HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A southeastern Pennsylvania county ran a juvenile detention center where troubled teens were beaten up by guards, sexually harassed, locked in seclusion for long periods without a court order and treated like criminals, a state grand jury said in a report released Tuesday.
The 208-page report described what the state attorney general’s office called a “dangerous lack of oversight” over underpaid, overworked and poorly trained guards at the 66-bed Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center.
The system “failed to protect these children and provide them with the tools they needed to reform and grow, instead abandoning them in a dangerous environment with little to no oversight,” state Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a statement.
The grand jury issued a number of recommendations to prevent such conditions at other facilities.
The report did not recommend any criminal charges, in part because of time limits in state laws for prosecuting.
Still, the grand jury said the conduct they heard about at the facility could be criminal, and they “suspect that many more criminal acts may have occurred there at the hands of adults” who viewed the youths as “criminals or sex objects” rather than as troubled kids.
Most of the report focuses on the period between 2010 and 2021, when the facility was closed after counselors provided evidence to the county public defender’s office. That evidence spurred the state’s investigation.
A county spokesperson said officials are reviewing the report and have appointed a new juvenile detention board and a superintendent who has an extensive background in juvenile justice programs as they explore alternatives to detention.
Grand jurors said they heard accounts of staff punching, slapping, choking and threatening the teens, who had been sent to the facility to await the outcome of a criminal case.
The report said guards routinely covered up for each other, frequently changing incident reports, backing each other up when a guard was accused of abuse and retaliating against residents or counselors who accused guards of misconduct. Few were disciplined, it said.
Guards took advantage of blind spots in the facility’s coverage of video cameras, engaging in violent and inappropriate conduct off camera to prevent independent documentation of the abuse, the report said.
The county never approved the director’s repeated budget requests for additional funding to update the facility’s video surveillance system, it said. The county also never appointed a board to oversee the facility, despite being legally required to do so, the report said.
Sexually inappropriate conduct by some male detention officers toward female residents and staff members was “fairly pervasive,” the report said.
In other cases, staff — for their own convenience — often locked up the teens for extended periods, it said, flouting a law that required a judge to approve such detention for more than four hours.