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Pa. lawmakers urge sweeping reform after Delco youth facility closure

“How many times does this have to happen before we need to change? How many kids have to be abused?” asked Delaware County Defender Christopher Welsh.

The Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima, Pa.
The Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima, Pa.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Just over a week after Delaware County’s president judge emptied the county’s youth detention center in Lima, state and local officials called for dismantling a juvenile-justice system where they said abuse is endemic.

“How many times does this have to happen before we need to change? How many kids have to be abused?” asked Delaware County Defender Christopher Welsh.

A March 12 letter from Welsh to county leaders, which prompted the temporary closure, described numerous instances of neglect and sexual and physical assault and a longstanding cover-up at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center. He said three juvenile clients are currently detained on charges stemming from incidents at the facility, such as aggravated assault on a staffer — charges Welsh said were part of the scheme to conceal abuse.

Welsh, with State Rep. Mike Zabel and State Sen. Anthony Williams, urged the Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday to promptly investigate allegations of criminal misconduct and of a failure by the state Department of Human Services to act on reports of maltreatment.

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

A spokesperson for the attorney general declined to answer questions about the status of the investigation.

Zabel and Williams, who are part of a Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force convened by Gov. Tom Wolf, said the Delaware County crisis is now part of a two-decade legacy of scandal that stretches from the “kids for cash” deals struck between Luzerne County juvenile court judges and privately run detention facilities, to the death of David Hess at Wordsworth Residential Treatment Facility, to the horrors exposed by Inquirer investigations at the Glen Mills school and more recently at Devereux’s behavioral health campuses.

“People didn’t give a damn about these kids,” Williams said.

“Our institutions of government confound me at how extraordinarily effective they are in eroding our confidence in what government should mean,” he added.

The task force is set to issue policy recommendations this spring. But Williams acknowledged that there is not universal agreement on reforms that would require courts to divert youth from placement and instead provide services at home. “The people who currently run [the system] have to give back power,” he said.

Almost two-thirds of kids in placement had committed only misdemeanor-level offenses, according to an assessment conducted by Pew for the state Juvenile Justice Task Force. And three-quarters are placed on their first offense.

“The number of people who enter the system because of something like truancy or because of getting in a schoolyard fight, as opposed to some wild violent offense,” Zabel said. “That’s not serving anybody.”

They pointed to the situation at Lima as an example of the consequences.

Three former Lima staffers-turned-whistleblowers who reported nightmarish scenes — kids forced to drink from a toilet, slammed against a window so hard the glass cracked, locked in a room for weeks — attended the news conference.

“Each day I went to work at Lima, I felt the needle on my own moral compass begin to shift,” said Nathan Orians, one of the ex-employees. He called the incidents a “systemic failure by people in charge, a knowing failure.”

President Judge Kevin Kelly did not respond to a request for comment about the future of the Delaware County facility, which was built to house more than 60 youths but held fewer than a dozen in recent months and just four at the time of its closure. About 30 more children from the county are scattered at long-term placements around the state.

Zabel said he believes that in most cases they would be better served at home. His conclusion: “Residential placements do not work.”