3 former juvenile detention residents sue Delaware County for alleged sexual abuse

“You have to really think about why this happened for as long as it did,” said the attorney representing the plaintiffs, “and how it was so prevalent.”

Listen 1:08
The exterior of Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center.

The exterior of Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center. (Google Maps)

From Delco to Chesco and Montco to Bucks, what about life in Philly’s suburbs do you want WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Three former Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center (DCJDC) residents sued the county Wednesday night, alleging DCJDC staff sexually abused them.

Anna Kull, a New York-based survivor’s rights attorney representing the three individuals, said the issues were systemic.

“The county needs to be held accountable for what’s happened here, because without accountability, we’re not going to see any real change,” Kull, a partner with Levy Konigsberg, said.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In a statement to WHYY News, a county spokesperson said that while the county doesn’t discuss active litigation, “​​it is proud of the changes being made to the juvenile justice system,” including the creation of the Board of Managers of Juvenile Detention in 2021.

The 10-member board brought the County into compliance with current state law and expanded the governing body to include perspectives from outside of the justice system, the statement said.

“This has allowed the County to rethink how best to make the time in County custody an opportunity for these children and youths to reset their lives in a positive and productive direction.”

The legal complaint in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas seeks to hold the county liable for wrongdoing at the troubled facility.

“The civil system allows these victims to come forward, bring a lawsuit and seek financial compensation for the lifelong pain and suffering that they’re going to endure as a result of being sexually abused when they were minors,” Kull said.

The DCJDC was a pre-trial, youth detention facility in Lima, Pennsylvania, for children and youth ages 10 to 18 years old. The county court system operated the facility — until it was forced to empty its halls several years ago.

Delaware County Judge Kevin Kelly shut down the center in March 2021 after the Public Defender’s Office sent an urgent letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

The letter detailed allegations of “physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by staff.” Those complaints brought added scrutiny to the state’s juvenile justice system, which had been marred by a series of abuse scandals across the commonwealth.

“You have to really think about why this happened for as long as it did — why and how it was so prevalent,” Kull said.

In the latest legal filing, Kull and her colleagues zeroed in on the county’s disregard and inaction on complaints against the facility and staff prior to 2021.

A grand jury later investigated the conduct at DCJDC. However, despite unmasking a culture of violence, silence and “sexually inappropriate conduct” by staff, jury members decided against recommending criminal charges.

“Despite numerous publicly documented incidents of abuse by DCJDC staff going back decades that were reported to both county and state agencies and employees, not once were meaningful steps taken to protect the youth at DCJDC,” the complaint read.

The three adult plaintiffs accuse the county of multiple counts of negligence, a breach of fiduciary duty and causing emotional distress.

Kull said there are more accounts of abuse surfacing.

“We have many other survivors who have come forward who have been abused at this disciplinary institution, but they simply cannot file suit,” Kull said. “As the statute of limitations stands right now, there’s only a certain time frame within which an individual can bring these suits.”

Kull called on the state legislature to extend the statute of limitations time frame.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Delco officials want to reopen DCJDC, promising a new model and better oversight. The county sought public feedback and has chosen to raze the building this summer and start anew. The county spokesperson said reform will start “with the safety and security of those in detention.”

“If you open a new facility — but you engage in the same misconduct that allowed this to take place in the first place — you’re not going to prevent anyone from suffering at the hands of pedophiles and predators, sexual predators unless you’re putting different measures in place to prevent it,” Kull said.

The county’s Board of Managers of Juvenile Detention meet the third Tuesday of each month from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. in the County Council Meeting Room.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal