Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

"Sentenced to Abuse": Problems of Juvenile Corrections Facilities

Both sexual and physical abuse are problems of juvenile corrections facilities.

An editorial in the New York Times ("Sentenced to Abuse". Jan. 15, 2010, p. A20) decries the apparent frequency of sexual abuse in juvenile corrections facilities in the United States. A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 12% of thousands of surveyed juveniles in custody had reported being sexually abused; very significantly, in most cases the abusers were staff members. The Times reported that a federal commission has suggested a number of policy changes intended to prevent such abuse. These included better screening and training for staff.

This editorial provides an important context for considering the victims of the corrupt Luzerne County judges in Pennsylvania, who received kickbacks when they sent children to privately-run juvenile facilities. A sentence of the kind seen in Luzerne County may do a great deal more harm than simply inappropriately taking a child away from home and normal life. Even a sentence that appears appropriate can expose a juvenile to trauma that cannot be expected to improve attitude or behavior.

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Although most readers will be more shocked by sexual abuse than by other maltreatment, the fact is that other serious forms of abuse are probably more common than rape in juvenile corrections facilities. This is particularly true in privately-run facilities, where systematic abuse may be intended as part of a treatment plan. Facilities connected with the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools have been reported to use systematic abuse in attempts to alter juveniles' behavior (see ). For example such facilities have been reported to withhold or limit food, to limit the use of toilets, to restrain inmates physically, and to deny medical care. Parents, who are the teenager's natural advocates, do not report these practices to authorities either because they agree that they are appropriate or because they are unaware of the practices (especially possible if the facility is outside the U.S.).

Why would anyone believe that the experience of abusive treatment would improve attitudes or behavior? There are several factors behind this belief system, and not all of them may influence a particular practitioner or program.

One factor is the assumption made by some religious groups that submission to authority is essential to salvation-- that a child who does not comply with parental or other adult authority will also disobey God and suffer damnation. In the Colonial and early Federal periods, American Protestants emphasized this view and stressed that obedience must be "exact, prompt, and cheerful" (as Philip Slater put the matter in a 1970 doctoral dissertation). Some modern religious groups agree; for example, Michael and Debi Pearl ( ) have suggested that whipping with plumbing supply line is an appropriate way to create obedience even in infants.

A second factor that can lead to systematically abusive treatment is a commitment to "brainwashing" methods adapted from those used during World War II, the Korean War, and other conflicts civil and military. These methods combine wearing down of the individual by exhaustion, hunger, pain, fear, and humiliation, with the development of a complete dependency on an authority figure, who is seen as the only source of comfort. Normal social ties and feelings of responsibility toward others fade as the authority figure becomes the center of a victim's emotional world. When corrections staff accept the idea that the juvenile's compliance is the essential goal, and that its achievement will improve an otherwise dangerous life trajectory, they become willing to use abusive methods that would be repugnant to most people. (In saying this, of course, I am ignoring the possibility that poorly-screened corrections staff may have their own personal motivations for abusing other human beings.)

A third factor in systematically abusive treatment may be the influence of a number of authors who have stressed a view of emotional development as centering around devotion to an authority figure, a devotion which they incorrectly equate with emotional attachment as described by John Bowlby. One of these authors, Foster Cline, has in fact claimed that "all bonds are trauma bonds" and has suggested that treatment for mentally ill or delinquent children must be based on painful experiences that convince the child of the rightness of complete submission and obedience ("Hope for High Risk and Rage Filled Children", 1992). This group of authors has considered obedience and "good behavior" to be dependent on emotional attachment, and attachment to be dependent on the experience of absolute authority, to be achieved through arbitrary manipulation of physical and emotional needs and through physical restraint. This factor may have been at work in reported deaths of young people in wilderness programs following restraint in the prone position.

The assessment of sexual abuse in juvenile corrections facilities is of course of high priority. However, it would be appropriate to follow this by examination of both public and private facilities in which systematic physical abuse is used because of the belief that it will create positive changes in young people's attitudes and behavior.



Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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