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Sexual Abuse in State Lock-ups

Three years after a sexual abuse scandal rocked the Texas Youth Commission, one in five juvenile offenders in Texas youth lock-ups report being forced into sexual acts.

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Three years after a sexual abuse scandal rocked the Texas Youth Commission, one in five juvenile offenders in Texas youth lock-ups report being forced into sexual acts with staff or other inmates, according to a federal report released today.

In the National Survey of Youth in Custody, conducted during 2008 and 2009 by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 12 percent of incarcerated youth nationwide reported being forced into sex or sexual contact in custody. Of the 1,765 Texas youth offenders polled, about 20 percent reported being victims of sexual abuse. One Texas facility — the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center — had the second highest sexual abuse rate among large youth lockups, at nearly 32 percent.

Texas Youth Commission officials, who have worked to overhaul the agency since the first reports of sexual abuse at the West Texas State School in 2007, said the report will "provide another layer of transparency" to guide ongoing reform efforts. But juvenile justice advocates said the survey results are a wake-up call, and a sign that the TYC doesn't have the sexual abuse problem under control.

TYC officials say they invited federal surveyors into all of their facilities, and had a higher participation rate than any other state. They said the Texas portion of the survey occurred in mid-2008, around the time the TYC was implementing sweeping reforms to improve conditions.

Agency spokesman Jim Hurley didn't discount the survey results, but said the agency's internal numbers don't align with them. The TYC's inspector general received 21 allegations of sexual misconduct at the Corsicana facility in the same time period the federal survey reviewed. Of those allegations, one was confirmed, and the rest have been either thrown out or withdrawn.

"There's a variation between what's being reported to them in an anonymous survey, versus what's being reported to us" for investigation, Hurley said. "I think the only answer is for us to pay very close attention to all of the data."

Hurley also said the agency found it "curious" that Corsicana was included in the survey at all, because the facility has "a very traumatized population." The Corsicana facility houses the TYC's youth offenders with mental illness.

Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the survey results are very concerning. She said the TYC’s sexual abuse numbers are probably far underreported, because youth are often too ashamed or embarrassed to report abuse.

“There’s absolutely no excuse,” Yañez-Correa said. “The responsibility of the state is to rehabilitate youth, and it’s doing completely the opposite by failing to protect children from predatory staff or other children.”

And she said it's completely appropriate for Corsicana to be included in the survey. Mentally ill youth are the most likely to be victimized, she said, because they’re either emotionally vulnerable or unable to protect themselves.  

“The more needs you have, the more likely you are to become a victim of horrific acts,” she said.

The federal study included nearly 26,000 youth inmates in roughly 200 lock-ups nationwide. The report found that 2.6 percent of these youth had been sexually victimized by another youth in custody; 10.3 percent reported being abused by facility staff. Thirteen facilities were identified as “high rate” lock-ups, including the Corsicana and Victory Field TYC facilities. Of the 11 “lowest rate” lock-ups, one was a TYC facility: Unit 1 of the McLennan County Juvenile Correction Facility.

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