A New Jersey youth detention center had ‘culture of abuse,’ new lawsuit says

The lawsuit alleges virtually unchecked sexual abuse of the boys housed at the New Jersey Training School in Monroe Township.

The gate outside the New Jersey Training School

The gate outside the New Jersey Training School carries a bygone name for the facility, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, in Monroe Township, N.J. (AP Photo/Mike Catalini, File)

A New Jersey youth detention center let a “culture of abuse,” in which staff sexually abused boys, endure for decades, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in state Superior Court by 50 men who lived at the facility.

The lawsuit alleges virtually unchecked sexual abuse of the boys housed at the New Jersey Training School in Monroe Township.

“For decades, children detained in New Jersey juvenile detention facilities have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of guards, counselors, and other agents of the State, all while Defendant has had knowledge of, and turned a blind eye to, this culture of abuse,” the lawsuit says.

The allegations outlined in the suit stretch from the 1970s to the 2010s and include dozens of harrowing details, including that guards, counselors and other staff sexually abused the boys at the facility and in woods around it and threatened them with further confinement if they divulged the abuse.

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One of the plaintiffs — not identified by name because of the nature of the allegations — said he informed the parole board about the abuse he suffered but “was not taken seriously.” Others notified other staff members, only to have nothing done about the allegations, the suit says.

The facility, which is not solely a school but a campus that includes cottages and a vocational building run by the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission, currently houses about 200 people, according to the state. It dates to 1867, is the state’s largest such facility, and sits less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of New York. Most of the residents are 16-18 years old, though it houses people committed by courts from ages 12-23, according to the state.

It’s long been considered troubled.

In 2018, the state announced plans to close the facility following years of allegations of abuse, including U.S. Justice Department reports alleging high rates of sexual abuse at the facility. The facility also drew scrutiny because of racial disparities, with Black children accounting for a disproportionately high number of boys being housed there, according to advocates.

But the closure has stalled as officials seek out other sites to house juveniles in state custody.

Highlighting the system’s apparent failure should lead to an overdue overhaul of how New Jersey handles juvenile cases, according to the attorneys who brought the suit on behalf of the men.

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“We hope these people will not only get justice in their individual cases but this will lead to reform of the system,” said Jerome Block, a partner at the law firm Levy Konigsberg.

A message seeking comment has been left with the state attorney general’s office, which typically represents the state in lawsuits.

The lawsuit, more than 90 pages long and filed in Middlesex County, seeks damages, including punitive damages, among other costs.

The suit was possible in part because New Jersey overhauled its civil statute of limitations on childhood sex abuse claims in 2019.

The new law allows child victims to sue up until they turn 55 or within seven years of their first realization that the abuse caused them harm. The previous statute of limitations is age 20 or two years after first realizing the abuse caused harm.

The lawsuit calls to mind similar allegations that came to light in recent years in New Hampshire, where more than 1,000 men and women alleged they were physically or sexually abused at a state detention center.

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