‘I Felt More Alone Than Ever’: Former Juvenile Detainees Speak Out After New Lawsuit Alleges Decades of Sex Abuse in Illinois Youth Centers

The office building at 100 N. Western Ave. in Chicago, on Monday, May 6, 2024, where an office of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice is located. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo)The office building at 100 N. Western Ave. in Chicago, on Monday, May 6, 2024, where an office of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice is located. (Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo)

Calvin McDowell was 16 years old when he was sent to the Illinois Youth Center in west suburban St. Charles sometime between 2003 and 2004. A teen from Chicago, he acknowledged he was “misguided” and had made some mistakes, but he believed that in going to the juvenile detention facility, he’d receive the guidance and understanding he needed to push his life in the right direction.

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“Unfortunately,” he said Tuesday, “I was sadly mistaken.”

McDowell is among the nearly 100 former juveniles who were housed at IYCs across Illinois alleging in a new lawsuit that they were sexually abused by adult staff members during their incarceration.

The alleged sexual abuse in these cases occurred between 1996 and 2017, and the complaint claims that similar abuse at these juvenile detention facilities “continues to this day.” The victims were all minors — some as young as 12 — when the alleged abuse occurred, according to the complaint.

McDowell has alleged he was sexually abused by a chaplain at IYC-St. Charles within weeks of his arrival at the facility.

“Instead of being cared for,” he said during a news conference in Chicago, “I felt more alone than ever.”

His allegations mirror those of numerous other former detainees detailed in the lawsuit.

Jeffrey Christian, who was sent to IYC-Pere Marquette when he was 13, said he felt like he was being “pushed into a jungle — a wild unfamiliar place where I had to fend for myself.”

He said Tuesday he wanted to use his time there to learn, grow and better his life, but instead he, too, was allegedly sexually abused and neglected.

“I learned at too young of an age that the system wasn’t going to make me a better man, just hurt me,” Christian said.

Christian alleged he was repeatedly sexually abused by a female staffer at IYC-Pere Marquette while he was housed there in 2001 or 2002. According to the complaint, other staffers knew of the abuse and made jokes to him about it, and while he reported what happened to his mother, no one followed up with her when she notified the facility’s warden.

Christian claimed he was later housed at another IYC in Chicago in 2003 or 2004, where he said in the lawsuit he was repeatedly groped by a female counselor.

“These acts of abuse were carried out by guards, administrators, staff and other employees of the state of Illinois,” Todd Mathews, an attorney for the Bailey Glasser Institutional Abuse litigation team that filed the lawsuit, said Tuesday. “The incidents involved all types of horrific sexual abuse.”

The lawsuit cites a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice survey of incarcerated youth that found Illinois was among the four worst states nationwide for sexual abuse in detention facilities. It also notes about half a dozen criminal cases from 2000 to 2021 where youth center employees were convicted of sexually abusing children and alleges that abuse continues to this day.

The alleged repeat offenders include Rocky James, a longtime supervisor at the Harrisburg center who currently serves as the mayor of nearby Eldorado in southern Illinois, according to the lawsuit. Six plaintiffs separately allege that James abused them in the 2000s, including one teenager who was “regularly and physically coerced” to have sexual intercourse inside his cell and the bathroom, the lawsuit said.

James, a former Eldorado City Council member and Saline County board member, has served as mayor of the town of about 3,500 people since 2007. He has not been charged with wrongdoing.

When reached Monday by telephone, James, 59, told the Associated Press it was the first he was hearing of the allegations.

“There’s absolutely no truth to it,” he said, declining further comment.

The Department of Juvenile Justice declined to comment on the specific allegations when the lawsuit was filed Monday, but has said it is aware of the lawsuit, adding that the alleged claims occurred under “prior administrations.”

The department said it has “enacted policies and protocols to ensure the safety of youth and staff” and identify any possible instances of abuse or misconduct.

Those protocols comply with state and federal safety standards, the department said, adding that all staff working in its facilities undergo background checks and training.

“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,” a department spokesperson said in a statement Monday.

At an unrelated news conference Monday, Pritzker, who first took office in 2019, told reporters “it was a matter that involved a prior administration.” He said leadership of the Department of Juvenile Justice over the past five years “has been excellent” but declined to say more, citing pending litigation.

Still, the attorneys who filed the suit said it’s difficult to take the state at its word.

“It’s hard to believe the state when they say there’s no problem right now, because that’s what they said for all these past decades,” said Jerome Block, an attorney with Levy Konigsberg LLP who was also involved in filing the lawsuit. “It’s always been the position of the state and the Department of Juvenile Justice that they had the right procedures in place, that the children are safe. We know they were not.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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