A bill that would make it easier for young people abused in residential facilities to hold those institutions accountable in court is one step closer to becoming law.
The U.S. House on Monday unanimously passed the Justice for Juveniles Act, which was inspired by The Inquirer’s investigation into decades of abuse at the Glen Mills Schools, said U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Democrat from Delaware County who introduced the measure. Glen Mills, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious reform academy, is in Scanlon’s district.
“We have an obligation to protect the well-being of all children,” Scanlon said. With the passage of the bill, which will now move to the Senate, she said, “we are one step closer to protecting children in corrections facilities."
The bill would eliminate obstacles for young abuse victims to file lawsuits while they are still detained in facilities by exempting people under the age of 22 from the requirements of the 1995 Prison Litigation Reform Act. That act intended to deter prisoners from filing “frivolous” lawsuits, Scanlon said, but does not take into consideration that incarcerated young people have a higher chance of being abused in facilities, or the difficulty youth face in navigating complex administrative requirements.
Currently, young people in residential facilities are required to file a grievance with the institution before filing a lawsuit, and are not permitted to file for emotional abuse unless they are also claiming physical injuries.
The Justice for Juveniles Act would also exempt young offenders from the PLRA’s cap on attorney’s fees.
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 legislation would allow children to more easily file lawsuits while they are being held at the facilities where they are experiencing abuse.
“Young people in justice facilities face a grave risk of solitary confinement, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and exposure to COVID," said Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the Juvenile Law Center. "Today’s win protects vulnerable youth by making it easier for them to seek help from federal courts.”
The bill’s passage is the latest response to The Inquirer’s reporting, which exposed a decades-long pattern of violent child abuse and cover-ups at Glen Mills. State officials closed the campus in April 2019, and months later, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered an overhaul of youth facilities across Pennsylvania. In June, a report from the state auditor general found that the school failed to comply with child-abuse laws while lacking policies and training related to reporting abuse.
Last week, former Glen Mills counselor Christopher Medina pleaded guilty to assaulting a teenage boy who was under his supervision at the school in 2018.