PENNSYLVANIA — Attorney General Josh Shapiro this week announced the findings and recommendations of the 47th Investigating Grand Jury in the newly released Grand Jury Report on the severe deficiencies in the operation of the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center (“DCJDC”). The Grand Jury’s investigation uncovered a systemic failure by the detention center to fulfill its role within the juvenile justice system. These deficiencies allowed for a dangerous and unprofessional culture that put children’s safety at risk.
“Juvenile detention centers should be a place where young people can mature and learn from their mistakes,” said AG Shapiro. “The Grand Jury found 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. All of Pennsylvania’s young people deserve the opportunity to grow into successful, productive members of society, and my office will advocate for the reforms necessary to correct the system that failed these children.”
The 47th Investigating Grand Jury did not recommend criminal charges in connection with various incidents that occurred at DCJDC because either the statute of limitations had passed or there was insufficient admissible evidence to sustain a criminal conviction against individual actors. The report highlights a dangerous absence of oversight and accountability from leadership, as well as poor working conditions for staff employed by DCJDC.The report concludes with a series of recommendations regarding the operation and oversight of secure juvenile detention facilities like DCJDC, to ensure the practices uncovered here do not continue.
The report explains how DCJDC’s lack of oversight and substandard working conditions contributed to a culture of unprofessionalism that allowed for instances of violence and sexual misconduct. Former residents testified to intentionally being beaten by detention officers in areas where there were no cameras, and to suffering from the use of excessive force generally. Accounts of staff punching, slapping, choking, and threatening the juveniles were shared with the Grand Jury by both former residents and former detention officers. The DCJDC surveillance system was so outdated that when the system broke administrators could only find replacement parts on eBay. Only about 50 percent of the facility was covered by video cameras, and only a portion of those cameras were recording at any given time.
Several former residents and staff members also testified to sexually inappropriate conduct by male detention staff. One officer repeatedly made sexual comments to and about female residents and sexual advances toward female staff members. Female residents and staff reported unwanted touching from another male detention officer who frequently made inappropriate comments about their bodies. The sexual conduct by male detention officers toward female residents and staff was pervasive and yet went largely undisciplined at DCJDC. One male detention officer maintained a sexual relationship with a female juvenile resident years prior. In a separate incident, another male detention officer was convicted for having sexual contact with a former juvenile resident, a minor, in 2018. The Grand Jury found that there were missed opportunities to uncover the relationship a year before the detention officer was arrested, and the facility did next to nothing to address appropriate and professional boundaries between staff and the residents after the illicit sexual relationship came to light.
The report also details how the dangerous practice of seclusion was inappropriately utilized within the center. Seclusion refers to “placing a child in a locked room” and can only be used as a last resort when dealing with a juvenile who is a threat to themselves or others. DCJDC also permitted the seclusion of juveniles over legally permitted time limits without the required court orders.
Despite having onsite counselors and social workers available, counselors testified that the culture at the DCJDC often undermined their work. Detention staff frequently interfered with the ability of counselors to meet with the juveniles, and were heard mocking juveniles and counselors alike when they did meet. Several counselors made numerous ChildLine reports about the detention staff while employed at DCJDC, but to no avail.
The report acknowledges that many of the issues at DCJDC derive from the center’s poor working conditions, such as low-pay and insufficient staffing, that contributed to a situation in which young, under-trained, and under-supported detention officers were overseeing juveniles who often had challenging behavioral problems. When staffing and pay concerns were raised to officials, little action was taken to address them.
Overall, the Grand Jury concluded that the failures of the DCJDC appear to stem from a lack of accountability, leadership, and oversight of the center, in addition to systemic failures such as inadequate pay of staff, an over-reliance on overtime, and a lack of oversight from outside agencies.
To improve the conditions of the DCJDC, the Grand Jury proposed the following recommendations:
- The legislature should amend the Human Services Code to mandate that all secure juvenile detention facilities are overseen by a board of managers, regardless of county class or home rule charters.
- The Department of Human Services should be required to report allegations of child abuse, indicated or founded reports of child abuse, licensing actions, or incidents involving law enforcement to outside entities including the judiciary, the public defender, the district attorney, the juvenile probation department, and county commissioners.
- The legislature should amend Article X of Human Services Code to expand DHS’s authority to respond to licensing violations beyond requiring corrective action and short of revoking a facility’s license entirely.
- The Department of Human Services should increase the requirements for when a secure juvenile detention facility can keep a child in seclusion.
- The legislature should direct the Joint State Government Commission (“JSGC”) to examine and develop best practices for the operation of juvenile detention centers, including video surveillance, training, minimum qualification requirements for management and staff, restrictions on use of overtime, programming requirements, and policies regarding incident reports and grievances.
The investigation was conducted in the Grand Jury by Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye, Deputy Attorney General James Price, and Senior Deputy Attorney General Jill Graziano.
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