Lawsuit alleges sexual abuse was rampant in state-run juvenile detention centers

Lawsuit alleges sexual abuse was rampant in state-run juvenile detention centers

By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
[email protected]

Rampant sexual abuse occurred unchecked for decades at Illinois’ juvenile detention centers, a new lawsuit filed on behalf of 95 former detainees alleges, citing hundreds of incidents over more than two decades.

The plaintiffs were boys between 12 and 17 years old when the alleged abuse occurred and are now adults. The alleged perpetrators were both men and women working in the facilities.

Though the allegations outlined in the suit, filed in the Illinois Court of Claims on Monday, only run through 2017, the filing claims that “sexual abuse of children at Illinois’ juvenile detention facilities continues to this day.”

A spokesperson for IDJJ said the agency is “unable to comment on active litigation” but “takes seriously the safety of youth in the care of the Department.”

“All allegations of staff misconduct are immediately and thoroughly investigated in partnership with the Department of Corrections, the Illinois State Police and the Department of Children and Family Services,” IDJJ spokesperson Dominique Newman said in a statement.

She added that all staff within the facilities undergo background checks and training, and that the agency has enacted policies and protocols to “identify any possible instances of abuse or misconduct.”

The New York City-based personal injury firm behind the case has also filed similar suits recently in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, alleging sexual abuse of children in detention facilities.

Monday’s lawsuit cites a 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Justice surveying detainees about sexual assault in juvenile detention centers nationwide. That report found that Illinois had the fourth-highest percentage of detainees within IDJJ – 13.7 percent – reporting one or more incidents of staff sexual misconduct the previous year.

The complaint pointed out that figure was roughly 35 percent higher than the national average.

Sexual abuse was particularly egregious in the Joliet detention center, according to the DOJ report. That facility, which closed in 2013, consistently ranked among the facilities with the most sexual abuse, including by use of force. Many of the incidents alleged in the lawsuit took place in the Joliet facility, though abuse allegedly occurred in all nine of the centers that were open during the timeline outlined in the suit.

The most recent DOJ report on the same subject, published in 2023, did not break down sexual victimization incidents within juvenile detention centers by state or facility.

“The State of Illinois has allowed a culture of abuse at (Illinois Youth Centers) to flourish unabated,” the complaint alleged, comparing earlier DOJ data to the 2013 report and concluding sexual victimization at three facilities had increased from 2009 to 2012.

The rate of sexual victimization by staff in the Kewanee facility more than doubled during that time period from 5.7 percent to 12 percent, according to the DOJ data. Monday’s lawsuit noted that the Kewanee facility closed in 2016, and that its “chronic understaffing…was particularly dangerous for the large portion of Kewanee’s population suffering from acute mental illness.”

Five IDJJ facilities remain open in Chicago, St. Charles, Warrenville, Harrisburg and Grafton. In 2020, Gov. JB Pritzker announced a plan to overhaul the agency, eventually planning to close the state’s large juvenile detention centers. But so far, all five facilities remain open.

Read more: Pritzker administration unveils overhaul of juvenile justice system

According to paragraph 109 of the lawsuit, some of the 95 plaintiffs who’ve signed onto the complaint – mostly with pseudonyms – alleged “severe abuse by the same abuser,” including a former supervisor at the facility in Harrisburg who also serves as mayor in a nearby town. Other frequent abusers, the lawsuit alleges, include a chaplain at the facility in St. Charles.

One plaintiff, identified only by the initials “K.J.,” claims he was abused by “dozens” of correctional officers and sergeants at five different facilities he lived in between 2000 and 2004.

K.J. was 13 when he first experienced sexual abuse at the facilities, which the lawsuit alleges continued until he was 17. The abuse ranged from strip searches where he was allegedly fondled, penetrated with a finger and forced to give and receive oral sex at the St. Charles facility, to an instance of gang rape at the Joliet facility.

At the Kewanee facility, the suit alleges, K.J. “was strip searched daily without suspicion, which provided a false guise under which K.J. abusers then sexually abused him and his cellmate.”

“This sex abuse happened under the threat of physical beatings,” according to the filing.

Another former IDJJ detainee, referred to in the suit as “A.B.,” was 14 when he was allegedly abused at the St. Charles facility between 1998 and 1999. According to the lawsuit, A.B. had two abusers who forced him to administer oral sex and receive anal penetration.

Both were correctional officers who allegedly punished A.B. for protesting his sexual abuse by revoking yard time and phone privileges – or otherwise forced him to stay in his cell if he refused to comply.

When he did comply, the suit alleges A.B. was rewarded with extra recreation time.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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