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Judge empties Delaware County Juvenile Justice Center after allegations of rampant abuse

The Delaware County public defender sent a letter warning the county of what it said were credible and horrific claims of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.

A judge has ordered that all youths be removed this weekend from the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima following allegations of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.
A judge has ordered that all youths be removed this weekend from the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima following allegations of physical, psychological and sexual abuse.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

“Do you really think a judge is going to believe a bunch of juvenile delinquents over a corrections officer?”

That’s what one staff member allegedly told youths at the Delaware County Juvenile Justice Center, which was being abruptly emptied over the weekend after the county’s public defender sent a letter warning the county of what it said were credible and horrific claims of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.

The most startling of those claims include ignoring an active suicide attempt, forcing a child to drink from a toilet, and slamming a teen’s head into a window so hard it cracked the glass. Other reports included staff restraining a pregnant teen in a manner meant to induce miscarriage and locking kids in isolation for days or weeks on end — and then covering it all up by threatening teens and pressuring staff to stay silent.

Delaware County Council President Brian Zidek and District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer confirmed that County President Judge Kevin Kelly had ordered all children housed at the Lima center to be transferred immediately. Stollsteimer said the population had been low, and just four children remained there as of Saturday morning.

A spokesperson said the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services is committed to a comprehensive investigation of the allegations.

“Regional staff from the Office of Children, Youth, and Families (OCYF) were on site immediately after receiving the letter on Friday night for initial interviews with youth and staff,” the spokesperson said, adding that the investigation will include a review of all reports made to ChildLine and law enforcement, and interviews with staff and former residents. “At this time, no licensing action has been taken but may be pursued through the investigation.”

Stollsteimer said he referred all allegations of criminal misconduct to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and also asked Shapiro to investigate claims that the state failed to follow up on calls to the ChildLine reporting system. Stollsteimer said he had previously opened investigations into some of the defender’s allegations of criminal misconduct at the center, but found them unsubstantiated.

“I think every allegation of abuse of children is important, and they need to be fully examined,” he said. “That’s why we took the steps we did when we got the initial complaints. Now that the complaints have broadened out to include inaction by state officials, we’re taking that seriously.”

A message to the Delaware County court administration — which oversees the county juvenile justice system and its annual operating budget of $11 million — was not immediately returned Saturday.

Delaware County Public Defender Christopher Welsh declined to comment on Friday’s letter, which was obtained by The Inquirer and includes affidavits from four current and former staff. In addition to the alleged abuse, the letter describes insect and rodent infestations, periods without heat in the winter, and inadequate meals.

Children were routinely threatened with physical assault or being locked in a room, the staff members said.

One reported “a child with severe mental illness tried to asphyxiate herself by swallowing clothing. After staff intervened and cleared the clothes, the girl was thirsty and asked for water. ‘Three staff members took her to a toilet, stuck her head in a bowl and forced her to drink,’” according to the defender.

The letter also references interviews with current and former residents. One “described being put into chokeholds that almost caused him to lose consciousness.” Others mentioned hateful speech, including staff intentionally misgendering and outing a transgender child, and yelling “at a boy unprovoked and call[ing] him the n-word.”

The staff members also said managers created a climate where they couldn’t freely report abuse, requiring them to notify colleagues and supervisors before filing a report. “Those who report are met with hostility, such as getting the silent treatment, [or] being denied access to children for administering mental health services.” They also said that video of incidents was suppressed and that children were coached or bribed with candy to provide positive reports to investigators.

According to the county’s website, the facility “provides a secure setting protecting the community from young people, ages 10 through 18, whose behavior has endangered and/or appears likely to endanger the citizens and/or their property within the community.”

» READ MORE: At Glen Mills Schools in Pennsylvania, a long history of violence.

Helen Hall, who worked there for four years as lead clinician through the Child Guidance Resources Center, said in an affidavit that some children were held in detention for reasons like truancy, missing curfew while on probation, or even being a shooting victim. She described a child with a black eye telling her it was the result of an assault by a guard, and witnessing a supervisor known as “The Hulk” threatening a child: “I’ll see you on the street. I’ll beat you up.”

Another child with mental illness, who became covered by her own excrement while in seclusion, was kept locked in her room without running water or access to a shower for three days, the affidavit said.

» READ MORE: After Glen Mills, Gov. Tom Wolf proposes extra $5 million to regulate juvenile programs

The letter was horrifying but not surprising to Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, which has fought against similar abuses in juvenile facilities for decades and is currently in litigation over the mistreatment of youth at Glen Mills, a facility closed after an Inquirer investigation.

“This information about the Delaware County facility in Lima is being disclosed at a time of soul-searching in Pennsylvania,” she said, citing task forces created by Gov. Tom Wolf and Philadelphia City Council. “It’s dismaying that, in the midst of all that, this was unfolding. It’s also a reminder that we should stop doing the same thing over and over again. So long as we continue to place kids in these types of facilities, these stories will surface.”

Staff writer Vinny Vella contributed to this article.