Grand jury investigating abuse allegations at Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center chooses not to recommend charges

The exterior of Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center.

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

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The grand jury that investigated the abuse allegations at Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center has found that “the collective failure of many” allowed the detention center to function as a prison built upon punishment — instead of reform.

Despite uncovering a culture of violence, “sexually inappropriate conduct” by male detention staff, and cover-ups, the grand jury chose not to recommend criminal charges in the case, citing statute of limitations issues, high standard of proof, and the passage of time.

“While we believe that certain juveniles credibly reported abuse either at the time, or before this Grand Jury, too much time has passed and/or insufficient admissible evidence exists to sustain a criminal conviction,” the report read.

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The grand jury also highlighted “a level of unfairness” in holding “poorly trained, poorly paid, and poorly equipped” detention officers criminally responsible for individual acts, while those in positions of power would not be held accountable under the state’s criminal laws.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro released the grand jury’s report on the detention center in Lima on Tuesday. The center closed in March 2021 after the Delaware County Office of the Public Defender sent an urgent letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services exposing the allegations with the help of whistleblowers.

Chris Welsh, director of the Public Defender’s Office, said in a written statement that the findings are shocking but shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention.

“Everyone who reads this report will agree that our children deserve better. The Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Task Force recently made recommendations to make the system better. Today this grand jury made recommendations to make the system better. Pennsylvania’s children deserve more than words in reports and from the mouths of our leaders. They deserve leaders with the courage to take action and make the recommended changes,” Welsh said.

In response to the release of the report, Delaware County released a statement regarding the “challenging situation” it has been in since the county’s president judge opted to shutter the facility while the Office of the Attorney General Investigated.

“With the continued closure of the Detention Center, Delaware County has secured contracts with surrounding counties for juvenile detention bed space in their local detention centers. This move assures the safety of youth who are determined to be a risk to themselves and/or others while keeping them close to their communities and families,” the statement read.

County Council and the Juvenile Detention Board of Managers said they are currently reviewing the findings and “will continue to make critical and necessary changes to ensure the safety of the juveniles placed in detention.”

The 66-bed facility housed youth ages 10-18.

What happened at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center?

The grand jury report describes the detention center as a “kid jail” fitted with all of the harsh architecture and barbed wire that people would normally associate with prisons. From concrete floors to plastic mattresses, the youth in the facility — many of whom weren’t adjudicated yet and none of whom were serving a sentence — were transported in and out in shackles.

Many of the rooms were “uninhabitable” because they did not have functioning bathrooms or sinks, but detention center administrators would put kids in them during population spikes. Detention center administrators often expected the staff and children to clean the residential units themselves.

During testimony, detention center administrators referred to the kids at the facility as “felons.” Some of the detention officers had a similar view.

“One testified that many of his coworkers viewed their juvenile wards as ‘sub-human,’ and had heard other guards call them ‘criminal’ and ‘pieces of s**t,’” the report said.

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The grand jury also found that some staff members called LGTBTQ youth homophobic slurs.

The group learned during testimony that staff would let children fight rather than break it up.

Additionally, there was an incident when detention officers allegedly assaulted a child and retaliated against him because he reported their abuse. “They began calling him a ‘snitch’ and a ‘rat.’ They would ‘forget’ to take him to meals, toss his cell ostensibly looking for contraband, and write him up for made-up infractions so he would lose privileges,” the report said.

The grand jury’s report also underscored allegations of sexual violence in the facility.

“In one specific incident described by multiple witnesses, this officer played a sexually explicit R. Kelly song while chasing a female resident around the room saying ‘I’m gonna get you.’ When this resident told the officer that the song made her uncomfortable, he responded that her parents had probably ‘made her’ to this song,” the report read.

The child was so upset that she cried and reported the incident to a female detention officer.

The report goes further to detail an incident when a detention officer at the facility was previously charged with sexual misconduct toward a resident back in 2018. The officer later pleaded guilty.

On top of these issues, the grand jury also found that staff misused seclusion and isolation tactics on the youth at the facility.

The report also highlighted an “us versus them” mentality that detention staff held towards contracted counselors who were “genuinely interested in working with the juveniles detained at DCJDC.”

Overall, the report revealed a complete lack of accountability at the facility, citing a “hands off” director, a video surveillance system plagued by “blind spots,” a lack of oversight from county and judicial officials, and inadequate staff training. The report also makes clear that staff was severely underpaid and overworked when compared to nearby counties.

What happens next?

The grand jury concluded its report by recommending more oversight from the county, more requirements regarding the reporting of child abuse, among other items. However, the grand jury did not weigh in on whether or not the facility should reopen.

In its statement, the county said that it has been assessing its juvenile justice system and examining the feasibility of renovating or constructing an addition to the shuttered facility and “to develop a trauma-informed multi-purpose center that will provide a wide range of holistic services for youth and their families beyond the intervention of secure detention.”

County Council has also approved a $650,000 grant to pilot a year-long alternative to detention program with Youth Advocate Programs.

Reaction to the grand jury report

Reaction to the grand jury report varied. While some were floored by the findings, others with more familiarity of the detention center were not surprised. Andre Simms, 26, is an activist and artist in Philadelphia who currently uses his platform to empower youth through socially responsible music.

However, he has roots in the city of Chester and was previously held at the detention facility in Delco. He was just 14 when he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault after a fight with his brother. He had no prior history of trouble.

“In hindsight, looking back, if I was a white kid, not from Chester, I never would have been arrested, let alone charged with a felony for that. So this is my introduction into the system. While I was in Lima, I definitely experienced violence, definitely was aware of the different levels of abuses going on. But it was an unspoken rule not to speak about it,” Simms said.

He said his decision to take a plea deal at the time followed him for the rest of his life.

“I was a straight-A student before this, so they took me, put me in a cage, and I’m around all this harm that’s been done, all this different type of trauma — and I just wanted to escape so bad,” Simms said.

He finds it “disgusting” that the county was looking for ways to reopen the facility at the same time the grand jury was investigating.

“It’s a shame that the young people who were harmed and their families are not ever going to receive justice because there’s no process for it in this system,” Simms said.

Dyamond Gibbs, of the local social justice organization Understanding, Devotion, Take action, and Justice, shared similar feelings.

“It’s just very mind blowing that they’re considering putting thousands and thousands and thousands, even millions of dollars into the construction of a number of facilities when they’re completely missing the whole point, which should always be the focus and priority of the youth and giving them those resources and connections that they need to actually thrive instead of continuously going through the criminal justice system,” Gibbs said.

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