Nationwide study finds high ‘sexual victimization’ in Ohio, Dems and DeWine ask for more data

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A recent study of self-reporting sexual abuse in the country’s juvenile corrections facilities yielded criticism of Ohio’s prison system and a call for more information.

The United State Department of Justice recently released a survey on sexual victimization reported by youth in juvenile facilities for the year 2018.

The report highlights a nationwide decline in youth reports of sexual victimization from 9.5% in 2012 to 7.1% in 2018, but also found 5.8% of youth participating in the survey reported sexual misconduct by facility staff and 1.9% reported misconduct by another youth inmate.

The Circleville Juvenile Correction Facility is specifically noted as a facility with high rates of sexual victimization, with 54 inmates responding to the survey, and 16% reporting sexual victimization. Circleville’s facility required parental or guardian consent to participate in the survey, which was also the case for several other facilities across the country.

Overall, Ohio was listed as “the only state that met the statistical standard of having a high juvenile sexual-victimization rate,” according to the study.

In a letter to Ryan Gies, director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services, the Ohio Senate Democratic Caucus said an “optimistic portrait” painted during a Correctional Institution Inspection Committee hearing did not match findings of the Department of Justice report.

“This report revealed alarming information about the rate of Ohio youth inmates who have experienced sexual victimization at our facilities,” the letter, signed by all nine Democratic Ohio senators, stated.

The caucus has requested more information from DYS about the juvenile facilities, including reports of physical and sexual violence.

Dr. Nicole Kaufman, an assistant professor within the Center for Law, Justice and Culture at Ohio University where she focuses on criminology and prison systems, said Ohio has made some strides in reforming juvenile prison, but the study shows some concerning things.

The survey could also have been done in a different way. Kaufman said no matter what type of change the data shows, a change in reports of victimization or the rate at which it occurs “should be taken with caution.” 

High reporting can reflect on the atmosphere for reporting rather than the number of incidents, just as low reporting can mean inmates don’t feel comfortable reporting.

The survey notes the response rate for most states was low enough to cause limited representation in some states. Wyoming, for example, had no reported incidents of sexual misconduct in the survey, but was also one of the states with “relatively small numbers of participating youth,” the study stated.

“There is a strong incentive for anyone in custody not to report sexual abuse or assault in prison, whether on a survey or via another complaint to a staff member,” Kaufman said. “This disincentive to report is particularly high when people know that reports that are subsequently investigated are often discredited as unfounded — especially when the assailant is a staff member.”

The survey sample is also notable, according to Kaufman, with only some juveniles getting surveyed instead of the entire population.

“There could be egregious cases that are not reflected in the results, but the goal is to understand a pattern across many people,” Kaufman said.

DYS said in a statement that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has asked for a “more timely and comprehensive survey to provide additional insight into the nature of any sexual activity happening at our facilities,” including whether there are unreported incidents within the facilities.

“We continue to extend an open invitation to legislators to tour our facilities and speak with youth and staff,” Jill Craig, communications chief for DYS, said in the statement. “We operate safe and secure facilities, and we continue to work to improve issues of safety and security for youth.”

For Kaufman, one of the main issues at hand is the use of the prison system as a strategy to discipline juveniles.

“Treating youth in the community and not in facilities is a major strategy to avoid sexual assault and other forms of maltreatment of youth in custody,” Kaufman said. “Diverting youth from juvenile and adult prisons is crucial from the standpoint of reducing the harm done to kids.”