It’s too soon to speculate about what motivated the kids to escape. But while we await details, now is the perfect time to recount the troubling history of staff sexually abusing children in facilities like Woodland Hills. That’s not to suggest that misconduct is what motivated the kids to flee—we don’t know if it even played a role. Woodland Hills does, though, have a well-documented record of alleged sexual misconduct. This sort of abuse happens outside the country’s field of vision, behind fences and closed doors, where authorities can too easily brush aside allegations from troubled youth. That’s all the more reason to give the abuse a fuller accounting whenever news from a facility like Woodland Hills spills over (or in this case, under) its walls.
So, what has been going on at Woodland Hills? A 2010 investigation by theTennessean found a series of allegations that had gone largely uninvestigated and unpunished by authorities. One of the facilities’ kitchen employees, the newspaper discovered, had reportedly given a 17-year-old boy chlamydia, and later lived with a different male juvenile who she had been accused of abusing while he was in the facility. The woman was cleared in four separate state investigations despite failing a lie detector test. She was ultimately convicted only after she turned herself in to police. In another case uncovered by the paper, a different female guard went on to marry a former inmate after he was released from the facility. The woman kept her job even after her marriage came to light.
Such incidents are sadly common inside our juvenile justice system. In themost recent federal survey of detained juveniles, nearly 8 percent of respondents reported being sexually victimized by a staff member at least once in the previous 12 months. For those who reported being abused, two things proved overwhelmingly true, as they were in Woodland Hills: They were teenage boys, and their alleged assailants were female employees tasked with looking out for their well-being. Nine in 10 of those who reported being victimized were males reporting incidents with female staff. Women, meanwhile, typically make up less than half of a juvenile facility’s staff.