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Grand jury finds sexual assault, abuse, and cover-ups at Delaware County’s ‘kid jail’

The probe led by the Attorney General's Office found systemic problems and a “dangerous absence of oversight” enabled rampant violence, sexual abuse, and other maltreatment.

A photo from March 13, 2021 shows the shutdown of the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima.
A photo from March 13, 2021 shows the shutdown of the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

A Pennsylvania grand jury investigating conditions inside Delaware County’s youth detention facility — which was emptied in March 2021 amid allegations of rampant abuse — has found systemic problems and a “dangerous absence of oversight” enabled violence, sexual abuse, and other maltreatment.

The grand jury report, released Tuesday by the state Attorney General’s Office, did not recommend criminal charges for any former staff at the 66-bed Delaware County Juvenile Justice Center in Lima, citing statutes of limitations and a lack of admissible evidence.

But it proposed a series of legislative and policy safeguards including state laws requiring each county detention center to have a board of managers, and increasing transparency and accountability around abuse allegations.

“The Grand Jury found the system failed to protect these children and provide them with the tools they needed to reform and grow, instead abandoning them in a dangerous environment with little to no oversight,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement. Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s governor-elect, said he “will advocate for the reforms necessary to correct the system that failed these children.”

According to the 208-page report, young people who had been detained at Lima testified to having been punched, choked, and slapped by staff in areas not covered by video surveillance. That amounted to half of the facility — and many of those cameras weren’t working. The system was so outdated that staff had to scour eBay for replacement parts.

The grand jury also found “pervasive” sexual misconduct, including harassment of female staff and youth, and sexual relationships between male officers and juvenile residents. One officer was convicted of statutory sexual assault as a result of a 2018 relationship with a minor female who had been detained at Lima. The grand jury accused county law enforcement of missing warning signs, including an instance in which a juvenile girl, at the time of her arrest, asked officers to let her “do her hair and makeup first, so she could look good for her ‘Lima Daddy.’”

» READ MORE: Judge empties Delaware County Juvenile Justice Center after allegations of rampant abuse

The Lima facility, which was down to a population of six by March 2021, was closed by order of the county’s president judge after the Delaware County public defender collected affidavits from youth and former staff describing abuses. The county has named a new director and board of managers as steps toward reopening a juvenile facility, though plans have not been solidified. The facility remains licensed by the state Department of Human Services.

A spokesperson for Delaware County said in a statement that officials are reviewing the grand jury report.

The statement noted that the County Council is undertaking a systemic review of juvenile justice practices and contracted with a provider offering a diversion program meant to keep kids out of detention. The county is also exploring adapting or expanding the Lima facility to host “a trauma-informed multi-purpose center that will provide a wide range of holistic services for youth and their families.”

Christopher Welsh, the county’s chief public defender, called the report “shocking” but “not surprising.”

“The best way to avoid these abuses is to minimize the use of detention altogether, which can be done safely for the vast majority of our kids with proper community-based support,” he said in a statement. “Everyone who reads this report will agree that our children deserve better.”

A spokesperson for DHS said in a statement that the agency could not comment on details of the grand jury report due to ongoing litigation; nine former detained youth are suing the county, facility and its leadership in federal court.

DHS takes its responsibility to protect youth seriously, the spokesperson said. But to act on the grand jury’s recommendations, it would need support, “including obtaining additional funding and legislative action from the General Assembly.”

Cover-up culture

According to the grand jury, the attorney general’s investigators encountered resistance including county officials dodging their phone calls, whistle-blowers reporting intimidation including threats of physical violence, and delays in accessing the Lima facility. When they returned with a warrant, they found bins of documents set aside for shredding. “There is, of course, no way to know whether anything material to this investigation had been taken or destroyed,” the report noted.

The grand jury found oversight failures extended beyond the juvenile center to county and court officials as well as the state. Some former staff reported that virtually every call made to ChildLine, the state abuse-reporting hotline, was deemed unfounded.

The report described a cover-up culture, in which staff failed to report or falsified reports, such as an assault caught on video in which an officer grabbed a boy by the throat, leaving marks. According to the grand jury, no incident reports were filed; it came to light only after he was transferred and staff at the next facility asked about the bruises. The “extremely disturbing” incident resulted in only a summary conviction; the ChildLine report was marked unfounded and the staffer retained his job.

And, it said, the center illegally kept minors in seclusion or isolated in locked rooms — treatment that’s supposed to be a last resort. State law requires a court order if a period of seclusion exceeds eight hours in a 48-hour period. But the grand jury found emails suggesting that officials in some cases sought the orders after the fact, in a manner “entirely contrary to state law” — and that Delaware County judges granted those requests.

In other cases, staff used informal seclusion for their own convenience, the grand jury found. One teen girl was locked in a room for three days, “covered in her own blood, feces, and vomit,” according to the report.

“One detention officer even earned the nickname ‘23 and 1′ — a reference to being locked up for 23 hours and let out for one hour,” the report noted, “because he so frequently kept juveniles locked in their rooms.”

More broadly, the grand jury lamented that administrators disregarded the rights of children and “failed to respect [the] mission” of rehabilitation — creating instead a punitive “kid jail” in which the director, Mark Murray, referred to detained youth as “felons” though many had not even been adjudicated delinquent of any crime.

The building was ringed with barbed wire and covered in profane and disturbing graffiti that Murray testified was painted over once a year in advance of state inspections.

The grand jury castigated Murray for failing to adequately respond to and investigate instances of sexual misconduct — or undertake any policy review after an officer’s arrest for statutory sexual assault. Murray did not return a phone call Tuesday, and a lawyer representing him said he could not comment without fully reviewing the grand jury report.

But the report also blamed the county for insufficiently funding the facility and denying Murray’s repeated requests to raise wages and install a new surveillance system.

And it found that the Department of Human Services’ oversight mechanism, limited to the rarely used tool of license revocation, set minimum standards but did nothing to incentivize better conditions.

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