FORT WAYNE – So many children have been sexually assaulted while in Indiana state custody that four of its juvenile corrections facilities have been investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and one judge found conditions at the states facility for girls were so bad he refused to send girls there for almost a year.
That facility and one other have since been closed, but another – the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility – was named by a federal study as having one of the highest rates of sexual abuse in the nation: 36.2 percent of youths held there reported being sexually victimized during their stay, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, triple the national rate.
The report was released in early 2010, based on an extensive survey of youth in juvenile custody in 2008 and 2009.
Indiana Department of Correction officials said they believe the numbers in the report are higher than reality, but any kind of sexual activity within their facilities is illegal.
We never really made a big deal out of the possibility of the numbers being wrong because the fact of the matter is any of it is too much, said Michael Dempsey, the DOCs Division of Youth Services executive director. We just took the position we were going to do everything we could to stop it.
At the time the report was released, officials cited department studies saying 10 percent of boys held at Pendleton reported sexual abuse while in custody, but that study sampled about 10 percent of the boys held there. The federal study sampled 88 percent of the boys there.
Its possible children in correctional facilities lie about staff abuse in an effort to manipulate the system, but child advocates say that is often balanced by the abuse that is not reported.
The federal study attempted to control for false reports.
Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Childrens Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., told The Associated Press that many cases of abuse are not reported because children fear reprisal for accusing staff or feel no one will believe them. Those comments were made in response to a 2008 AP investigation that found more than 13,000 claims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by staff members at juvenile correction centers nationwide over three years.
We expect that juvenile facilities will be places where rehabilitation happens for kids, Dana Shoenberg, deputy director of the Center for Childrens Law and Policy, told The Journal Gazette. If theyre experiencing abuse there, its hard to imagine theyre being rehabilitated.
There were so many reports of sexual victimization in the Bureau of Justice Statistics report that in total, one in every five juveniles held in Indianas facilities reported sexual assaults while in state custody, almost one in every eight reported being victimized by a staff member.
It does strike me as outrageous, but Im not surprised by it, said Dan Dailey, who advocates for children in the justice system. Daily, originally from South Bend, now blogs about juvenile justice from his home in Texas. If you look at the whole juvenile justice system throughout the United States, all the system knows how to do is punish.
Thats especially disappointing, he said, because juvenile justice is – in theory, at least – not about punishment, but about treating children for problems usually caused by others.
Theyre not the ones who are at fault, Dailey said. Its the adults in their lives who have let them down.
That cycle only continues if theyre victimized by other children in the system or by the staff there to protect them, he said.
The DOCs Dempsey said Indiana has taken numerous steps to better protect the children in its care since the reports release, the most notable being that the inmate population has been cut in half while keeping staff numbers the same.
History of problems
By the time the Bureau of Justice Statistics report was released, one of Indianas facilities, the Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility for girls, had been closed.
Girls are now sent to the Madison Correctional Facility.
But before it closed, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found 23 percent of girls at the Indianapolis facility reported being the victim of sexual assault there, almost double the national rate of 12 percent. It, along with Pendleton, was among the worst in the nation for rates of sex crimes, according to the report.
The Indianapolis facility for girls was closed in November 2009; a separate Department of Justice report released at the same time as the Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that male guards preyed on the girls there, that the state failed to adequately investigate the alleged abuse and failed to provide adequate female staffing.
The state also allowed excessive force by staff, the report said, including one case in which a 17-year-old girl with mental illness was forcibly strip-searched by five male guards who held her down and cut off her clothes.
The report said guards used methods, such as chemical spray and restraint chairs, typically used only in adult prisons, and that a girl who had reported a male guard had abused her was confronted by two officers, including the man she had accused. She recanted, after which she was charged with making a false accusation.
Department of Correction officials said at the time that the problems at Indianapolis are not present in the new facility in Madison and that the department was taking pre-emptive steps to enforce zero tolerance for sexual contact.
But the Bureau of Justice Statistics report is only the latest to highlight conditions in Indianas juvenile centers. The U.S. Department of Justice investigated the states Plainfield Juvenile Correctional Facility in 2004 and found such rampant sexual abuse among the youth there that staff had created a flowchart to keep track of who was abusing whom.
Throughout our tours, youth residents repeatedly informed us that they are not safe at Plainfield, the Department of Justice said in its September 2005 report. Our investigation confirmed that juveniles in Plainfield live in a violent culture where physical assaults between youths occur regularly, overt sexual behavior among youths is commonplace, and corrections staff often use excessive physical force when restraining youths.
Federal investigators reviewed reports of scores of incidents of sex between youths at Plainfield, with incidents occurring in the dormitories, day rooms, bathrooms and shower areas, and even in the campus security van.
Plainfield was converted to an adult facility a month after the Department of Justice report was released.
In 2008 – two years before the Bureau of Justice Statistics report named it as having among the highest rates of sexual assaults in the nation – the Department of Justice announced it was investigating the Pendleton and Indianapolis facilities. The Pendleton report has not yet been released.
Dempsey said the Department of Correction has added security cameras, changed housing arrangements, increased staff training, and improved the educational and treatment programs the system offers.
Those steps have been enhanced by almost doubling the staff-to-student ratio by cutting the population in half. Most of the population cuts, he said, were made by cutting the amount of time students are there.
They now have clear goals and educational programming, which brings better behavior and attitudes, Dempsey said.
Fewer students and more staff also make students feel safer, and the safer they feel, the more apt they are to do the programs. That reduces the overall violence, not just sexual violence.
The fewer kids you have, theyre not on top of one another, irritating on another, so they feel safer and their behavior mimics that.
Dempsey said he has worked hard to find a screening tool to detect staff who might victimize children. That tool, called the Diana Screen, has been used for about six months, and is already disqualifying applicants, he said.
You have to pass Diana Screen to get clearance to work with our kids, Dempsey said. Im excited to see what the long-term effect of the screening will be.
Whatever problems existed at Indianapolis and Pendleton should not have been a surprise to state officials, as St. Joseph Countys juvenile judge Peter Nemeth in 2007 refused to send any more girls to Indianapolis until the problems were solved. He warned that Pendleton was a problem facility, as well.
The South Bend Tribune reported at the time that Nemeth wrote a letter to Gov. Mitch Daniels saying his staff had found that girls were not receiving an adequate education, were allowed to have frequent sex with each other, were not being prepared to re-enter the community and were not receiving needed psychiatric care.
Nemeth said state law requires that he do what is in the best interest of the children who appear in his courtroom. That required him to investigate the state facilities he was sending children to, just as he would a private facility.
What his staff found, the Tribune reported, was troubling.
Nemeth said he was criticized for his move, but the Department of Justice findings later proved he was right.
Of course, when I did it, it was all just because of politics, they said, and that as a Democrat I was just trying to make the governor look bad, Nemeth said. Thats a pretty poor response to matters like this.
Nemeth said he was unaware of the latest report on sexual assaults, but it will be looked at closely.
I guess our feeling is we dont want to send a kid anywhere we wouldnt send our own kid, Nemeth said.
To those who say correctional facilities are not supposed to be pleasant and that some rough treatment is to be expected, Nemeth points out that even for adults, the state has a constitutional duty to keep them reasonably safe, and allowing sexual assaults by other inmates or staff is illegal.
For children, he said, the burden on the state is even greater, because the state is acting as their parents and juveniles have not been convicted of a crime.
Under the law, were supposed to be trying to treat and rehabilitate children, Nemeth said.
But with budget cuts, were just warehousing kids like they do adults.
Dempsey said the culture is changing for the better, and will continue to do so.
Its tough, but for the most part I feel really good about how well the staff has responded to the changes weve made, Dempsey said. For the most part, people are there for the right reasons; they want to make an improvement in the lives of these students.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.