Sex abuse among fears for incarcerated youth pandemic

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Detention center workers escort youths through the halls of the Orange Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
PHELAN M. EBENHACK/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

BY DANA CASSIDY
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

ORLANDO – The COVID-19 crisis has placed an unprecedented strain on Florida’s incarcerated youth, but experts fear it may also exacerbate a challenge that far predates the pandemic: combating sexual abuse at juvenile facilities and helping survivors recover.

With many juvenile inmates alone with staff and cut off from in-person contact with loved ones, some worry sexual violence could increase. For those who have already suffered abuse, isolation will only compound the hardship they’re enduring, experts say.

A special report published by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics in December found that more than 20% of incarcerated youth at three Florida juvenile detention facilities had reported having been sexually victimized while in custody in 2018.

Those facilities had the three highest rates in the country: At Liberty Juvenile Unit for Specialized Treatment, in Bristol, a rural city in the Panhandle, 26.1% of youth reported having been victimized. So did 22.4% at Hastings Comprehensive Mental Health Treatment Program and 21.2% at Gulf Academy, both in Hastings, a small community near Palatka.

Leading in nation

If Florida’s facilities can’t keep kids safe from sexual abuse under normal circumstances, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to protect them from harm during a global pandemic, said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, spokesman for Just Detention International, a nonprofit that combats in-detention sexual abuse.

“It does not inspire confidence to say the least,” Lerner-Kinglake said. “… Florida is leading the nation in a category it should not be proud of.”

Nationwide, the survey found 7.1% of youth in juvenile facilities reported having been sexually victimized. The significant majority of the abuse reported was at the hands of staff.

‘Zero-tolerance’ policy

Simone Marstiller, secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, in a statement said the department has a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to sexual assault. The statement did not respond to specific questions the Orlando Sentinel asked about the three facilities in Bristol and Hastings.

Those residing in DJJ programs have unrestricted access to the Florida Abuse Hotline and the department’s Central Communications Center Hotline, Marstiller said. Staff are held “fully accountable” for abuse, including termination and potential criminal prosecution, she said.

“All allegations are thoroughly investigated by our agency,” Marstiller wrote in a statement.

The increase of isolation during this time is also concerning, as youth could develop problematic trauma responses and a decline in mental health, experts said.

“Going through COVID-19 is traumatic, additionally, being in a detention facility is traumatic,” said Jessica Pinto, advocate manager at Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. “These young people are really experiencing re-occurring trauma.”

Reporting concerns

Jennifer Dritt, the executive director of Florida Council Against Sexual Violence who is also a licensed clinical social worker, said it’s hard for adults, let alone youth, to report issues at facilities because they feel as if the system works against them.

In juvenile facilities, the adult is in a position of authority, which can pose additional fear or hopelessness when abuse occurs.

“People in correctional facilities do not believe that the institution is interested in their wellbeing, whether the institution is or isn’t, it’s unlikely they believe that,” Dritt said.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics findings weren’t universally negative, either for Florida or across the county. The overall nationwide rate in 2018 was down from 9.5% in 2012, which experts say is an indicator that this issue can be effectively addressed.

Federal survey findings

At two Florida facilities, Columbus Youth Academy in Tampa and South Florida’s Broward Youth Treatment Center, no respondents to the federal survey reported having been sexually abused.

But Laura Palumbo, spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said a lack of reports of abuse at a facility doesn’t mean none has occurred.

“There is not a juvenile detention center where there are no incidents of sexual assault and harassment,” Palumbo said. “That would be just like saying there’s a college campus where no one has been sexually assaulted or harassed or a military institution where no harassment or sexual assault are happening.”

Underestimated rates

Elizabeth Jeglic, psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said anonymous reporting is important, as people may fear potential consequences if they speak out. But some feel there truly is no anonymity within the criminal justice system, which can lead to underreporting.

And the rates of sexual victimization among youth may be further underestimated, as children don’t always understand or take time to process coercion or other inappropriate behavior, she said. The survey is also limited by its sample size, so it can’t guarantee 100% accuracy, she said.

Nationwide, 5.8% of juveniles surveyed reported abuse at the hands of staff members, with 2.1% reporting they were coerced or forced by staff.

Widespread misconduct

A 2017 investigation by the Miami Herald exposed widespread misconduct in Florida’s juvenile justice system, which the newspaper described as “beset by lax hiring standards, low pay, sexual misconduct and beatings bought for the price of a pastry.”

Yet, abuses have continued to surface.

In 2018, a corrections officer at Walton Academy for Growth and Change, a residential facility in Florida, stood by a cell’s doorway as a group of teens sexually assaulted a 15-year-old-boy, authorities said.

Last year, a 27-year-old officer at Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center was arrested after authorities said he sexually assaulted three 17-year-old boys. Investigators determined he had been offering contraband in exchange for sexual favors, officials said.

“It’s just completely disgraceful,” Lerner-Kinglake said. “We are talking about kids being sexually assaulted by the very people whose job it is to protect them.”

Racial data left out

Lerner-Kinglake noted that some potentially useful data was left out of the Bureau of Justice Statistics report: It did not reveal the racial makeup or sexual orientation of respondents, or how long they had been housed in state facilities.

“It makes no sense for them to keep that data under lock and key,” Lerner-Kinglake said. “I think it is crucial that that data be released and inform the conversation on how to stop this.”

Christian Minor, executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, said those who work inside and outside the system take sexual victimization seriously and abhor any sexual abuse in the facilities.

“It’s always important at any level of government, via state or federal, that we keep a close and mindful watch,” Minor said. “We should not ever be sending our kids back into society more damaged from when they came into this system.”

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