‘A lot of us feel betrayed’: Former employees of Delco’s closed juvenile detention center ask county for help

Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center (Google Maps)

Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center (Google Maps)

Nearly five months after abuse allegations rocked the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center, former employees of the closed facility say they are stuck in limbo — and they’re asking the county for financial relief.

“We put ourselves in really vulnerable positions for the county and for these children. And I would ask them to just recognize that and to help us out a little bit, because it’s really unfair how they’re treating us,” Jake Haldeman, a former detention officer at the facility, told WHYY News this week.

In March, Kevin Kelly, president judge of Delaware County Common Pleas Court, ordered the facility in Lima closed after the county Public Defender’s Office sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services alleging “physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by staff.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his office have been investigating the matter. Meanwhile, the county has taken steps to revamp its juvenile justice practices by establishing an oversight board.

But employees of the facility say they are falling on hard times — their benefits and health insurance are set to expire on Sept. 3, according to Haldeman.

County officials believe their hands are tied. So far, the Attorney General’s Office hasn’t provided an update on the investigation, said County Council Chair Brian Zidek.

“We don’t have any information about the state of the investigation. We don’t know how close it is to completion. We don’t know if some of the individuals who work there had committed a crime,” Zidek said. “And that leaves us in a pretty tough spot as a potential employer for these folks.”

WHYY News reached out to the Office of the Attorney General for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.

Council member Kevin Madden described the situation as “frustrating” and expressed sympathy for the former employees and their families.

“What the county needs to really balance,” Madden said, “is the reality that there’s an ongoing investigation and our sympathy for the workers who most likely — the vast majority of them — have nothing to do with the allegations that we have here. And yet they’re being caught up in the fact that we haven’t had any communication from the Attorney General’s Office about the status of things.”

Zidek and Madden both said they first learned of the former employees’ issues at July’s inaugural meeting of the county’s Board of Managers of Juvenile Detention, when they showed up in full force.

Their issues weren’t resolved, so the workers showed up again at the first County Council meeting of August and pleaded for support.

“In a country where a police officer can kill a man on camera and get administrative leave, for us to still be out without any pay and nothing’s come out of an investigation that has turned into a witch hunt and a circus, I just want to know if there’s anything being done or if there’s anything that can be done on our behalf,” Chris Thomas, a former supervisor at the juvenile detention center, said at that meeting.

Thomas also told the council that he believes the news media have damaged the reputation of the workers at the facility.

In an interview this week, Haldeman said he had only been on the job for a year before the detention center was closed. At the very least, he said, he and his colleagues deserve to have their benefits extended beyond September.

“I would like for them to say, ‘Listen, we understand, we can’t do anything until this investigation is over, but we are willing to extend your benefits and we are willing to extend your health insurance and your unemployment and everything until we get a final decision.’ I would like the county to say that. They haven’t been willing to commit to that,” Haldeman said.

He thinks the county could soon choose to fire the center’s employees altogether.

Madden said, however, that the council is working on a plan to identify the workers who have been cleared of wrongdoing and offer them a role elsewhere in the county.

“We’re pushing the Attorney General’s Office to give us what information they can so that we can move forward with those workers who would be eligible to be transferred to other jobs in the county, we want to do that. And obviously, we’re sympathetic to their challenges with regard to their health care,” Madden said.

Haldeman said he studied education in school, because he wanted to work in special education. He eventually achieved that goal in 2018, when he was hired to work as a teacher for the Delaware County Intermediate Unit. But he said his job was cut short after he got severely ill and needed open chest surgery to heal an infected lung. With his savings depleted, he needed a job fast, so he applied to become a detention center officer right before the pandemic began.

“I applied for it very quickly, even though I thought it was a little bit below my pay grade,” Haldeman said. “The benefits were really good, and it was a stable position where I got to work with youth who are incarcerated and need good role models, and I thought it was a good position for me to come back to, until I could find another job somewhere in education that I’d like better.”

Haldeman mostly declined to comment on the allegations of abuse at the center. He said he “had no knowledge” of any of the claims made and was also “surprised.” He added that he had been “assaulted by kids in areas where there weren’t any cameras.”

He described a facility that was understaffed. And Haldeman said he took pleasure in helping the kids with job applications and schoolwork.

“Just the other day, I saw one of the kids, I worked with him in the facility, I saw him in a Wawa in Broomall, and he was excited to see me. I saw another kid at a gas station in Chester, and he was excited to see me, and so you make these connections and when these kids have someone to look up to, it can make a difference in their life. And so a lot of us feel betrayed, because we’ve put in all this time and effort into helping these kids,” Haldeman said.

But for the county’s renters assistance program, Haldeman said he thinks he would have been evicted because he would have owed his landlord about $5,000 in rent — money he doesn’t have while working as an assistant teacher.

“I’m somebody who has a litany of health issues, and I need health insurance, so that’s what I’m really worried about,” Haldeman said.

The 10-member board of managers for the juvenile detention center, of which Madden is a member, has only been in existence for about a month. Whether the eventual conclusion reached by the attorney general’s investigation and the possibility of reopening the facility are mutually exclusive has yet to be determined, Madden said.

“I think it certainly poses a challenge. It’s hard to move forward with that facility when you have an ongoing investigation. But … I can’t say with certainty that we can or we can’t at this point. It’s something we have to really figure out,” Madden said.

The board of managers hopes to hire a solicitor at its Tuesday, Aug. 17, meeting.

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