In a letter from the Public Defender’s Office to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS), whistleblowers alleged “physical, sexual, and psychological abuse by staff” at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center, according to a March 17 article from WHYY News. Recently, the whistleblowers have spoken out on the claims, and the allegations have garnered more attention from state representatives.
The whistleblowers’ letter is “a culmination of a monthlong investigation” by the Public Defender’s office and includes “four affidavits from both current and former staff members,” WHYY News reports. The facility is located in Lima, PA, for individuals ages 10 to 18, and “run by the county court system,” according to the article.
Allegations of abuse include physical and verbal abuse committed by staff members, “an attempt to ‘induce a miscarriage’ on a pregnant teen, guards forcing a child to drink from a toilet, a disregard of suicide protocols, and several instances of beatings,” according to WHYY News, who obtained a copy of the whistleblowers’ letter. The whistleblowers also allege staff at the facility engaged in discriminatory acts of abuse. According to the letter, “a Muslim child was threatened with isolation for wearing a hijab because the staff ‘objected to its color,’ a Spanish-speaking child was berated for not speaking English, another child was called the ‘N-word,’ and a trans child was outed by staff and prohibited from continuing her hormone treatment.”
WHYY News reports that “the letter and an affidavit details several instances of using solitary confinement practices on children — for days or weeks on end.” Additionally, the letter states that “the Public Defender’s Office has received reports of poor water access along with rodent and bug infestations.” The whistleblowers allege that there is a “culture of secrecy” at the institution that is “built on fear of retaliation.”
According to WHYY News, a DHS spokesperson said that on the same day the agency received the whistleblowers’ letter, “regional staff from the Office of Children, Youth, and Families (OCYF) arrived on scene to interview the children and staff.” The spokesperson said that all individuals at the detention center were “relocated at the request of the president judge of Delaware County to ensure safety as investigations proceed.”
“Upon hearing about the allegations, the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office referred the case to Attorney General Josh Shapiro and his office,” the WHYY News article states. “As a result of this referral, it would be inappropriate for this office to make any further comment,” the office said in a statement.
“I don’t like to see anybody being mistreated,” Pennsylvania State Senator John Kane (D-09) said in the March 17 WHYY News article. “I don’t care if it’s a corrections facility. I don’t care if it’s a prison, but nobody should be treated that way.” He spoke out about the allegations on Twitter in a March 18 tweet. “Nobody deserves abuse. Nobody deserves mistreatment. Nobody deserves to live in vile conditions,” the tweet read. “There must be a full investigation into what happened at the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center.”
Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym also commented on the allegations, having been appointed to the state’s Juvenile Justice Task Force. “Until Pennsylvania DHS steps up and asserts its authority as the supervising entity of all these facilities, we cannot be surprised that these facilities are not safe for young people,” Gym said in the article. The task force was formed in January of 2020 “in the aftermath of the abuse allegations that led to the closure of the Glen Mills Schools in Delaware County.”
Comments from the Press Conference
In a March 23 WHYY News article, the whistleblowers and Public Defender’s Office spoke out about the allegations in a press conference. “The time for action is now. If someone was doing something like this to my kids, I wouldn’t wait,” said Chris Welsh, director of the Public Defender’s Office. According to this more recent article, DHS and the Attorney General’s Office are still investigating the allegations.
Welsh is looking forward to quick action by the Attorney General’s Office, especially since some of the clients of the Public Defender’s Office “are still in custody.” Welsh expressed in the article: “Those clients’ cases are impacted by what happened at the Lima detention center. We have three juvenile clients charged with aggravated assault for assaulting guards at the detention center. And it’s our position that those clients are actually the victims — and that the guards at the detention center are the aggressors in the situation.”
Welsh also noted that the allegations point to a “systemic issue.” At the press conference, he stated: “This is not just a one-off issue of a few bad actors in one place at the Delaware County facility.”
“I’m really kind of heartbroken and scared to think of how many other children we’re going to discover have had these experiences. And, I hope I’m wrong,” said First Assistant Public Defender Lee Awbrey. “The best gift that the world could give to me right now is to be wrong about my assessment of what we’re going to find as we look deeper into what’s happened here in Delaware County.”
Nathan Orians, a social worker and one of the whistleblowers, spoke at the same press conference about his experiences working at the facility. “The people in charge purposely placed children into a dangerous facility instead of protecting them, which is their job. And they turned a blind eye, or even covered up abuse that was ongoing for years.”
Orians, along with three other staff members, signed the affidavits about the alleged abuse. “Witnessing violations of basic human rights daily changes something fundamentally inside of a person,” Orians said.
State Senator Anthony Williams of Senate District 8 is also a member of the Juvenile Justice Task Force and also commented on the allegations. “People didn’t give a damn about these kids,” he said. He expressed hope that the task force will help tackle the alleged issues. “And the intent over the last year has been to study how the system is or is not working and provide recommendations to the General Assembly either through policy or legislation that would reform it, change it, and make it better,” Sen. Williams said of the task force’s work.
State Representative Mike Zabel, one of the task force’s co-chairs, commented on how these alleged abuses reflect policies emphasizing “law and order.” WHYY News reports that Rep. Zabel said: “And those policies are coming home to roost. And now we’re able to see just how disparate the impact of those policies are racially. We’ve also seen that they are not effective at curbing recidivism, they break up families, they deprive us of the workforce, and they cost governments and states and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars,” Zabel said. “It’s bad policy on every single level.” In a March 24 tweet, Rep. Zabel announced his involvement in “calling for a swift and thorough investigation into the allegations of abuse.” In a follow-up tweet, he mentioned his role in the task force.
Individuals from the social justice community also attended the press conference to support the whistleblowers and public defenders. “I wanted them to know that I stand with them every step of the way, and that no matter what comes their way … I will be here in support for them. Because it’s all about the children at the end of the day,” said Carol Kazeem from Delco Resists, an organization that “fights for social justice issues in the region.”
“Those children deserve more than just our apology,” Orians said at the press conference. “They deserve more than just Lima being shut down. They deserve to be made whole. They deserve justice.”