Sexual Abuse of Youth in Custody: What Makes a Facility Sexually Safe?

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If you work in the world of juvenile corrections, you’ve read the stories: reports of a staff member sexually abusing or harassing a youth in confinement. It has become clearer that this is not a problem limited to just male staff — in fact there is a well-documented trend of young teenage boys being victimized by female staff.

In addition, youth are at risk of being sexually abused or harassed by other youth. Overall, nearly 1 in 10 adjudicated youth report being sexually victimized while in a juvenile facility.

If you are a leader in a juvenile correctional facility, you might wonder, is my facility sexually safe? When a facility is sexually safe, the culture supports reporting and overall safety, and you can be confident that what you expect is happening to promote prevention, detection and response is actually happening.

From our work in the field, we know that many, if not most, facilities do everything they can to create a safe living situation for kids. Many struggle to keep policies and technology updated and to make sure staff get state-of-the-art training to outpace dated views of juvenile supervision when the time and budget is not often available to support these vital components of running a facility.

Many facilities have rigorous expectations for staff, but how well are those practices sustained on any given day? We will focus on reporting, operational factors and examine the often-forgotten crucial piece of the puzzle: facility culture.

Strong policy and procedure are the foundation, but not the whole solution. Writing down and formally signing expectations and requirements of staff, as well as the procedures or “how” those policies are carried out, are an important first step. Does the facility have a comprehensive written policy on youth sexual abuse and harassment that includes an explicit statement of zero tolerance? Does it include the ways to prevent, detect and respond to abuse, to include the requirement for immediate reporting and a variety of reporting avenues for staff and youth?

Often, facilities have policy and procedure that looks good on paper, but actual practice does not line up. There are a variety of reasons why we may see policy and practice out of alignment. Perhaps the policy is outdated and staff have been trained to do something different than what policy or procedure requires. Perhaps the requirements outlined are truly not feasible — in some cases staff, despite their best efforts, can’t implement what is required.

Often over time duties get added but nothing is removed, leading to a situation in which it is not possible to complete all required tasks in available time. Perhaps the culture of the facility does not support the best practice outlined in policy and procedure. Let’s unpack this last one.

What do we mean by culture? The National Institute of Corrections has defined culture as “the sum of the organization’s attitudes, beliefs, values, norms, and prejudices that cause an organization to do what it does.” Our beliefs help explain experiences that we all share, our values are what is considered right or good, and our norms are how people describe the way things are done or the way things are.

Let’s take reporting for example — the reality is that even when policy is strong, in some facilities every incident is not reported, or not all reports are taken seriously. If the policy and procedure are strong, if the avenues to report are clear and accessible, what gets in the way of reporting? Attitudes, values, and beliefs.

Perhaps increased reporting from certain youth is explained as being a result of mental illness or manipulation; perhaps there is a deeply held value that the word of staff should always be believed over the word of youth; perhaps the norm is that reports are evaluated based on a gut feeling rather than a thorough investigation.

What if staff or youth fear retaliation from their peers if they report incidents or suspicions of abuse or harassment? What if some staff use their power inappropriately? Staff have the keys, decide who goes to recreation, who gets dessert and who gets a phone call home. That power can be used as a positive influence to encourage constructive behavior from the youth in their care or negatively to leverage a youth, buy his or her silence or to retaliate for a youth’s report of abuse. Among youth, peer pressure and gang affiliation often lead to youth remaining silent or doing something out-of-character related to sexual safety.

If your facility has solid policy and procedure on reporting and grievances but receives no reports, that is a red flag that something may be getting in the way of reporting. When it comes to sexual abuse and harassment, reports signal a reporting culture — if you have reports, you can take action to protect youth.

If you see indicators of a code of silence among youth or staff, such as reluctance to ask questions or raise issues, indications that reporting or writing grievances is useless, or if you hear reluctance to be a “snitch” or a “rat,” you may have cultural factors in play that are interfering with reporting. If reporting for staff or youth is difficult or impossible, abuse can be more likely to occur, because there is a shared understanding that abuse is unlikely to be reported.

What can you do as a leader?

  • Put forth clear expectations around reporting, respectful interactions, confidentiality and retaliation monitoring and ensure that both staff and youth are held accountable. Make sure that staff and youth know you are serious about sexual safety, safe reporting and respectful interactions. It is important to do this formally — through policy, procedures, memos, etc. — and informally by being visible to staff and youth and accessible to talk with them.
  • Ensure that all youth are told at intake, and reminded throughout their stay by way of posters, handbooks and ongoing discussion, how to report sexual abuse by another youth or by a staff person. Make sure they know about hotlines, written reports, the ability to send a letter to someone outside the facility, that they can report without saying who they are, their parents or guardians can help them report and that they can talk to any trusted adult.

Reporting sexual abuse and harassment is only one example of how our culture (attitudes, values and beliefs) drives how our agencies function operationally. Ensuring comprehensive, up-to-date and clear policy and then translating that policy into consistent staff action so that all youth feel safe to seek help when they feel unsafe or think someone else is unsafe is the goal. Great facilities do both and the kids are safer for it.

Wendy Leach, J.D., is a senior consultant with The Moss Group, where she provides her expertise in the Prison Rape Elimination Act and physical and sexual safety in confinement. Previously she was a prosecutor in Baltimore, managed a federal settlement agreement with the Department of Justice and later served as the statewide director of quality improvement for Maryland’s juvenile detention facilities.

Tina Waldron is a project director with The Moss Group, where she provides leadership and expertise in evidence-based correctional practice, leadership development, reentry, mental health, agency and facility assessments, and strategic planning. Before this , she was the reentry and women’s services manager for the Missouri Department of Corrections.

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