ANCHORAGE - Fifteen percent of juveniles report being sexually victimized while held at Alaska's biggest lockup for juvenile offenders - 3 percentage points higher than the national rate at similar facilities.
The figures were part of a national study by the U.S. Justice Department.
"What's surprising is how many kids were saying these things were happening without us knowing it," said Dean Williams, superintendent at the McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage.
On the survey, residents were asked whether they had been forced into sexual activity with other youths during the previous year, and if they had any sexual contact with staff, willingly or not, during the same period. Eleven percent at McLaughlin reported having sexual contact with staff, compared with 10 percent nationally. Nationwide, 95 percent said the culprit was a female worker.
"I thought that was a little high; it made me question the validity," Steve McComb, Alaska's director of juvenile justice. "How much is truth? How much is fantasy?"
McLaughlin's own resident surveys in 2008 and 2009 found a sexual victimization rate of 4 percent, McComb said.
Juveniles filled out the surveys anonymously on touch-screen laptops. Researchers acknowledged there was no way to verify their allegations or pursue abusers. But even if some lied about sexual abuse, others likely remained silent, the study said.
Williams noted that a number of the cases of staff misconduct at McLaughlin have involved women. The percentage of employees who prey on kids is small, he said. But some "are working out their own issues and are bonding with kids in very disturbing and problematic ways," Williams said.
They end up in "twisted, romantic relationships," he said.
Alaska officials said staff members who engage in sexual contact with the young offenders are fired and, if possible, prosecuted. In Alaska, it's a crime for someone in a position of authority to engage in any kind of sexual contact with a minor.
McLaughlin officials see a need to tighten criminal law. Williams mentioned two cases in which the worker had a sexual relationship with a former McLaughlin resident. The cases couldn't be prosecuted since the youth was no longer at McLaughlin, he said.
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