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Lawsuit: Staff at Lima juvenile facility held ‘private parties’ where young people were sexually abused

The lawsuit describes rape and other abuses that it says continued for years in plain sight of staff who failed to intervene or actively helped cover up the crimes.

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

Two young people who were held at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima — a facility that’s been temporarily shuttered in response to allegations of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse — filed suit against county and state agencies Wednesday.

In the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Philadelphia, one girl said guards at the facility took her to “private parties” where she was given alcohol and drugs and was then sexually abused when she was as young as 16. A second plaintiff in the lawsuit alleged that at age 16 he, too, was raped by a staff member — who said “if he told anyone, he would kill him and his entire family.”

The filing describes abuses that continued for years in plain sight of staff who failed to intervene or actively helped cover up the crimes.

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

It named as defendants the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which was responsible for oversight, the county juvenile detention center, and the nonprofit Child Guidance Resource Center (CGRC), a contractor that in 2019 reported $25 million in revenue from social services contracts.

A DHS spokesperson said the department’s investigation is ongoing, and no licensing action has been taken. “This comprehensive investigation will include, but not be limited to, interviews with youth that formerly were placed at the facility, interviews with current and former staff of the facility, a review of past incidents, security tapes, and ChildLine complaints that are still available going back at least five years,” the spokesperson said.

CGRC’s chief executive did not return messages Wednesday. Current and former CGRC employees were among the whistleblowers who reported failings including the use of prolonged seclusion, violent assaults that left kids bruised and battered, and a culture of pressuring staff to cover up the incidents.

On March 12, after the Delaware County Defender presented those concerns to President Judge Kevin Kelly, he ordered the facility closed. District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer referred the Defender’s reports to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, which declined to comment on the status of its investigation.

The disturbing allegations included mistreatment of young people with serious mental illness, including locking one young person in a room covered in feces without access to water for days, and making another teen drink from a toilet when she grew thirsty after attempting suicide by swallowing clothing.

The juvenile facility housed 782 kids between 2019 and 2020, according to the filing. The incidents described in the lawsuit span about 15 years, said lawyer Dan McGarrigle, who filed the suit along with Laffey, Bucci & Kent. To McGarrigle, that suggests an entrenched and long-standing culture of abuse.

“The facts that I’ve heard from my two current clients were shocking to me after almost 20 years handling serious criminal cases, and I thought there wasn’t much that would shock me anymore,” McGarrigle said.

The plaintiffs’ names were not disclosed. The male litigant said he was held in seclusion for four days, choked until nearly passing out, and repeatedly beaten, causing ongoing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder

The female plaintiff said five guards fed her and another girl Xanax, alcohol, and marijuana at the “private parties,” before raping them. One of the guards allegedly obtained her cell phone number years after she left the facility and sent her unwanted sexual and harassing messages. Another propositioned her teenage daughter to “link up” on Instagram, she said.

It’s not the first lawsuit filed over treatment by staff in the facility. In one in 2012, a boy alleged in a federal suit that after he approached a social worker to complain of mistreatment, a staffer who overheard slammed him to the ground, then pulled him up, tried to smash his head against a window, and punched him in the face with a closed fist, bloodying his nose. A jury found in favor of the defendants.