Pennsylvania Juvenile Detention Center Sex Abuse Lawsuits

For years, the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center (DCJDC) and similar juvenile facilities throughout Pennsylvania have come under intense scrutiny for their inability to safeguard young inmates from violence and sexual abuse. Numerous facilities have been the target of extensive state investigations, faced high-profile lawsuits, and reached substantial settlements, all alleging that facilities allowed juvenile inmates to be regularly sexually abused and mistreated.

Now, an increasing number of survivors are coming forward to pursue civil lawsuits against both private and public entities responsible for operating these detention centers, alleging their failure to fulfill their duty of care.

Pennsylvania Detention Center Lawsuit Updates

May 28, 2024: Merakey USA, the operator of Northwestern Academy, a juvenile detention center in Coal Township, Pennsylvania, is facing a lawsuit filed on behalf of twelve sex abuse survivors. The plaintiffs claim that Merakey failed to protect children from widespread abuse by adult staff members at Northwestern Academy.

This lawsuit is part of a broader effort to address abuse in juvenile detention facilities. Despite the known abuse, there was allgedly minimal action taken to safeguard the children or hold the abusers accountable.

This sex abuse lawsuit stresses the facility’s gross negligence in preventing the sexual abuse. It asserts that children sent to Northwestern Academy for care and support were instead harmed by those entrusted with their safety. The facility finally closed in 2016.

You can expect to see more and more Pennsylvania detention center lawsuits in 2024 as more victim are coming to realize they have the opportunity to get compensation for the harm done to them.

May 21, 2024: More than 60 individuals have initiated legal action against the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and several juvenile detention facilities, alleging widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by staff. These lawsuits were filed in Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Dauphin counties, as well as in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The defendants include state-operated facilities run by DHS and private facilities managed by the Devereux Foundation and Visionquest National Ltd.

The complaints assert that, for decades, children in Pennsylvania’s state-run juvenile detention centers have faced severe sexual abuse, ranging from groping to rape.  The detailed allegations in the complaint are hard to read. The inhumanity with which these children were treated is hard to fathom.

Despite a 2010 federal investigation that uncovered high rates of abuse, state officials allegedly dismissed these findings. The former director of the Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services reportedly downplayed the data, suggesting that children with low IQs could not understand questions about sexual abuse. However, the lawsuits argue that the abused children were fully aware of the exploitation but were too afraid to report it, or their reports were ignored.

The privately operated facilities are accused of similar abuses. One lawsuit against Devereux recounts an incident where a resident was allegedly drugged, restrained, and sexually abused by staff.

History of Sex Abuse in Pennsylvania Youth Detention Centers

Pennsylvania’s juvenile detention facilities have a long and sad history of sexual abuse and mistreated of their underage inmates. These problems have been well documented over the years as the facilities have been the subject of high-profile criminal investigations.

The facts uncovered during these various investigations showed that juvenile detention facilities in Pennsylvania were grossly negligent in allowing the regular sexual and physical abuse of inmates to occur with little or no oversight. The responsible parties, which include the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services as well as private contractors at the individual facilities, allowed staff-on-inmate violence and sexual abuse to occur over many years.

Below are some of the most public examples of criminal charges and/or investigations into sexual and physical abuse of  juvenile inmates in Pennsylvania facilities:

Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center (DCJDC)

  • In December 2022, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro unveiled the results of a grand jury investigation uncovering grave inadequacies in managing the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center (DCJDC). The report revealed how the DCJDC’s absence of supervision, concealment of issues, and systemic deficiencies cultivated an atmosphere of unprofessionalism, facilitating widespread instances of violence and sexual misconduct. Testimony within the report highlighted instances of sexually inappropriate behavior by male staff, encompassing illicit relationships and instances of staff-on-inmate abuse, which were predominantly left unaddressed.
  • In March 2021, two ex-inmates who were once housed at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima brought a civil lawsuit against Delaware County, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, and the nonprofit contractor Child Guidance Resource Center. They alleged being sexually abused by staff members at this juvenile hall. The lawsuit details the ordeal of one survivor who was reportedly taken to “private gatherings,” provided with drugs and alcohol, and subjected to sexual abuse. Another survivor recounted being raped by a staff member and threatened into silence.
  • In February 2021, a judge mandated the evacuation of the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center following a report from the Public Defender’s Office highlighting allegations of “physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by staff.” The document, resulting from a comprehensive month-long investigation by the PD office, outlined severe instances of staff-on-inmate violence, sexual abuse, significant harassment and hazing, improper utilization of solitary confinement, and numerous incidents of assault. It also noted that these conditions endured due to a “culture of secrecy” founded on threats, intimidation, and reprisals.

Abraxas Juvenile Center

In April 2023, a former employee of the Abraxas Juvenile Center in Howe Township (Elizabeth Ann Bohler) was charged with numerous sex crimes after engaging in a sexual relationship with a minor under the facility’s care. The criminal complaint detailed that the relationship, which commenced in late 2022 and persisted for several months, involved sexual encounters in a closet within the facility, the exchange of sexual letters and text messages, and Bohler providing contraband to the juvenile.

In March 2022, a class action lawsuit was initiated against private prison operator The GEO Group and other defendants by former inmates alleging physical, mental, and sexual abuse during their incarceration at the Abraxas Youth and Family Services Center.

In February 2024, a Pennsylvania federal judge decided not to allow a group lawsuit by former juvenile facility residents who alleged they were victims of abuse at facilities operated by Abraxas from 2000 onwards. Judge Christy Criswell Wiegand ruled that determining if each person indeed experienced abuse would require individual trials, making class certification impractical.  This actually makes sense and might be the better path for victims, anyway.

Lancaster County Juvenile Detention Center

Lancaster County agreed to pay $400,000 to settle a civil sex abuse lawsuit. The lawsuit was brought by a former juvenile detention center inmate who alleged that when she was 15 years old and incarcerated at Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center, she was sexually assaulted by one of the staff members at the juvenile hall. The staff member, David Stevenson, ultimately admitted to multiple charges including aggravated indecent assault and corruption of minors, engaged in the abusive acts during his tenure in 2016 and 2017. The victims, aged between 15 and 17, were part of a separate housing unit for dependency cases at the Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 10-25 years.

Cresson Secure Treatment Unit

In 2010, an investigation report was released by the Department of Justice, which found that the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit in Cambria County had one of the highest rates of reported sexual victimization by juvenile inmates in the country. The DOJ report was based on a survey of former inmates. One out of every three inmates from Cresson reported being the victim of sexual abuse at the facility. That was three times the national average. The Cresson facility was thankfully permanently shut down in 2015.

Northwestern Academy

In 2015, a female food service worker at Northwestern Academy in Excelsior, PA pled guilty to sexually assaulting a juvenile detainee at the facility. The employee (Aimee Bailey) worked for a private subcontractor at the cafeteria and she engage in sexual conduct with a minor detainee. Northwestern Academy was a privately run juvenile facility operated by Northwestern Human Services (NHS). It was permanently closed in 2016.

Pennsylvania Statute of Limitations for Sex Abuse Cases

Under the current statute of limitations law in Pennsylvania, victims of child sexual abuse have until their 30th birthday to file a civil lawsuit for sexual abuse.   Many other states have recently passed new laws expanding or completely lifting their statute of limitations to make it easier for child sex abuse victims to file civil lawsuits.

Pennsylvania has faced criticism for its failure to amend it own statute of limitation law, hindering many survivors from seeking justice and compensation. It has been faulted for disregarding research showing the significant hurdles survivors encounter in acknowledging and addressing their abuse.

This public pressure has led to new proposed legislation in the Pennsylvania Legislature aimed at expanding the rights of child sex abuse survivors. These groundbreaking measures, expected to pass, would notably:

– Extend the civil statute of limitations for child victims to age 55.

– Establish a temporary two-year window for survivors of child sexual abuse to file claims regardless of when the abuse occurred.

Holding Juvenile Detention Centers Liable for Sexual Abuse

Pennsylvania juvenile detention facilities have a legal duty to ensure that juvenile detainees are safe from sexual assault and abuse by staff members and by other inmates. When the facility negligently fails to protect inmates, they can be held liable in a civil sex abuse lawsuit. Plaintiffs who bring a successful sex abuse lawsuit can get financial compensation.

Settlement Value of Pennsylvania Juvenile Detention Center Sex Abuse Lawsuits

The settlement value of sex abuse lawsuits against juvenile detention facilities in Pennsylvania is dependent on a number of different factors. Here are the primary factors that typically influence the valuation of sex abuse cases:

  1. Strength of Evidence: The quality and robustness of evidence supporting the occurrence of sexual abuse are pivotal in determining the case’s value. Cases with substantial and credible evidence supporting the plaintiff’s allegations tend to have higher values.
  2. Severity of Abuse: The extent and severity of the sexual abuse also play a significant role in driving up the case’s value. Factors such as the frequency and duration of the abuse contribute here. Cases involving prolonged and severe abuse generally result in higher valuations compared to those with isolated incidents.
  3. Legal Representation: The expertise and proficiency of the legal representatives representing both the victim and the accused party can impact the negotiation process and the eventual settlement amount. A skilled legal team can often influence the outcome of the case and the compensation awarded.

Detention Center Lawsuits Allege VisionQuest Is a Problem

One of the problems with these detention centers is allow third parties to run them.  VisionQuest is one of those companies.  Detention center sex abuse lawsuits argue that VisionQuestion is a bad company. Since its inception in 1973, VisionQuest has been marred by disturbing reports of physical and emotional abuse by its employees. In 1979, VisionQuest’s founder controversially stated that using the N-word was “not necessarily improper.” During the same period, teenage girls in a VisionQuest group home reported being emotionally abused, being called derogatory names such as “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore,” and physically assaulted, including being pushed against walls and floors and having their arms and legs twisted, causing injuries.

In 1980, two VisionQuest staff members and six teenagers drowned during an “OceanQuest” expedition. In 1984, a sixteen-year-old named Mario Cano died in VisionQuest custody in New Mexico after being forced to exert himself despite complaining of severe illness, resulting in a fatal pulmonary embolism. Following this incident, New Mexico revoked VisionQuest’s license to operate in the state due to child abuse charges.

A 1987 report by the RAND Corporation, under a U.S. Department of Justice grant, documented VisionQuest’s “unorthodox” treatment methods that risked harm to residents. In 1990, an 18-year-old died while attempting to escape VisionQuest, with his parents alleging he was beaten, terrorized, and chased by a pickup truck while in custody.

Multiple other children have died in VisionQuest’s care, including one who drowned in the Allegheny River, another who died from falling off a highway bridge, and another from an internal infection. In 1994, a Department of Justice assessment identified significant concerns about VisionQuest’s treatment of residents, citing physical and mental abuse that violated constitutional and federal statutory rights.

Reports of abuse at VisionQuest’s Franklin facilities included firing 13 staff members for suspected abuse, and 147 investigations into alleged staff misconduct in 1992 and 1993. Allegations included staff grabbing youths’ groins, frequent punching, and other forms of physical violence. The DOJ assessment noted corroborating evidence from VisionQuest’s own records.

The report also documented unhygienic and unsafe conditions, inadequate treatment and educational programs, and violations of religious accommodations. Recommendations for remedial measures included independent youth advocates, staff training, monitoring systems, and firing abusive staff.

By 2007, the New Jersey Office of the Child Advocate suspended admissions to a VisionQuest program due to persistent safety concerns, including numerous escapes and frequent use of physical restraints. In 2014, Domenique McKillop, a former special education teacher at VisionQuest, was arrested for sexually assaulting male students. By 2018, VisionQuest closed several Pennsylvania facilities, including in Franklin, after the City of Philadelphia ceased placements due to safety concerns.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed against VisionQuest, detailing systemic and widespread abuse by its staff across various facilities.

Contact Us About Sex Abuse Lawsuits

If you are thinking about bringing a sexual abuse lawsuit against a juvenile detention facility in Pennsylvania, contact our sex abuse lawyers today for free consultation. Contact us online or call us at 800-553-8082.

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