unfortunately, rather than taking advantage of this opportunity to focus on how to improve safety for detained kids, Tennessee officials chose to challenge the validity of the survey.
Hornsby said he was “flabbergasted” by the numbers in the report. Yet, as this newspper has documented (“Woodland Hills sex abuse claims ‘shocking,’ DCS official tells feds,” June 5), Woodland Hills has a history of allegations of sexual contact between staff and juveniles — that is to say, a history of sexual abuse. Indeed, the recent Department of Justice study showed that the majority of victimized youth at the facility had been abused by staff, the very government officials whose job it is to protect them.
The problem is preventable
Sexual violence shatters the lives of youth in detention. But that’s not all. This type of abuse makes facilities dangerous for everyone, including staff. It casts a negative light on the entire corrections profession, undermining the morale of the many offcials who care deeply about the welfare of the children in their care. Worse still, the trauma of sexual abuse affects not only the victims, but also their families and the communities to which they eventually return.
Now the good news: Sexual violence in detention is preventable. The Department of Justice survey showed clearly that while some juvenile facilities, like Woodland Hills, are plagued by abuse, others are virtually free from it. Surely Hornsby and other officials want Tennessee facilities to be safe and well-run. Rather than squabbling about statistics, they would be much better off spending their time and energy on ending sexual abuse.
The differences between safe and unsafe detention centers can be found in the commitment to zero tolerance for sexual abuse among facility leaders, the level of respect among staff for professional boundaries, and the quality of written policies and day-to-day practices. Proposed standards developed by the bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission spell out precisely how to implement such reform.
These standards are under review by the U.S. Attorney General, but that doesn’t mean the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services can’t begin implementing them now. Several adult corrections agencies, including in California and Oregon, are already doing precisely that, with great success.
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of staff within the Department of Children’s Services shares a strong commitment to the right of detained youth to be free from sexual abuse. With the power to stop these violations, it would be a shame if the DCS leadership were to ignore the hard work of good corrections officials and instead yield to those who perpetrate sexual abuse.