OYA is continuing to get inquiries about the federal sexual victimization survey, which shows Oak Creek and Rogue Valley with a higher-than-average frequency of allegations.
I wanted to provide an update on actions we are taking in response to the survey.
First, however, I want to say how much I appreciate the work OYA staff do every day to keep the youth in our care safe. We know that it’s a commitment to the positive development of youth that keeps our teams engaged in this often difficult work. Allowing any youth to be at risk of harm is antithetical to that commitment and our culture.
Dedicated to Youth Safety
OYA has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse and sexual harassment. Keeping youth safe is our most important job, and we do a lot to prevent and respond to allegations of sexual abuse:
- We educate youth regularly on the importance of reporting and how to report. All youth receive a safety handbook that they review with staff.
- If an incident occurs, youth can make confidential reports to living unit staff, mental health workers, or medical personnel. They can call our dedicated phone line for reporting abuse. We also post phone numbers for community-based sexual assault advocacy groups in all our facilities.
- Our Professional Standards Office investigates every report of abuse and also reports them to law enforcement.
- We have staff dedicated to ensuring our compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). That means complying with a comprehensive set of national standards designed to keep youth safe in secure facilities. Federal auditors regularly visit and evaluate our facilities.
- We have 24/7 camera coverage throughout our facilities in areas we have identified where youth regularly have access – and we’ve added or upgraded more than 1,000 cameras across the system in the past five years.
- Every OYA facility has a Sexual Assault Resource and Response Team (SARRT) tasked with preventing, detecting, and responding to youth sexual abuse allegations and incidents.
You can find this information and more about our efforts to keep youth safe from abuse in this story titled “Preventing and Responding to Sexual Abuse.
Clarifying the Federal Data
It’s always good to have an outside review of our efforts, and the federal survey data is sobering. That said, we have asked the feds to provide more information, so we can determine exactly what the data mean.
The report indicates that they collected a lot of data from the youth about the nature of their incidents, including whether the allegations refer to staff or other youth. So far, however, they have not shared that data with us. We’re looking to obtain more of those specifics to help us determine how to respond.
Re-Examining Our Data on Abuse
Both Oak Creek and Rogue Valley placed above the national average of sexual victimization in the federal survey. However, the federal data is inconsistent with some of our own data, particularly from our national Performance-Based Standards (PbS) surveys.
Every year, as part of our compliance with PREA, we collect and publish information on allegations of abuse made by youth in secure custody.
In 2017, the year covered by the federal survey, our PREA data shows six allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct at Oak Creek and two allegations at Rogue Valley. Each allegation was fully investigated, and only five were substantiated — four at Oak Creek and one at Rogue Valley. All of the substantiated instances involved youth touching or grabbing each other over their clothes, and we addressed the behavior in all cases.
The data we have from national PbS surveys show a much lower frequency of sexual incidents than the federal survey indicates. We administer this anonymous survey twice a year in our facilities, along with about 46 other juvenile justice agencies in 36 states. Questions on youth safety and sexual victimization are included.
- The past five years of PbS data show a strong feeling of safety among the youth at Oak Creek and a rate of sexual victimization that is below (and often well below) the national average of 7.1% reported in the federal survey.
- PbS data from Rogue Valley for the past five years also show a rate of sexual victimization below the national average of 7.1%. (The only exception was April 2017, when the rate reached 9.85%.)
It’s difficult to say why our PREA data and PbS data show different results from the federal survey. Since we collect the PREA data every year and the PbS data every six months, we have a lot more information than the single data point represented by the federal survey. However, the discrepancy is concerning and needs to be addressed.
Our Plan Going Forward
Our current plan is to take two additional steps:
- We will hold additional forums with youth at all facilities. We want to ensure they understand what abuse is, why it’s important to report it, and the many ways they can report concerns confidentially. We also want to try to identify any barriers to reporting.
- We have asked our internal auditor to perform an objective, independent review of the way we collect data for PREA and PbS, and how that data ties to our agency performance measures. We particularly want to make sure that youth know their answers to the PbS survey are anonymous, so we have confidence in the data.
Testifying at the Legislature
We have been asked to testify before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees of the Oregon Legislature next Wednesday, Jan. 15. We will give members information about how we work to prevent and respond to allegations of sexual abuse.
We welcome the opportunity to share the information we’ve provided here about our work and our plans going forward.
No Number of Sexual Assaults is Acceptable
Keeping youth safe in healthy environments is our agency’s most fundamental responsibility. No number of sexual assault incidents is acceptable.
OYA staff are dedicated to keeping young people safe and helping them grow and develop in a supportive environment. At the same time, none of us want to become complacent. We must remain vigilant and continue to ask ourselves how we can strive to do better. This is an opportunity to do just that.