Lawsuits claim 66 people were abused as children in Pennsylvania’s juvenile facilities

The entrance to the state-run Loysville Youth Development Center in Loysville, Pa., is seen on Monday, May 20, 2024.
AP Photo/Mark Scolforo

By MARK SCOLFORO Associated Press

Dozens of children who were sent to juvenile detention centers and similar facilities in Pennsylvania suffered physical and sexual abuse including violent rapes, according to four related lawsuits filed Wednesday.

The lawsuits describe how 66 people, now adults, say they were victimized by guards, nurses, supervisors and others. Some attacks were reported to other staffers and were ignored or met with disbelief, the lawsuits allege.

Their claims point to a broken juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania, said Jerome Block, a New York lawyer whose firm filed the new cases and is helping pursue similar lawsuits in Illinois,MarylandNew Jersey and Michigan.

“The purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate and educate and reform, to equip them to lead healthy, productive lives,” Block said in a phone interview before filing the suits. “Instead these men and women were sexually traumatized as children. They came to these facilities needing help. Instead, they had trauma inflicted upon them.”

The lawsuits involve the Loysville Youth Development Center, the South Mountain Secure Treatment Unit and the North Central Secure Treatment Unit in Danville, which are run by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services; Merakey USA’s Northwestern Academy outside Shamokin, which closed in 2016; and facilities run by Tucson, Arizona-based VisionQuest National Ltd. and Villanova-based Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.

The press secretary for the state Department of Human Services, Brandon Cwalina, declined comment on the lawsuits but urged anyone who suspects children are being sexually abused or harassed at any facility to call Pennsylvania’s ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.

The agency “has zero-tolerance towards abuse and harassment, and we take seriously our responsibility to protect the health and safety of children at licensed facilities,” he said in an email.

Copies of the lawsuit also were emailed Wednesday morning, seeking comment, to spokespeople for Devereux and Merakey, and several messages were left in recent days for VisionQuest.

All of those who are suing were born after Nov. 26, 1989, and meet the state’s legal standards for filing claims of sexual abuse when they were children.

Block said the legal team also represents more than 100 people who were similarly abused, but too long ago under time limits to file civil claims. Proposals to open a two-year window for such outdated claims have been blocked by Senate Republicans in the General Assembly.

Eighteen of the latest plaintiffs describe rapes and other sexual abuse at Devereux facilities. One man says that when he was 14, while sedated during “major anger outbreaks,” a staff member sexually abused him while he was restrained “so he could not fight back.”

Other claims, by 15 people who were confined at the state-run facilities, say children there “have long been subjected to a culture of exploitation, violence and rampant sexual abuse” committed by guards, counselors and other staff.

“The sexual abuse at commonwealth juvenile detention facilities has ranged from inappropriate strip searches to rape using violent physical force,” according to their lawsuit, which alleges negligence and failed oversight.

One of the plaintiffs says she became pregnant as a teenager as the result of a violent rape by a counselor at North Central about 20 years ago, and that another staffer didn’t believe her when she reported the rape. The lawsuit doesn’t describe what happened regarding her pregnancy.

Merakey USA, which operated Northwestern Academy before it shut down in 2016, is accused of a “culture of sexual abuse and brutality,” including “inappropriate and criminal sexual relationships with children,” who were granted or denied privileges to pressure them into sex.

That lawsuit says one 14-year-old girl who had not been sexually active was forced into sex acts by two Northwestern Academy staffers, and when she complained, she was accused of lying and her home leave passes were removed.

A male therapist then had her write about her sexual encounters during twice-a-week sessions for five months, telling her it was treatment for sex addiction and for a book he was writing. When she asked for the book upon leaving the facility, its director told her the book did not exist and her experience “would not be considered mental health treatment,” the lawsuit says.

task force to address problems in Pennsylvania’s approach to juvenile justice — established by legislative leaders, the court system and then-Gov. Tom Wolf — concluded in 2021 that too many first-time and lower level juvenile offenders were being locked up, and Black offenders were disproportionately prosecuted as adults.

A Democratic-sponsored bill to adopt some of the task force’s recommended changes is pending in the House after passing the Judiciary Committee in September on a party-line vote, with all Republicans opposed. There has also been a decades-long effort to establish an independent Office of Child Advocate. Supporters say talks about such legislation are currently ongoing.

Malik Pickett, a senior attorney at Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said the lawsuits “ring far too familiar for what we know from our nearly 50 years of advocacy.”

The state’s youth detention facilities are dangerous places for children, his emailed statement said.

“We have experienced one crisis for youth in detention after another,” Pickett said, while failing to pass meaningful changes.