Federal survey finds high rates of youth sexual assaults at South Carolina juvenile justice facilities

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Mic Smith

South Carolina had one of the highest rates in the nation for sexual assaults on youth in juvenile justice facilities, according to a recent survey released by the U.S. Department of Justice.

What’s more, the Palmetto State’s facilities ranked second-highest for staff-involved sexual misconduct reported by youth offenders, the Justice Department survey found.

The S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice’s point man on the issue was out of town Friday, and agency officials said no one was available to discuss the survey.

But DJJ General Counsel Larry Vanderbilt recently told ProPublica that a large part of the state’s ranking for staff abuse can be attributed to one guard at the department’s Birchwood juvenile detention center in Columbia. He told ProPublica the guard had been linked to at least two incidents of sex abuse and is now being prosecuted.

Birchwood and the John G. Richards facility, also in Columbia, were among the facilities with the highest rates of sexual misconduct in the survey.

Overall, nearly 10 percent of youth held in state juvenile facilities around the nation reported being sexually assaulted by staff members or other youth in 2012.

Nearly 8 percent of the 8,700 boys and girls surveyed reported being victimized by staff, and 3.5 percent reported having sex or sexual contact with a staff member as a result of force, the survey found. Some 20 percent of those victimized reported being assaulted by staff on more than one occasion.

“It’s deeply troubling that staff — the very people charged with helping these young people turn their lives around — are the primary perpetrators of sexual abuse,” said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Los Angeles-based Just Detention International. “Today’s report illustrates the fundamental failure of many juvenile detention facilities to keep their youth safe, and to demand that staff uphold the most basic standards of professional behavior.”

The four states with high rates of youth sexual victimization — rates that exceeded 15 percent — were South Carolina, Ohio, Georgia and Illinois, the survey found. Three states — Delaware, Massachusetts and New York — and the District of Columbia had no reported incidents of sexual victimization.

The survey was conducted between February and September 2012 in 273 state-owned or -operated juvenile facilities and 53 locally or privately operated facilities that held youth offenders under state contract. The survey limited reporting by youth to incidents occurring in the last 12 months or since their admission to the facility, if less than 12 months.

The survey was mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.