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Lawsuits Claim Dozens of Pennsylvania Children Abused in Juvenile Detention Centers Across the State

— June 14, 2024

“For decades,” the lawsuit says, “children confined to Pennsylvania’s state-run juvenile detention facilities have long been subjected to a culture of exploitation, violence and rampant sexual abuse.”

A recently-filed lawsuit claims that dozens of children have been subjected to extensive and recurring abuse—ranging from neglect to beatings and gang-rape—at juvenile detention centers across Pennsylvania.

The complaint, filed on behalf of dozens of men and women who were once held in the Keystone State’s youth detention centers, alleges that abuse was both a common practice and one that was tacitly tolerated by corrections officials. Several of the plaintiffs involved in the complaint say that they were victimized not only by other inmates but by supervisors, guards, and nurses.

If and when these attacks were reported, staff often reacted with disbelief—and, in most cases, refused to either investigate or take substantive disciplinary action against alleged predators.

“For decades,” the lawsuit says, “children confined to Pennsylvania’s state-run juvenile detention facilities have long been subjected to a culture of exploitation, violence and rampant sexual abuse.”

Jerome Block, a New York-based attorney whose firm has filed similar claims against corrections systems in other states, said that Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system failed many of its most vulnerable wards.

“The purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate and educate and reform, to equip them to lead healthy, productive lives,” Block said. “Instead, these men and women were sexually traumatized as children. They came to these facilities needing help.”

“Instead,” Block said, “they had trauma inflicted upon them.”

The lawsuit names a number of active and out-of-service detention centers in which abuse allegedly occurred. These facilities include government-operated units, such as:

  • Loysville Youth Development Center in Central Pennsylvania;
  • South Mountain Secure Treatment Unit near Chambersburg; and
  • North Central Secure Treatment Unit in Northumberland County.

The complaint also suggests that abuse occurred in several privately-run institutions, including:

  • Facilities currently run by Arizona-based VisionQuest National Ltd.;
  • Facilities currently run by Pennsylvania-based Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health; and
  • The Merakey USA-owned Northwestern Academy detention center near Shamokin, which closed in 2016;

A spokesperson for Merakey—which attorneys for former detainees describe as a company that inculcated a “culture of sexual abuse and brutality”—has since told The Associated Press that many of the complaints detailed in the lawsuit are decades old.

Although Merakey said in a statement it has a responsibility to help survivors who make credible claims move past their trauma, its investigators have yet to find any records corroborating accounts of alleged sexual or misconduct at its former Shamokin center.

Image via Rennett Stowe/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons. (CCA-BY-2.0)

The company further emphasized that it has interviewed staff who worked at Northwestern Academy before its closure—and has yet to locate any ex-employees who recall hearing about, or receiving reports related to, abusive practices in the facility.

Devereux reportedly declined media requests for comment, but appeared to at least acknowledge that abuse is always a risk in juvenile detention centers.

One of its vice presidents, for instance, told The Associated Press that the company has tried to curb abuse by continuously improving its training practices, offering training and outside accreditation for sexual abuse prevention courses, and spending millions of dollars to upgrade its facilities.

“There is no setting in which people work with other that is entirely immune from the risk of abuse,” said Leah Yaw, the company’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer, stressing that Devereux has still tried to “create a comprehensive culture which prevents abuse before it can happen and [which] ensures safety and quality.”

But Block says that his legal team—which is representing about 66 plaintiffs, and more than 100 other individuals whose claims are currently barred by statutes of limitations—has received multiple reports of rape and abuse at Devereux facilities, as well as properties managed by its co-defendants.

The Associated Press notes that one of Block’s plaintiffs has alleged several instances of rape at Devereux facilities. In one incident, which the man says occurred when was 14 years old, a staff member sedated him for “major anger outbreaks.” But when was sedated and “could not fight back,” the staff member sexually assaulted him.

Another of Block’s clients, a woman who was detained at a state-run facility, said that she was violently raped and impregnated by a counselor. However, when she reported the attack, other members of the North Central Secure Treatment Unit staff refused to take her claims seriously.

All of the current plaintiffs, notes WGAL-8, are adults who were born after 1989 and are thereby eligible to file claims for damages arising from child sex abuse.


Dozens of children were abused in Pennsylvania’s juvenile facilities, lawsuits allege

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

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