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As the state investigates ‘heinous abuse,’ Philly Council calls for removal of children from Devereux

After an Inquirer investigation, Philadelphia has stopped sending children to Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. Meanwhile, state officials are probing allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct.

LaTasha Hall's son was sexually abused by a Devereux staff member for several months at the Brandywine campus in Glenmoore, Pa. The 16-year-old, who has autism and developmental delays, spoke up about the assaults in 2018.
LaTasha Hall's son was sexually abused by a Devereux staff member for several months at the Brandywine campus in Glenmoore, Pa. The 16-year-old, who has autism and developmental delays, spoke up about the assaults in 2018.Read moreLAUREN SCHNEIDERMAN / Staff Photographer

Gov. Tom Wolf directed state officials to investigate conditions that led to the sexual abuse of children at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health facilities, following an Inquirer report detailing a history of lapses in supervision, training, and care.

“The Wolf Administration, through the Department of Human Services, is reviewing allegations contained in the article to determine appropriate actions with regard to the licenses of the facilities, and will take all action warranted to protect children from abuse,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for the governor, in an email to a reporter.

“Putting an end to this heinous abuse is paramount for the Administration,” Kensinger said.

In the meantime, Philadelphia has stopped sending local children to Devereux facilities for now, city spokesperson Mike Dunn said in an email. Local officials have begun visiting Devereux campuses “to fully assess the safety of residents from Philadelphia.”

Fourteen members of City Council have demanded that city officials go two steps further, calling for the immediate removal of all 62 local children from Devereux facilities and the cancellation of all contracts with Devereux, including the $7.5 million agreement it holds with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.

“We must no longer pay a single cent to facilities that perpetuate harm and trauma to our children with callous disregard for their safety and well-being,” the councilmembers wrote in a letter to city officials dated Aug. 12.

Devereux did not respond Thursday to an email and phone call asking for comment on the latest actions taken by the governor and City Council.

An Inquirer investigation published earlier this week detailed how 41 children as young as 12, and with IQs as low as 50, were raped or sexually assaulted by Devereux staff members over the last 25 years. Of those, 10 said they were assaulted at Devereux’s three campuses in the Philadelphia suburbs, while the others were abused at facilities in New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Connecticut, New York, and Arizona.

Devereux leaders have said that, since Carl Clark became chief executive officer in January 2018, they have increased safety and reduced risk by adopting a number of safeguards to prevent abuse and hold staffers accountable.

In a statement on its website, Clark said: “The Inquirer’s article does not reflect the truth of Devereux’s work, or serve to advance our field. While this story is heart-wrenching to read, every incident covered was fully investigated, previously reported in the press, publicly addressed and taken responsibility for — most a decade or longer ago. These cases were terrible, but they were not hidden.”

Despite Devereux’s assurances, reporters found that since 2018, at least four Devereux staffers have been charged with sexually abusing 11 children, collectively.

And Wednesday, a West Philadelphia woman filed a lawsuit against Devereux, claiming that staffers at the Glenmoore campus failed to protect her 12-year-old son from sexual assault last year.

When her son — identified by the initials N.B. — told staff that an older, larger boy repeatedly requested sexual favors from him in the shower, Devereux employees called him a “snitch” and then assigned the two boys as roommates, according to the lawsuit. Then, in May 2019, the older boy allegedly barricaded their room with a dresser and tried to rape N.B. as he screamed for help.

Devereux did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

In an interview, Councilmember Helen Gym said: “I just don’t think we can guarantee the safety of children in Devereux’s care, given what their excuses have been, and the disregard of systemic abuses we have seen going on.”

The councilmembers’ letter is addressed to Cynthia Figueroa, deputy mayor for the Office of Children and Families, and Donna Bailey, the chief executive officer of Community Behavioral Health. Two city officials who lead health and human services initiatives also received a copy, as did Philadelphia School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.; the School District has a $304,329 contract with Devereux.

“The Kenney Administration shares Council’s concerns prompted by your article and finds the incidents described in your reporting to be abhorrent,” Dunn said. “Children, youth and those receiving behavioral health services deserve not just quality services but the assurance that providers will ensure their safety.”

Although Devereux brings in more than $467 million in annual revenues, it understaffed its campuses and failed to adequately supervise its patients and staff members, who all too often disappeared for hours and slept through shifts, according to court documents and interviews. When assaults happened, Devereux identified risk factors that led to the abuse and identified potential solutions, such as increased training or employment screenings. But the initiatives weren’t implemented for years, The Inquirer found.

Even patients who went to Devereux for treatment of past sexual trauma were assaulted by staff. A 15-year-old girl in a Devereux Florida program designed for sex-trafficking victims said she was raped twice by a staff member in 2017.

In an interview with reporters last month, Devereux executives vigorously denied that campuses have staffing or supervision issues. They said Devereux has 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.

Headquartered in Villanova, 15 miles from Philadelphia, Devereux has specialized in treating children with intellectual disabilities, mental disorders, and trauma since 1912. The leading nonprofit health organization of its kind, Devereux serves 5,000 children every year at 15 residential campuses across nine states.

Seven states and 33 Pennsylvania counties — including Philadelphia, Chester, Bucks, and Montgomery — now have active contracts to send children to Devereux’s local campuses, at a cost of as much as $84,000 per child each year. While some parents pay to send their children, Devereux receives about 95% of its revenue from government programs, including Medicaid.

Residential programs and treatment centers like Devereux are licensed and inspected by the state Department of Human Services. Mel Beidler, Devereux’s vice president of operations for children’s services, was recently selected to cochair the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth and Family Services’ new behavioral health committee.

Devereux is planning to open a center in the Chester County suburbs for immigrant children who have been separated from their parents at the border. To do so, the nonprofit will have to maintain its licenses with the state. The governor’s office did not specify how long its review of Devereux could take.

In the letter to local officials, Philadelphia councilmembers said they would introduce legislation in September to enable the city to play a larger role in licensing residential programs, which receive nearly 1,000 Philadelphia youth each year. At least two dozen of these children are enrolled at Devereux.

The initiative, led by Gym, invokes abuses discovered at other institutions where the city has placed its youth. It asks city leaders to create and fund an independent office “to investigate all matters related to Philadelphia youth in placement”; establish a hotline for local families to report abuse “without fear of retaliation and with the guarantee of immediate investigation”; and spend about $500,000 to review “the safety and educational outcomes” of residential programs like Devereux.

“The outrageous accounts of misconduct and abuse at Devereux make this initiative as pressing as ever,” the 14 councilmembers wrote. “This is the result of a profound failure of oversight at the state and local level.”

After reading The Inquirer report, State Sen. Katie Muth called on Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro to investigate all Devereux facilities in Pennsylvania.

Muth, who represents a swath of Montgomery, Chester, and Berks Counties that includes a Devereux campus in Glenmoore, said she is a rape survivor whose “heart shattered while reading every word of the article.”

“They went to this place for help, and instead were harmed,” Muth said in an interview. “And not one time — not that one time wouldn’t be heinous — but this to me would be institutional failure.”

In his statement, Devereux’s Clark accused the newspaper of a “shocking lack of editorial judgment and journalistic integrity by flying a drone over one of our children’s campuses, capturing video and still photos of clients and families.”

Gabriel Escobar, editor of The Inquirer, said in reply: “We complied with the law. The images were taken at a height of over 200 feet with a wide-angle lens suitable for landscape photography, and no individual is identifiable in the images. Nonetheless, in deference to Devereux’s concerns, The Inquirer agreed not to publish those images.”

In the case involving N.B., his mother says Devereux ignored his cries for help, failed to protect him, and put him in harm’s way.

“I’m mortified and I’m outraged,” she said. “How do you hurt the voiceless when you’re supposed to be the voice of the voiceless?”