Former Obama AG Loretta Lynch to lead audit into child sexual abuse at Devereux

Devereux facility. (Google Street View)

Devereux facility. (Google Street View)

Devereux, one of the country’s largest behavioral health nonprofits, has hired a former Obama administration official to lead what it calls an “independent safety audit” into the sexual abuse that took place at its facilities across eight states over the past 25 years.

Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, where Lynch is a partner, will examine “policies and procedures regarding safety at the organization’s children’s behavioral health care programs,” according to a statement from the company.

“The goal of this audit, which is not a regulatory requirement, nor has it been requested by any outside party, is to ensure no stone is left unturned in Devereux’s quest to create the safest and highest quality programs and services possible,” said the organization’s Chief Strategy Officer Leah Yaw.

News of the review comes after The Philadelphia Inquirer published a report last month uncovering at least 41 cases in which children had been raped or sexually assaulted at Devereux facilities. Ten of those cases took place in the Philadelphia suburbs; other children said they were abused at facilities in New Jersey and six other states.

Per it’s own website, Devereux serves many of the “most vulnerable members of our society in areas of autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities, specialty mental health, and child welfare.”

The Inquirer found survivors were as young as 12 when the abuse occurred. A common thread in their cases was a lack of accountability for staff, employee shortages and low pay, which didn’t attract the most skilled direct care workers.

But Devereux did not turn a blind eye to the abuse cases, Yaw maintains. The cases were known to Devereux and properly investigated at the time, she said. At least one of the abuse survivors interviewed by the Inquirer contradicts these claims, saying they were told they were having “flashbacks” to previous abuse.

The nonprofit undertook a major reorganization in 2018 when Carl Clark took over as CEO, including a plan to gradually increase the hourly pay of direct support professionals. The average pay of Devereux direct care workers in Southeastern Pennsylvania went from $12.96 in 2017 to its current average of $15.27.

Another hourly increase is slated to take place within 30 to 60 days, which Yaw said was planned as part of the reorganization and the timing has nothing to do with the Inquirer report.

The goal is to offer direct care providers $20 an hour by 2023, if not sooner.

“Our efforts to pay that kind of meaningful wage is about social justice and it’s also very much about attracting and keeping the highest quality staff, the folks with the highest degrees of excellence in the field,” said Yaw, adding the quality of care is “tied directly” to direct care staff.

In addition to passing various background checks, including for child abuse and criminal history, potential employees must now pass a screening that tests people on their ability to recognize sexual boundaries between adults and children, said Yaw.

The Inquirer reported at least four staffers had abused a total of 11 children since the much-touted reorganization in 2018.

The independent audit announced Thursday is a way to show the organization is committed to accountability and transparency, said Yaw, as well as a way to evaluate the safety upgrades, including those in hiring, Devereux facilities have made since 2018.

“Perhaps there are really extraordinary new kinds of things that could be implemented that could help us just increase the quality of care, increase the metrics of safety for kids,” said Yaw.

Should the audit reveal groundbreaking safety measures, such as technology Devereux’s facilities could use, Yaw said the nonprofit would share that information with its entire field.

But at so early a stage, she said Devereux could not outline the cost of the audit, the form the investigation would take or whether the final “product” would be made public, though discretion would be given to Lynch and the firm performing the analysis.

Meanwhile, the state is conducting its own investigation into the circumstances that led to the abuse and Philadelphia is no longer sending children to Deveraux facilities. A majority of city councilmembers are also calling to end all existing contracts with the nonprofit.

Devereux still has a $40.2 million contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to house migrant youth in Pennsylvania and other states.

Disclosure: WHYY has received funding from the Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, we reported that Devereux has required background checks since 2018. They have actually required them for over ten years.

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