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Watchdog describes what led to years of abuse in Illinois juvenile detention centers

Watchdog describes conditions that led to years of abuse in Illinois juvenile detention centers
Watchdog describes conditions that led to years of abuse in Illinois juvenile detention centers 02:22

CHICAGO (CBS) – A new scathing lawsuit accused state employees of sexually abusing 95 people while they were children detained in Illinois detention facilities.

CBS 2 spoke with several incarceration watchdog groups who said more should be done to allow public access to discipline decisions and personnel records of staff at juvenile detention centers. They said a lack of access creates a cloud of secrecy over the people working directly with children.

"Today I'm not alone," said Calvin McDowell, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. "Today, I take my life back from the man who preyed upon me."

McDowell stood in solidarity with other men who said they were sexually abused by staff while detained at various Illinois youth centers. He said he held his secret from loved ones "out of fear and embarrassment" and had "nights I wanted to give up on life."

"I survived and continue to survive the emotional and sexual abuse that I faced as a child in the very justice system that was supposed to help correct me," said Stephan Lucas, another plaintiff.

McDowell and Lucas were among the 95 people who sued the State of Illinois and the Department of Juvenile Justice. They alleged abuse occurring from 1996 to 2017.

Lawsuit details years of abuse at Illinois youth detention centers 02:12

Jennifer Vollen-Katz is the executive director of the John Howard Association, a prison watchdog group that monitors the conditions of confinement and the treatment of incarcerated people.

Several of the victims in the lawsuit said their abusers offered them food and other gifts.

"In these facilities, there is a culture of deprivation," Vollen-Katz said. "Things inside shouldn't be so horrible that that kind of incentive would lead a youth to engage."

The Final Five Campaign has worked with kids in the juvenile system and strongly opposes the state's youth centers.

"We've been working in the facilities for a couple of years, and I think there's sexual abuse, there's physical abuse, there's mental abuse," said Alicia Brown, of The Final Five Campaign. "The youth is just not able to be kids."

The lawsuit claims the State of Illinois has had notice of such abuse for decades and nonetheless neglected to protect its confined youth from sexual abuse.

A Department of Justice study published in 2013 identified Illinois as having some of the highest reports of sexual abuse at juvenile youth centers.

"Today I stand here as a survivor," said Lucas.

When CBS 2 asked Gov. JB Pritzker about the lawsuit, he pointed out that the allegations stemmed from a previous administration. While nearly 100 people are part of the lawsuit, attorneys said this was just the tip of the iceberg, and more could follow.

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