The entrance to the state-run Loysville Youth Development Center in...

The entrance to the state-run Loysville Youth Development Center in Loysville, Pa., is seen on Monday, May 20, 2024. A set of newly filed lawsuits claims children who were sent to juvenile detention centers in Pennsylvania, including Loysville, suffered a range of sexual abuse, including violent rapes. Credit: AP/Mark Scolforo

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Dozens of children suffered physical and sexual abuse including violent rapes inside juvenile detention centers and similar facilities in Pennsylvania, according to four related lawsuits filed Wednesday.

The lawsuits describe how 66 people, now adults, say they were victimized by guards, nurses, supervisors and others. Some attacks were reported to other staffers and were ignored or met with disbelief, the lawsuits allege.

Their claims point to a broken juvenile justice system, said Jerome Block, whose New York law firm has also pursued similar lawsuits in Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and Michigan.

“The purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate and educate and reform, to equip them to lead healthy, productive lives,” Block said before filing the suits. “Instead these men and women were sexually traumatized as children. They came to these facilities needing help. Instead, they had trauma inflicted upon them.”

The lawsuits name the state-run Loysville Youth Development Center, South Mountain Secure Treatment Unit and North Central Secure Treatment Unit in Danville; Merakey USA’s Northwestern Academy outside Shamokin, which closed in 2016; and facilities run by Tucson, Arizona-based VisionQuest National Ltd. and Villanova-based Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.

Department of Human Services press secretary Brandon Cwalina declined comment on the lawsuit but said the agency has zero tolerance for abuse and harassment. He urged anyone suspecting child abuse at any facility to call Pennsylvania's ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.

"We take seriously our responsibility to protect the health and safety of children at licensed facilities,” Cwalina wrote in an email.

Merakey said it will comprehensively review the allegations, some of which date back 25 years, and if they prove credible will have an obligation to help the former residents heal. But the company's statement said it has found no records corroborating the alleged conduct, and staff who worked there at the time said they have no knowledge that such abuse was reported.

Devereux vice president Leah Yaw also declined to address specific allegations, but said it has worked to prevent abuse and improve safety by including training and outside accreditation on sexual abuse prevention, improving the pipeline for people to work in nonprofit behavioral health and spending millions to improve its facilities and technology.

“There is no setting in which people work with other people that is entirely immune from the risk of abuse,” Yaw said, but Devereux is trying “to create a comprehensive culture which prevents abuse before it can happen and ensures safety and quality.”

Messages seeking comment also were left for VisionQuest.

All the plaintiffs were born after Nov. 26, 1989, and meet Pennsylvania's standards for filing claims of sexual abuse when they were children.

Block's said his legal team also represents more than 100 people who were abused too long ago to file civil claims. Proposals to open a two-year filing window have been blocked by Senate Republicans in the General Assembly.

Eighteen of the latest plaintiffs describe rapes and other sexual abuse at Devereux facilities. One says that when he was 14 and sedated during “major anger outbreaks,” a staff member sexually abused him while he was restrained “so he could not fight back.”

Other claims say children at the state-run facilities “have long been subjected to a culture of exploitation, violence and rampant sexual abuse" committed by guards, counselors and other staff. The sexual abuse "has ranged from inappropriate strip searches to rape using violent physical force,” according to their lawsuit, which alleges negligence and failed oversight.

One plaintiff says a violent rape by a counselor at North Central left her pregnant as a teenager about 20 years ago, and another staffer didn’t believe her when she reported the rape. The lawsuit doesn't describe what happened regarding her pregnancy.

Merakey USA, which operated Northwestern Academy before it shut down in 2016, is accused of a “culture of sexual abuse and brutality,” including “inappropriate and criminal sexual relationships with children,” who were granted or denied privileges to pressure them into sex.

That lawsuit says one 14-year-old girl who had not been sexually active was forced into sex acts by two Northwestern Academy staffers, and when she complained, she was accused of lying and her home leave passes were removed.

A male therapist then had her write about her sexual encounters during twice-a-week sessions for five months, telling her it was treatment for sex addiction and for a book he was writing. When she asked for the book upon leaving the facility, its director told her the book did not exist and her experience "would not be considered mental health treatment,” the lawsuit says.

A task force to address Pennsylvania's juvenile justice problems — established by legislative leaders, the court system and then-Gov. Tom Wolf — concluded in 2021 that too many first-time and lower level juvenile offenders were being locked up, and Black offenders were disproportionately prosecuted as adults.

A Democratic-sponsored bill to adopt some of the task force recommendations is pending in the House after passing the Judiciary Committee in September on a party-line vote with all Republicans opposed. Supporters say talks also continue about legislation to establish an independent Office of Child Advocate.

Malik Pickett, a senior attorney at Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said the lawsuits "ring far too familiar for what we know from our nearly 50 years of advocacy.”

"We have experienced one crisis for youth in detention after another," Pickett said, while failing to pass meaningful changes.

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