Juvenile inmates report sex acts

State disputes study's findings

Staff WriterJanuary 9, 2010 

— Nearly one third of the girls at a state-run juvenile detention facility in Moore County reported that they had engaged in sexual acts with adult staff members, according to a federal survey conducted in late 2008.

The survey results, made public Thursday by the U.S. Justice Department as part of a nationwide study, listed North Carolina's Samarkand Youth Development Center in Eagle Springs as having among the highest rates of self-reported sexual victimization among similar facilities across the country.

State facilities in Kinston and near Asheville also had high rates of juveniles who reported being sexually assaulted by staff, other youths, or both.

Linda W. Hayes, secretary of the state Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said in a written statement Friday that the agency had serious concerns about the validity of the survey's methods.

Anonymous data taken from youths with histories of serious behavioral problems is unreliable, the agency's response said. Further, there has been a pattern of false claims of sexual abuse among girls at the Samarkand Center, a 36-bed facility for females.

"The safety and security of all youths and staff in our institutions is the top priority for the department," Hayes said. "Both in the past as well as going forward, we have zero tolerance for any level of mistreatment of juveniles within our care. Any number above zero is unacceptable."

Allen Beck, senior statistical adviser at the U.S. Justice Department, said the same reporting standards were used at all 195 facilities surveyed across the country between June 2008 through April 2009. Male and female participants completed a series of questions on a computer while a federal surveyor sat nearby without looking at the screen, an effort to ensure the anonymity of the responses.

Can you trust results?

The percentage of girls saying they had been victimized by Samarkand's staff was nearly three times the national average. Beck doubted that youths in North Carolina were statistically more likely to lie than in other states.

"Even if only half the girls there are telling the truth, which I'm not willing to concede, then they still have a serious problem," he said of Samarkand.

The federal surveyors visited five of the of the state's nine youth development centers, which provide mentoring, educational programs and therapy for juveniles convicted of crimes.

One quarter of those surveyed at Swannanoa Valley Youth Detention Facility, a 48-bed facility outside Asheville, reported that they had been victimized. At Dobbs Youth Development Center, a 43-bed facility in Kinston, nearly 1 in 5 reported improper sexual activity.

William Lassiter, spokesman for the state juvenile justice department, said the agency routinely conducts its own surveys and that those reports come nowhere close to the level of abuse found in the federal study.

A locked box is also available at every facility where youths can deposit complaints, he said. Only the facility directors have keys to the boxes. When allegations of mistreatment are received, Lassiter said, they are promptly investigated by social services officials in the counties where the state facilities are. If those allegations are deemed credible, law enforcement officers are called in to investigate further.

The News & Observer requested records Friday showing the number of allegations the department had received during the past five years, as well as the number investigated and the number of complaints verified. Lassiter said that information could not be compiled and made available until next week.

Lassiter also criticized the federal agency for not releasing the data to the state until Tuesday, only two days before the study was released to the public, and more than a year after the surveys were conducted in North Carolina.

"Our expectation was that if someone said they were sexually assaulted, it would immediately be reported to us so that we could ask [local social services] to investigate," Lassiter said.

Beck, the study's lead author, said compiling and evaluating the national survey data took months. The results were released to North Carolina officials at the same time as everyone else, he said.

He was not surprised that the study found higher numbers of reported incidents than the state had found in its internal reviews. If a juvenile is being abused by a staff member, that person might be hesitant to speak up for fear of retaliation.

Though Beck had not seen the state's internal surveys, he said most agencies used written questionnaires that asked only whether juveniles had been sexually assaulted. The federal survey was broader, he said.

In a 30-minute session, survey respondents were asked questions not only about forcible rape, but other types of improper activity. As an example, he said, youths can be persuaded to expose themselves or perform sex acts through offers of preferential treatment or drugs or alcohol.

The survey asked follow-up questions to glean more detail. The federal surveyors then threw out responses from those who gave inconsistent answers or who made claims that strained the bounds of credibility, thereby increasing its statistical reliability, Beck said.

Beck said North Carolina officials should take the results seriously.

"Numbers like these should get their attention," he said.

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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