[Editor’s Note: The following message was sent to OYA staff on July 2, 2020.]
This week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released supplemental information about the federal sexual victimization survey it published in December 2019. As you may recall, the report showed that Oak Creek and Rogue Valley had a higher-than-average frequency of allegations.
In short, the data shows that most of the incidents Oak Creek youth reported in the federal survey involved other youth, although three involved staff. Rogue Valley was not included in the new data released this week. You can learn more below about the new data, as well as the actions we are taking in response to the survey.
First, however, we want to say that no number of sexual victimization incidents are acceptable. Keeping youth safe is our most basic responsibility. We appreciate the work you all do every day to make that happen. We know that it’s your commitment to the positive development of youth that keeps you engaged in this 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. We do a lot to prevent and respond to allegations of sexual abuse, including:
- 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. Youth can submit grievances or write to the governor’s office. 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 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. 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.
The Federal Survey
- The December 2019 report from BJS, “Sexual Victimization Reported by Youth in Juvenile Facilities, 2018”, indicated that Oak Creek and Rogue Valley youth correctional facilities placed above the national average of sexual victimization. Youth at these facilities were surveyed in 2018 and asked about incidents that occurred in 2017.
- According to the report, 14.3% of the 42 youth surveyed at Oak Creek – about six youth — reported sexual victimization for 2017. At Rogue Valley, 10.3% of the 58 youth surveyed – again, about 6 youth — reported sexual victimization. The national average was 7.1%.
- The report concerned us because we do a great deal to prevent and respond to allegations of abuse and victimization.
- The survey report did not provide any context for the data, including whether the reported incidents were youth-on-youth or staff-on-youth. We wrote to BJS in March formally requesting this information but received no reply.
Additional Data Released
- On June 30, BJS finally released supplemental tables for the facilities it classified as having a high rate of sexual victimization. The tables include data on Oak Creek, but not Rogue Valley.
- The new data tables showed that about 9.5% of youth at Oak Creek (or about 4 youth out of 42 surveyed) reported youth-on-youth victimization.
- That matched our own data closely. The survey was done in May 2018 and covered the 12 months prior. During that period, our Professional Standards Office investigated three incidents of youth-on-youth sexual abuse, two of which were substantiated. Both involved youth touching another youth over their clothes, and the behavior was addressed.
- The new tables also showed that about 7.1% of youth at Oak Creek (or about 3 out of 42 youth surveyed) reported staff-on-youth sexual misconduct. Further, they showed 2.4% (or about one youth) reported force or coercion was used; 4.8% (or about two youth) reported incidents without force or coercion.
- We were not previously aware of all of these incidents. During the period covered by the survey, the Professional Standards Office received no reports from Oak Creek regarding staff-on-youth incidents. However, during calendar year 2017, one youth reported that a staff person was staring at them in the shower. The investigation found this allegation to be unfounded.
When we learn of an allegation of sexual abuse or victimization, we act on it immediately. In these cases, we were not made aware of them, and therefore could not investigate. However, we have enhanced our efforts to make sure youth are regularly educated on the importance of reporting and how to do so confidentially; and work to get accurate information about prevalence of abuse in our facilities.
We will also offer to work with BJS to ensure that, in future surveys, we are informed of significant incidents in a timely manner.
Actions We Have Taken
- In March 2020, agency leaders followed up with youth who were living at Oak Creek, Rogue Valley, and the Young Women’s Transition Program (YWTP) at the time of the federal survey in May 2018. The goal was to offer an additional, safe opportunity for youth to report incidents of abuse they might not have reported previously. We did not learn of any incidents that had not already been investigated.
- We held youth forums and community groups at all our facilities to ensure youth were aware of the multiple ways to report abuse confidentially, and to seek their feedback on barriers to reporting. (One living unit at MacLaren had its forum postponed in the aftermath of a serious but unrelated incident.)
- Based on feedback collected from youth at the forums, we:
- Developed a plan to ensure youth receive follow-up training at least twice a year and possibly quarterly on the importance of reporting abuse and how to report it confidentially. (This frequency would be in excess of PREA requirements.) The head of facility operations has begun sending regular email notifications to staff reminding and directing them to review these topics with youth and staff.
- Extensively redesigned the youth safety guide that is given to all youth entering our facilities to make its look and images more authentic and credible for youth. It also now includes additional ways to make confidential reports.
- Denessa Martin, the head of operations for Facility Services, will join the staff of the Professional Standards Office in training new facility employees on reporting abuse.
- We asked our internal auditor to perform an objective, independent review of the way we collect data for PREA and Performance-based Standards (PbS). The PbS initiative includes a twice-yearly national survey of youth in secure settings, including questions on sexual victimization and their perception of safety in the facility. We wanted to make sure that youth know their answers to the PbS survey are anonymous, so we could have confidence in the data.
- The auditor collected all allegations of abuse or victimization reported to and investigated by OYA’s Professional Standards Office; internal “youth incident reports” (YIRs) with a “sexual behavior” code; reports from the PbS initiative; interviews with PbS coordinators at MacLaren, Oak Creek, Rogue Valley, and Tillamook youth correctional facilities; and files from Human Resources to determine if disciplinary action was taken when allegations of abuse by staff were substantiated.
- The auditor also attended youth forums at Oak Creek, Rogue Valley and Young Women’s Transition Program (YWTP). Her goal was to get youths’ perspectives on the grievance process, the way PbS surveys were administered, and OYA’s processes for reporting and responding to reports of abuse and victimization.
- Travel restrictions due to the pandemic have limited her ability to continue face-to-face meetings with youth and those who collect PbS data. Also, PbS data collection, which usually occurs in April and October, was cancelled for April due to the pandemic. PREA audits of OYA facilities in 2020 were postponed until 2021.
No Number of Sexual Assaults is Acceptable
It can’t be overstated that keeping youth safe in healthy environments is OYA’s most fundamental responsibility. As we’ve said before, no number of sexual assault incidents is acceptable.
The new data tell us that we must do more to protect the youth in our care. We have to make it easier for youth to report incidents of abuse. And we need to take a serious look at whether the PbS survey is giving us accurate information about youth safety.
News like this can be discouraging. We know you and your co-workers are committed to keeping the young people in our care safe. We also know you want to see them grow and develop in a supportive environment.
At the same time, the federal survey is a stern reminder that the stakes are high, and that we can always find ways to improve.
Thank you again for your work. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call.
Oregon Youth Authority
Oregon Youth Authority