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Lawsuit alleges pervasive child sexual abuse at Illinois juvenile detention centers for decades

By Eric Levenson and Whitney Wild, CNN

(CNN) — A group of 95 people filed a lawsuit in Illinois on Monday alleging they were sexually abused as children in juvenile detention centers across the state for over two decades.

The 186-page suit, filed in the Illinois Court of Claims, alleges state employees “sexually abused Claimants and/or negligently allowed or failed to prevent sexual abuse of Claimants while they were children in the legal and physical custody of the State of Illinois,” including at Illinois Youth Centers in Chicago, Joliet and Harrisburg, between 1996 and 2017.

The case was brought by 95 adults born on or after July 24, 1983, who say they were abused while in the custody of the state. Just three of the plaintiffs are named in full, while 92 used only their initials to protect their identities.

One of those plaintiffs, Jeffery Christian, was sexually abused as a teenager by two different employees at two juvenile detention facilities, according to the lawsuit. He spoke about the impact of that abuse at a news conference Tuesday along with attorneys and other survivors.

“I wish I could have used my time in the system to grow and change and become a better man through the discipline and support of the staff around me. Instead, I was sexually abused and neglected,” Christian said.

“I spent over two decades carrying the weight of abuse on my shoulders and trying to be the tough guy, to push it down and act like it doesn’t matter. But I won’t push it down anymore,” he said.

The lawsuit comes amid ongoing concerns about child sexual abuse in juvenile justice facilities. Young people in these facilities experience “higher rates of sexual victimization than adults in prisons or jails,” according to results from the Department of Justice’s National Survey of Youth in Custody. The overall percentage of youth reporting sexual victimization has decreased over time, from 12.1% in 2008-09 to 9.5% in 2012 and to 7.1% in 2018, according to the survey.

The lawsuit filed Monday says that in some cases, the sexual abuse of minors was perpetrated “by systematic and unconstitutional strip searches of juvenile inmates.” The searches provided the opportunity for abuse of minors, the suit states.

“The State of Illinois has caused and permitted a culture of sexual abuse to flourish unabated in its IYC facilities,” the lawsuit alleges.

The defendants are named as the state of Illinois acting through its agencies, the Department of Corrections and/or the Department of Juvenile Justice. The lawsuit specifically accuses the defendants of negligence and sexual abuse, among other counts. Each claimant claims and demands judgment of the maximum $2 million, the suit states.

In a statement, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice said it was aware of the lawsuit and noted the allegations occurred under prior administrations.

“Although the Department is unable to comment on active litigation, IDJJ takes seriously the safety of youth in the care of the Department. All allegations of staff misconduct are immediately and thoroughly investigated in partnership with the Department of Corrections, the Illinois State Police and the Department of Children and Family Services,” the department said.

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

The Illinois Department of Corrections did not respond to a CNN request for comment.

Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat who took office in 2019, said Monday the allegations involved the prior governorship and declined to comment further, according to CNN affiliate WLS.

Survivors speak out for change

Attorneys and several child sexual abuse survivors held a news conference Tuesday to discuss the lawsuit and tell their stories.

“The abuse suffered by our clients, then minors entrusted to the care of the State of Illinois, created great suffering and has reverberated across their lives,” D. Todd Mathews, the lead counsel at the law firm Bailey & Glasser LLP, which filed the suit, said in a statement. “We salute their strength and we’re honored to fight for these survivors in court.”

Christian, one of the few named plaintiffs in the suit, alleged he was about 13 or 14 years old in 2001 or 2002 when he was sexually abused by a female adult correctional officer at the IYC-Pere Marquette. His mother reported the abuse, but no one followed up about it, the lawsuit states.

When he was about 15 or 16 years old and housed at IYC-Chicago, he was sexually abused by a female counselor believed to have been in her 20s who gave him commissary money and wrote him love letters, the lawsuit states. When the warden found the letters, Christian was sent to confinement and later given a new counselor, the suit states.

“At the time of the above-described sexual abuse of Christian, his abusers and other employees were not adequately supervised, monitored, or surveilled by the State of Illinois and its respective departments,” the lawsuit states. “Upon information and belief, the State’s failure to supervise, discipline, remove, and/or otherwise investigate Christian’s abusers and staff members who knew or should have known about the abuse directly enabled the above-described sexual abuse.”

Christian said Tuesday he felt good standing among a group of other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“Once upon a time I was a child scared, scared to voice my opinion,” he said. “Seeing these other survivors with me today, it just let me know I wasn’t the only one.”

Another named victim, Calvin McDowell, alleged he was about 17 years old in 2004 and housed at IYC-St. Charles when he was sexually abused by a chaplain believed to have been in his 60s. The suit alleges Illinois and its employees “knew or should have known that this staff member was sexually abusing children … and they negligently and/or willfully breached their duty to prevent the abuse, to make timely and reasonable efforts to stop the abuse, and to report it.”

In the news conference, McDowell said he made some mistakes as a child and believed the detention center would help care for him and push him in the right direction. He was mistaken, he said.

“I was victimized and sexually abused, which led to decades of mental anguish and confusion,” he said. “Instead of being cared for, I felt more alone than ever. I held my secret from the people I loved out of fear and embarrassment. I had nights where I wanted to give up on life, nights where I kept asking myself ‘Why? Why me? Why me?’

“I knew I had to answer that question for myself, but I could never find the truth until now. Today, I’m not alone. Today, I take my life back from the man who preyed upon me. Today I begin the road to recovery. This lawsuit gives me the strength and hope I needed when I was a kid,” he continued.

“The man who abused me can no longer abuse me, can no longer take advantage of me mentally or emotionally. I will not be silenced. I am not a victim, and I will no longer ask myself why.”

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