By Fanna Haile-Selassie and Randy Livingston
A national report says Illinois has one of the highest rates for sexual abuse of juvenile offenders. The U.S. Department of Justice released its annual report last week. Fifteen percent of juvenile inmates say they were sexually victimized last year, while locked-up in a state youth center.
On a national level, the rate of inmate sexual abuse has actually gone down in the last five years, dropping to 9.5 percent. But Illinois' rate is much higher. The recently closed IYC Joliet was the top offender in the state, with IYC Harrisburg coming in second.
Hundreds of teens have made an Illinois Youth Center their home in 2012. It's where young offenders serve their time, as the state attempts to change their perspective on crime. But according to the U.S. Department of Justice, what goes on behind these locked doors is not always on the straight and narrow.
Illinois is one of the top five states in the country with the highest rates on juvenile sexual abuse, nearly twice as high as the national average.
"I think this a crisis that I hope will propel us as a state to put in place a inspector general for the department of juvenile justice," says Elizabeth Clarke, the director of the Juvenile Justice Initiative.
The Juvenile Justice Initiative is an organization that advocates for imprisoned youth. Clarke says there's no place for inmates to complain of harassment.
"The children need a channel to report abuse that's independent of the people running the facilities and running the agency," she says.
According to the report, IYCs Joliet and Harrisburg were the worst. Twenty percent of the youth in Joliet report sexual misconduct by staff and nearly 15 percent in Harrisburg.
"Whether it's one youth or 300 youth, we take this very seriously," explains Arthur Bishop, Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice Director.
Bishop says the report comes as a surprise, since the department has a zero tolerance policy.
"We have immediately reached out and made contact with some prominent experts that are going to come in, evaluate. And they are not going to sit at a desk and make phone calls," explains Bishop. "They are going to be hands-on, go into our facilities, interview staff, interview youth."
He will not say who the experts are, but says they will help form a safer and more therapeutic system for Illinois' troubled youth.
Starting on Monday, Bishop says the DJJ has implemented a new 24-hour hotline for juvenile inmates to report abuse. Officials are also looking at creating youth councils and advisory groups with the youth centers.