Lawsuit Claims Widespread Sex Abuse at Illinois Youth Detention Centers


A lawsuit filed on Monday accused Illinois of allowing state workers to systematically abuse juvenile prisoners for decades, the latest in a series of legal cases across the country to assert that youth correctional facilities had long failed to prevent pervasive sexual misconduct by employees.

The Illinois lawsuit, filed in the State Court of Claims by more than 90 former juvenile inmates, described guards sexually abusing teenagers in their cells and staff members using strip searches as opportunities to commit assaults. When other employees witnessed or learned about abuse, the lawsuit said, they often did nothing to stop it.

“The systems are broken,” said Todd Mathews, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who described the lawsuit as a way to “demand justice for every soul scarred by the system’s negligence.”

The Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, which was named in the lawsuit, released a statement on Monday saying it “takes seriously the safety of youth in the care of the department.” It said that all allegations of misconduct were investigated but that the department would not comment on active litigation.

The department “has enacted policies and protocols to ensure the safety of youth and staff and identify any possible instances of abuse or misconduct,” the statement said. “I.D.J.J. protocols comply with both state and federal safety standards and I.D.J.J. completes ongoing policy and protocol evaluations.” All staff members working in the department, the statement added, “undergo background checks and training, along with participating in ongoing professional development.”

The Illinois Department of Corrections was also named in the suit. An official at that agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeffery Christian, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he had been abused at two Illinois youth detention centers where he was held as a teenager. At one, he said, a guard forcibly masturbated him repeatedly when he was 13 or 14. At another, he said, a counselor made repeated sexual comments toward him.

“I want to shed light on what’s going on,” said Mr. Christian, who is now 36 and works in transportation, and who agreed to being named in this article. “I want justice in any form I can get it.”

Lawyers said they hoped the lawsuit would lead to financial compensation for plaintiffs who, years later, remain shaken by the abuse they endured. They also said they hoped the state would agree to implement sweeping changes in its juvenile justice system. The lawsuit claimed that state agencies did not properly supervise, investigate or discipline employees who engaged in abuse.

The lawsuit in Illinois is part of a national wave of litigation. Last week, in cases involving some of the same lawyers, about 150 people sued New York City for abuse they said they had endured while in the city’s custody as minors. Other lawsuits claiming rampant sexual abuse at juvenile detention centers have been filed in California, Maryland and New Jersey, according to media accounts.

The Illinois lawsuit includes detailed claims of sexual abuse that the plaintiffs, who are now adults, say occurred between the 1990s and the 2010s. The allegations involve youth detention centers across the state and were made against workers, both male and female, in a range of jobs. Lawyers involved in the case said they hoped the lawsuit could lead to criminal investigations and charges.

“Our clients more than anything want the sexual abuse in juvenile detention centers to stop,” said one of their lawyers, Jerome Block. He said the plaintiffs “want children not to go through what they went through.”

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