On the heels of accusations that Luzerne County judges took bribes from juvenile-detention center operators comes a new federal government report detailing sexual abuse of young inmates at such facilities.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 12 percent of youths in state juvenile facilities and large non-state facilities say they have experienced one or more incidents of sexual abuse by another inmate or a staff member of the facility.
But the incident rate climbs to an atrocious 30 percent or more at 13 juvenile facilities, including the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit in Cambria County. That facility, near Altoona, which houses fewer than 60 inmates, is run for the state by Justice Resource Institute of Boston.
Privately run juvenile-detention facilities are at the heart of the Luzerne County case, in which former judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan face federal racketeering charges. They allegedly sent young defendants accused of relatively minor charges to two youth detention centers in exchange for bribes.
The Justice Department report says coerced sex is too often the fate of juvenile-detention inmates. Even worse, it said 10 percent of the young inmates say the sex was with a staff member of the juvenile facility, and in 95 percent of those cases, the staff member was a female. Women make up about 42 percent of the staff at juvenile facilities nationwide.
Just last October, a former counselor at the North Central Secure Treatment Center in Montour County was sentenced to up to 23 months in jail for having sex with a 17-year-old inmate. Lisa Croak, 46, said, “It was a mistake. I know it was wrong.” It also is too common, according to the Justice Department report.
Nearly 10,000 of the more than 26,000 youths being held in long-term juvenile facilities participated in the survey, a participation rate that greatly reduced the margin of error. About 4 percent of those surveyed said they had been forced to have sex with a staff member, while 6 percent said the sex was consensual.
Of course, there’s no such thing as consensual sex when it involves a minor, or, for that matter, when one of the participants is locked up and under the authority of the other person. About 2 percent of the juveniles surveyed said they were forced to have sex by another inmate.
Pennsylvania officials appear reluctant to accept the federal government’s findings. In regard to the Cresson facility’s numbers, Andy Snyder, director of the state Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services, suggested that “kids whose IQs are rather low” may have misunderstood what they were being asked. “Their interpretations of questions sometimes skew what the results could be,” he said.
OK, but a victim's misunderstanding or reluctance to answer questions also could be the reason that there was only one reported incident of sexual abuse at Cresson last year — and that allegation was eventually dismissed as a fantasy.
To his credit, Snyder says he won’t ignore the federal survey’s findings. The state will conduct follow-up surveys, he said, and increase staff training to detect sexual abuse. The state also must do a better job of screening the people and agencies supposedly hired to look after juveniles.
Juvenile-detention facilities are supposed to help turn children’s lives around, not upside-down.