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Sexual Abuse In Youth Detention Facilities

A class-action lawsuit filed Saturday alleges that staff at a New Hampshire youth detention center subjected children to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

Dozens of men and women who were held at a New Hampshire youth detention facility as children are alleging, in a class-action lawsuit filed Saturday, that they experienced physical, sexual, and emotional abuse while they were incarcerated at the facility. The lead plaintiff, David Meehan, has said he was repeatedly raped by two men who worked as counselors at the detention center when he was incarcerated there in the late 1990s. Meehan’s allegations have also formed the basis of criminal charges against the two men who were indicted in July. The 35 other plaintiffs who have joined in the lawsuit say they were abused by staff between 1982 and 2014.

The lawsuit names the two men, four other individuals who worked at the detention center, the state of New Hampshire, the Sununu Youth Services Center (formerly the Youth Detention Center or YDC), and the agencies responsible for it as defendants. The complaint states that the lawsuit seeks to hold accountable both the individuals who are alleged to have abused the children as well as the state and other entities which, “through their systemic failure to promulgate any policies, procedures, rules, and regulations as required by legislative mandate … caused or contributed to decades of physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental/emotional abuse, solitary confinement, and deprivation of education of hundreds of children.” It alleges that “individuals deliberately intimidated and manipulated these children into believing that they had no recourse and that no one would believe them. Even when these children, sporting black eyes, swollen faces, and bleeding genitals, sought help from YDC staff, they were informed that they were mistaken and that the abuse had not occurred.”

Meehan was 14 years old when he was sent to the youth detention center. He started running away from home when he was in the fifth grade and was periodically homeless. While he was homeless, the complaint says, he “committed a number of burglaries in order to acquire the means to obtain food and shelter,” and was repeatedly arrested. Two months before he was sent to the facility, in October 1995, while being transported from a different detention center to court, he met another boy who had been at YDC who told him he had been raped. Both boys escaped and were on the run for two weeks before they were rearrested. In December 1995 he was sent to the youth detention center. The judge who ordered his commitment said he should “have individualized counseling as soon as practicable.”

About a year later, Meehan alleges, he was raped by a staff member for the first time. Another guard stood watch while it happened.

What followed over the next two years of Meehan’s incarceration, until he turned 18, were multiple attempted escapes, repeated punishment in the form of near-complete isolation (“room confinement”), and dozens of rapes, by two counselors on staff, both on and off the premises of the facility. He alleges he was forced to break up with his girlfriend before the first time one of the staff members raped him, that he was forced to witness the rape of a female friend by one of the men, and that he was raped at gunpoint.

The allegations in the complaint describe a system in which multiple abuses set the stage for the rapes that Meehan says he endured. He is described as being placed in room confinement for up to 10 days at a time on multiple occasions, allowed out for only 15 minutes in a 24-hour period, denied access to the classroom or to any educational materials. (The final allegation of the complaint is how the state violated the plaintiffs’ right to an education.)

Sexual abuse of incarcerated children, including by staff, is widespread and has been repeatedly documented. A 2018 report issued last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that over 7 percent of incarcerated children reported being sexually abused in the previous year. This was down from close to 10 percent in 2012. This was the bureau’s third such survey of incarcerated children. Lovisa Stannow of Just Detention International noted the progress documented in the report but also pointed out that “as the report makes clear, this violence remains commonplace in youth facilities across the U.S.” Furthermore, the rates of reported sexual abuse are far higher in some states, including Texas and Florida, and in certain facilities.

Last month, the Daily Appeal looked at the reports of sexual assault by guards at the Chittenden Women’s Facility in Vermont. Following reporting by Seven Days, Sarah George, the Chittenden County chief prosecutor, expressed her outrage at the abuse and her concern about the women who remained incarcerated there, whom she described as her constituents.  George pledged to review the cases of the women at the prison who had been prosecuted by her office. She ended up taking steps to make four women eligible for release and, as of mid-December, told Seven Days that she was working on cases involving five other women.

Is decarceration the necessary response to abuse in the juvenile system, the site of so much violence against children entrusted to it? Across the country, advocates are pushing for the closure of youth detention centers and an investment in the systems that support children in their homes and communities. The New Hampshire lawsuit is a reminder of how the incarceration of children has constituted and continues to constitute a threat to their safety, their well-being, and their ability to go on to have safe and healthy lives. In a report released late last year, the Prison Policy Initiative looked at the 60 percent reduction in youth incarceration since 2000, celebrating that progress while noting that more can and must be done to release many of the remaining 48,000 youth who are in custody.

In New Hampshire, the Sununu Youth Services Center’s daily population has fallen significantly in recent years to below 30 from over 100, according to reporting by the Associated Press. For some, the population drop is evidence the facility should be shut down. But the state recently chose another route, reconfiguring a section of the facility as a youth substance use treatment center. The center, which was vigorously opposed by many advocates as an unnecessary, unproductive investment in a facility that should instead be shut down, has not been a success. At least two teenagers sent there overdosed in recent months.

New Hampshire’s Office of the Child Advocate released a report this month that found “more than 20,000 incidents of children being restrained or secluded in the state’s residential facilities during a recent five-year period, with 15,544 of them involving restraints,” including at the Youth Services Center, reported Manchester Link. This included the use of prone, or face-down, restraints, banned in many states. The Office of the Child Advocate was itself created in response to the deaths of children in custody in 2014 and 2015.