A federal class action lawsuit was filed against Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health this week, claiming the nonprofit was negligent and did not protect at least six children from being abused by staffers.
According to the lawsuit, the six children, who ranged in age from 8 to 17 at the time, allegedly were abused between 2003 and 2019 at a Devereux campus — three in Chester County, two in Florida, and one in California. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, does not name individual staffers alleged to be responsible for physical, sexual, and verbal abuse.
Devereux, headquartered in Villanova, specializes in treating children with intellectual disabilities, mental disorders, and trauma at 15 residential campuses in nine states. Devereux has come under increasing public scrutiny on the heels of two Inquirer investigations, one in August and another Wednesday, that detail allegations of sexual and physical abuse of children by Devereux staff.
Devereux did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit sent by email and by phone Wednesday.
Devereux leaders previously said that since late 2019 they have taken strong measures to prevent sexual abuse as part of a reorganization under chief executive officer Carl Clark II, who took the helm in January 2018. They said they have reduced opportunities for staff to be alone with children, trained employees to detect grooming and potential abuse, added video technology to better monitor employees, increased pay to attract more-qualified staffers, and will use a new psychological test to screen job applicants.
“These incidents are heartbreaking and unacceptable,” the company said in a recent statement. “ … Every provider in the field must deal with the issue of employees who, despite thorough training, support, and supervision, do the wrong thing in complicated situations.”
The lawsuit details multiple alleged incidents of sexual and physical assault, failures to report child abuse, negligent hiring of unsuitable personnel, and woeful supervision:
Among the claims:
* Katherine Jines, the only named plaintiff, was 13 years old in 2013 when she was abused at Devereux’s residential treatment center in Santa Barbara, Cal. Devereux staff allowed the girl’s roommate to physically assault her. Katherine told staffers, but they did nothing.
A male staffer sat on a couch and watched her and other children as they walked naked in and out of the showers.
* Beginning in 2003, “Jane Doe 1,″ at age 14, was physically, sexually, and emotionally abused at the Mapleton campus in Malvern. When the girl’s roommate sought a physical relationship with her and she refused, her roommate sexually assaulted her by making unwanted sexual advances.
When Jane Doe 1 reported the abuse to a Devereux staffer, she was punished for “complaining” and placed in solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit. While there, a Devereux staffer allegedly raped her and then she was placed back in the room with the abusive roommate.
On several occasions, Devereux staffers withheld meals from her because she “cried too much,” according to the court papers.
* In 2019, at age 11, “John Doe 2,” who was suffering from “aggression and suicidality,” told his mom that staffers at Devereux’s campus in Glenmoore pinned him against a wall, holding their arms across his throat and pressing their knees into his chest. During a visit, his mom noticed that “his wrist was so swollen” that she considered taking him to the hospital. He appeared to suffer a “panic attack” when he told his mom what happened.
The boy’s mom and therapist reported the alleged abuse to ChildLine, the state’s hotline for reporting suspected child abuse cases. An investigator, however, could not substantiate the allegations in part because there was no available security video or audio.
* An 8-year-old boy from Abington, Pa., lived at the Mapleton campus in Malvern for two weeks in 2018 before his parents were allowed to speak with him. When his mother did talk with him on the phone, he was distraught, she said in an interview Wednesday. “He was crying, begging to come home,” she said.
When she saw her son, who has autism, ADHD, and bipolar disorder, she said he was disheveled, extremely agitated, and “really scared, upset, and afraid.”
Then he told her that a staffer had put him in a choke hold, and threw him on his bed where he hit his head on its hard frame, she said.
The mother, who requested anonymity, said she spoke to a supervisor at the time, who told her that the staffer had been moved to another building. She said the supervisor told her Devereux did report the incident to the state Department of Human Services, but the mom said she called and the state told her it hadn’t received such a report.
“It was not a place of healing for him,” she said in an interview. “It was place of trauma and pain.” Her son, now 10, lives at home. His Devereux stay lasted three weeks.
The lawsuit alleges that children often complained to a Devereux staffer or social worker, but their cries for help were often ignored and, in some cases, the abuse continued.
A class action is a type of lawsuit that permits one or more plaintiffs to file and prosecute a case on behalf of a larger group, or “class.”
“Given not just the breadth and severity of the allegations against Devereux, but also the sheer number of children still residing under Devereux’s control and supervision, we are committed to moving this case forward and getting protection and justice for our clients and the larger class as quickly as possible,” said Joseph Sauder, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages. The suit also asks the court to require Devereux to “implement and enforce policies and practices to prevent future incidents of abuse.”
In addition to Devereux, the lawsuit names as a defendant QualityHealth Staffing, a Devereux subsidiary formed in 2018 to recruit staffers to work with special needs children.