In the wake of a Bureau of Justice Statistics report that revealed Illinois’ juvenile detention facilities have some of the highest sexual abuse rates in the country, state legislators have called an emergency hearing to discuss the issue.
The Restorative Justice Committee will meet July 30 at the Michael A. Bilandic Building in downtown Chicago, and testifying before them will be Department of Juvenile Justice (DOJJ) Director Arthur Bishop, as well as members from the prison watchdog group the John Howard Association and officials from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“Before pointing fingers, we need to ask questions,” State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago), the committee chairperson, told Progress Illinois. “We want answers from the results of the study, and solutions moving forward.”
The report, which was released in June, detailed that 15 percent of the 500 Illinois youths surveyed said they had fallen victim to sexual abuse while serving time in detention facilities, with the majority of the abuse coming at the hands of prison guards. Nationwide, 9.5 percent of youths in juvenile justice facilities said they were victimized. At the Illinois youth center in Joliet, which was closed this year in a cost-cutting measure by Gov. Pat Quinn, 21 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced sexual victimization at the facility.
To combat the problem, Ford said prison guards may need specialized training on how to handle the young inmates. He compared the situation to classrooms, where regular education teachers can’t teach special education students.
But one of Ford’s colleagues on the committee doesn’t see it that way. State Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) said monitoring programs need to be in place.
“It’s against the law to rape a child. What type of education is required to understand that,” she asked.
Flowers said she wants a third-party ombudsman to keep an eye on state juvenile detention centers. A system was supposed to be put in place when the DOJJ was separated from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2006, but according to Flowers, that plan never materialized.
“If you don’t implement, it’s just a law in a book,” Flowers added.
However, not everyone is in favor of having a third party keep tabs on the centers. David Clarkin, spokesman for the Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS), said it’s always better to hear directly from the person being abused, rather than setting up a gatekeeper. According to Clarkin, he would rather the youths call the DCFS hotline to report abuse.
“It doesn’t make sense to tell a kid being abused, ‘hey, you have to call this other guy,’” he said.
But Clarkin admitted he’s not sure if imprisoned youths would actually call the hotline.
“I don’t know the answer to that question. We’re trying to work more closely together to find services that meet the needs of youth that have been incarcerated,” he said.
One need that has to be discussed at the hearing is getting an inmate’s family more involved while they’re imprisoned, according to John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois. Maki said the DOJJ needs to be funded to facilitate more family contact. The facilities are located far away from most of the inmates' families, Maki noted, because most of the youths in Illinois juvenile justice centers are from the city of Chicago. He believes the family component of the issue has yet to be realized.
Flowers agreed and said inmates eligible for release need to be put somewhere safe, even if they have no family to go to. The Bureau of Justice Statistics study showed that for facilities in which youths were held for shorter periods of time, there were also fewer reports of alleged abuse. Flowers wants to capitalize on that. The lawmaker says that youths who are set to be released, but have nowhere to go remain imprisoned. She would prefer to see them become wards of the state and placed into foster care. Flowers’ 2007 bill (HB 291), which was voted into law, makes it possible for homeless youths in the juvenile justice system to be made wards of state and placed in the custody of DCFS.
Ford said overall, the hearing must determine what the legislature can do to help the victims and their families. “The delivery of services needs to improve,” he said.