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May 22, 2024

Lawsuits claim dozens of children were abused at Pa. juvenile detention facilities

People allege they experienced violence and sexual misconduct at state-run and private institutions between 2000 and 2023.

Lawsuits Child Abuse
Pennsylvania Youth Detention Sora Shimazaki/

Multiple juvenile detention facilities in Pennsylvania have been hit with a series of lawsuits alleging that children were physically and sexually abused by staff members.

Four lawsuits filed this week allege dozens of children experienced physical and sexual abuse at multiple juvenile detention facilities in Pennsylvania, including both state-run and private institutions.

The lawsuits represent 66 people whose claims include allegations they were abused by guards, nurses, supervisors and other staff at the detention centers between 2000 and 2023. All of the plaintiffs were born after the state's November 1989 cutoff to file claims of sexual abuse when they were kids.

"There are many more survivors, including men and women sexually abused at these same facilities in earlier decades, who are unable to file their cases of child sexual abuse under current Pennsylvania law," Jerome Block, the New York-based attorney who filed the lawsuits, said in a statement.

The state-run facilities named in the suits are the Loysville Youth Development Center, the South Mountain Secure Treatment Unit and Danville's North Central Secure Treatment Unit. They are managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Private facilities named in the lawsuits include the former Northwestern Academy run by Merakey USA, near Shamokin, and detention centers operated by Villanova-based Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health and Arizona-based VisionQuest National Ltd.

Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, 18 said they were raped or sexually abused at Devereux facilities. The allegations include inappropriate strip searches and violent sexual force committed against underage people housed at the facilities.

In one instance, a man said a Devereux staff member sexually abused him while he was sedated for "anger outbreaks" when he was 14 years old.

At Northwestern Academy, which was shut down in 2016, one of the lawsuits alleged that children would sometimes receive or be withheld privileges depending on whether they complied with sexual abuse by staff.

After some of the alleged incidents described in the lawsuits, the plaintiffs said they had reported what happened to other staff and were not believed or taken seriously.

Block told the Associated Press his legal team represents more than 100 others who do not meet the state's guidelines because too much time has passed for them to file civil claims. Legislative efforts to create a two-year window for such cases to be filed have blocked by Republican lawmakers, who say they will only support doing so via a constitutional amendment introduced as a ballot measure. 

"It can take many decades for survivors of child sex abuse to be ready to come forward to assert their legal rights," Block said. "These cases once again show why it is so important for Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass legislation that will allow survivors of child sexual abuse to seek justice, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred."

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services declined to comment on pending litigation, but a spokesperson said the agency has a "zero-tolerance" policy toward abuse and harassment. 

"We take seriously our responsibility to protect the health and safety of children at licensed facilities," the spokesperson said. 

All DHS juvenile justice facilities are audited every three years and results are published online for public review.  

Pennsylvania's juvenile detention centers previously have come under scrutiny from the state attorney general's office, including a grand jury investigation in 2022 that found instances of violence and sexual misconduct at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center. Other investigations and lawsuits have alleged similar problems at the Abraxas Juvenile Center in Berks County, the Lancaster County Juvenile Detention Center and the Cresson Secure Treatment Unit in Cambria County.

Block and his legal team have previously filed lawsuits alleging violence and sexual abuse against children at juvenile detention facilities in Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Michigan.