U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat from Delaware County, introduced legislation on Tuesday that would make it easier for juveniles abused in residential facilities to hold them accountable in court.
Scanlon, whose district includes the Glen Mills Schools, said she was inspired by The Inquirer’s investigation into decades of violence and cover-ups at Glen Mills, the nation’s oldest reform school until state officials closed the campus in April.
“It really caught my attention, and I reached out to folks [and] I said, what can we do here?” Scanlon said. “It started a broader discussion about what we can do to help kids caught in our juvenile system, because they are often subject to abuse and less likely to have the resources to deal with it.”
The Justice for Juveniles Act would knock down barriers that keep young abuse victims from filing lawsuits while they’re still detained in these facilities. The bill accomplishes this by exempting people under the age of 22 from requirements of the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).
As it stands now, these young offenders have to first file a grievance with the program where they are being abused before they can file a lawsuit. They also cannot file over emotional abuse unless they are claiming physical injuries as well.
The new legislation would also exempt youths from PRLA’s cap on attorney’s fees.
The Juvenile Law Center, a national children’s nonprofit organization, along with the Education Law Center, a state advocacy group, have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Glen Mills Schools on behalf of former students.
Scanlon’s bill would allow children to more easily file lawsuits while they are currently held at the facilities where they are experiencing abuse.
Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of Juvenile Law Center, said it’s rare for children in juvenile programs to pursue legal action because they are terrified of retaliation. Some of them don’t have knowledge or the literacy skills required to follow a formal grievance procedure.
“Young people were written into this law," she said, “but it wasn’t written with them in mind.”
Scanlon said she worked for the Education Law Center for 10 years and heard about violence in area residential programs. She was long aware of Glen Mills in the community, as her children ran track, in which Glen Mills athletes competed.
“So I knew one of the things always touted about it was the opportunities for kids who excel in athletics, and now it sounds that boys were denied those opportunities, or had the threat of it being denied held over their heads, to keep them from speaking about the abuse,” Scanlon said.
The Inquirer investigation documented how counselors kept boys quiet about the violence they endured by threatening them with longer sentences at worse facilities. Counselors told The Inquirer that boys were forced to tell doctors that their broken bones and busted lips came from sports, when really they were beaten.
The state auditor general, the inspector general, and the Delaware County district attorney each responded by launching investigations into Glen Mills, which are ongoing. Gov. Tom Wolf ordered an overhaul of the state agency that licensed and monitored Glen Mills and other juvenile programs like it.
The proposed legislation would apply to all correctional facilities that house juveniles, from privately run residential programs like Glen Mills, to federal correctional institutions.
Elected last November, Scanlon said she has bipartisan support for the Justice for Juveniles Act. She is joining with U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican from North Dakota, to introduce the bill; additional sponsors include one Democrat and two Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler of Allegheny County.
The bill will be routed to the Judiciary Committee, on which Scanlon serves as vice chairperson and three other sponsors sit. It does not have a counterpart in the Senate.
Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, said she hopes the bill succeeds because “what we’ve learned from Glen Mills is that kids have absolutely no control, when they’re in placement, over whether they remain at that placement."
"There wasn’t a way for them to assert their rights,” McInerney said. “It’s really absurd when you think about it.”