Survivors of alleged abuse in Illinois youth detention facilities step forward

CHICAGO (AP) — Three men who say they were sexually abused as children while incarcerated at Illinois juvenile detention centers came forward Tuesday as part of a lawsuit that chronicles decades of disturbing allegations of systemic child abuse.

Calvin McDowell, 37, who alleged he was abused by a chaplain at a suburban Chicago youth center as a teenager, said he didn’t want others suffering as he did for decades.

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

The Associated Press does not typically name people who say they were sexually assaulted unless they consent to being identified or decide to tell their stories publicly, as McDowell and two other men who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit have.

The complaint filed Monday alleges widespread abuse from 1996 to 2017 at nine youth detention centers, including gang rape, forced oral sex and beatings of children by corrections officers, sergeants, nurses, therapists, a chaplain and others. Many of the 95 plaintiffs, who are mostly identified by their initials in the lawsuit, said they were threatened or rewarded to keep quiet.

The lawsuit follows similar complaints of abuse at youth detention centers in New Jersey, California, Maryland and elsewhere.

Ten of the 95 men and women who brought the Illinois complaint appeared at the news conference.

Jeffery Christian, 36, said he was abused at two different Illinois Youth Centers, including by a counselor who groped him during counseling sessions. His family’s efforts to report the abuse were ignored at the time, he said — a pattern that was familiar to the others.

“I want the world to know what happened to me and the rest of the survivors that are with me,” Christian said. “I want to shine a light on these dark times I went through as a juvenile.”

When Christian shed tears, another survivor patted him on the back in support. There were nods in agreement and applause as the survivors spoke. Several said that meeting others who had the same harrowing experiences has helped them find peace.

The lawsuit contends Illinois failed to supervise, discipline, remove or investigate alleged abusers, enabling abuse to continue. The complaint alleges the abuse happened at youth centers in locations all over the state, including Chicago, St. Charles and Harrisburg. Several detention center locations have since closed.

Filed in the Illinois Court of Claims, the lawsuit names the state of Illinois and its Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice as defendants. It seeks damages of roughly $2 million per plaintiff, the most allowed under law.

Spokespeople for Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who took office in 2019, and the two corrections agencies have said the alleged incidents took place under former administrations and that any allegations of staff misconduct are “thoroughly investigated.” They did not immediately have further comment Tuesday.

Attorneys who brought the lawsuit said they are skeptical that things have changed.

Attorney Todd Mathews said there are hundreds of other former child detainees in Illinois who allege sexual abuse and that he expects to file more lawsuits. Attorney Jerome Block, who has helped bring lawsuits against juvenile detention facilities elsewhere, said states always maintain they have the right procedures in place to deter abuse and that children are safe.

“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,” Block said.

Some survivors said they hope they’ll get more answers through legal action, including the names of their alleged abusers.

The lawsuit notes six alleged repeat offenders who are identified by name. But many others are identified only as the alleged victims remembered them, including by physical descriptions or nicknames.

Stephen Lucas, 36, was about 13 years old when he said was repeatedly abused and harassed by a supervisor at a downstate youth facility. He hopes that his coming forward will help others.

“I was afraid to share my hardship with those closest to me because I didn’t want to be looked at differently. But joining the lawsuit has freed a part of me that I locked away for 22 years,” he said. “I’m finally reclaiming what was taken from me all those years ago.”

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