Child advocates call for permanent closure of Delco detention center after abuse allegations

Leigh Anne McKelvey is the executive director of CASA Youth Advocates. She joined other advocates on the steps of the Delaware County Courthouse to push for more reforms in the wake of abuse at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Leigh Anne McKelvey is the executive director of CASA Youth Advocates. She joined other advocates on the steps of the Delaware County Courthouse to push for more reforms in the wake of abuse at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A group of child welfare advocates is calling for the permanent closure of the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center, which was vacated last month amid allegations that staff members routinely abused children living at the facility.

In a letter sent to county and state officials on Monday, the group also asks the county to “redeploy” the center’s $4.6 million-plus operating budget to fund diversionary programs that would be developed with input from local agencies and designed to help youth who come in contact with the juvenile justice system.

Laurie Dow, Vulnerable Youth Policy Director with Public Citizens for Children and Youth, joined other advocates on the steps of the Delaware County Courthouse to push for more reforms in the wake of abuse at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“This is about safety for the community and for all Delaware County children,” said Laurie Dow, vulnerable youth policy director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth during a Monday news conference in Media announcing the letter. “Every community is safer when the needs of their children are met.”

In a statement, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which controls the facility’s license, said the agency has not yet received the letter, but will review its recommendations.

The department has said it is looking into whether the center’s license should be revoked.

“No child under care of any residential facility should experience abuse or mistreatment, and we are committed to ensuring that all allegations raised are thoroughly investigated in this case and others. At this time, our investigation is still ongoing, and we are coordinating with other investigating authorities. An appropriate licensing action, if any, will be taken if warranted by the licensing investigation,” said spokesperson Ali Fogerty.

The Delaware County Courthouse in Media Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The group’s letter comes roughly a month after President Judge Kevin Kelly ordered the center to be emptied following allegations of “physical, sexual and psychological abuse” perpetrated by facility staff.

The facility in Lima, Pennsylvania served children ages 10 to 18. A total of four children were being detained there when the facility was vacated in March.

A monthlong investigation by the Delaware County Public Defender’s Office accuses a staff member of ramming a child’s head into a reinforced window. It also claims a guard bragged about giving another girl a black eye during a beating and alleges that other employees forced another child to drink from the toilet.

The investigation also included allegations that staffers were verbally abusive — often using racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic language and slurs — and that they denied mental health care to children and put them in solitary confinement.

Ashley Dolceamore, co-founder of Delco Resists, joined other advocates on the steps of the Delaware County Courthouse to push for more reforms in the wake of abuse at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Some of these claims were outlined in a separate letter sent directly to Kelly, prompting his order to vacate, but not close the detention center.

The Delaware County District Attorney’s Office later referred the case to the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office for further investigation.

A spokesperson from the Office of the Attorney General declined comment.

Monday’s letter also asks the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to hire a third party to conduct a “full-scale review” of what transpired at the detention center in Delaware County, as well as recommend “structural changes” to the state’s juvenile detention centers, among other requests “so that regardless of the facility, the state’s obligation to protect children in these facilities is not abrogated. The results of the investigation must be released publicly,” according to the letter.

The group is also calling on the state to perform an on-site review of all facilities where Delaware County children have been sent “so we can have some confidence they will not be further abused in those locations.” The request additionally asks for “immediate access” to the last 24 months of incident reports at each of those facilities.

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