Why Do You Handle Civil Sex Abuse Cases In Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Across the Country?
I became involved in civil sex abuse cases in Pennsylvania after doing criminal defense and civil rights legal work for many years. Following an extensive criminal investigation, the Glen Mills Reform Schools in Pennsylvania had all its state operating permits and licenses revoked, and the facility was ordered closed. The massive investigation uncovered widespread sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by numerous staff within the institution. This investigation exposed thousands of horrific stories of torture and abuse, committed against the vulnerable juveniles, court ordered to attend this facility. While knowing Glen Mills’ reputation as a “sports-oriented, hands-on,” reform school where at-risk and adjudicated juveniles were sent for placement, I only later learned about its more sinister reputation. While it was common knowledge regarding the school’s hands-on program, the magnitude of abuse disguised as discipline is staggering. After speaking with thousands of my clients, family members, and former students, who themselves attended Glen Mills, in addition to other reform schools, where they also suffered abuse, the number of egregious violations of these juvenile’s rights became undeniable.
Glen Mills opened in 1826, is the oldest reform school in the country. Approximately 2,000 students attended this facility every year. There were students who attended for day sessions and many others who lived at the facility. Glen Mills students were sent to placement from almost every state in America, and others from foreign countries. I have represented former students sent to Glen Mills, from as far back the 1950s. Glen Mills former student population exceeds 50,000. After I conducted a separate investigation based upon the release of the Pennsylvania State Department of Human Services permit revocations, it became evident Glen Mills failed to properly conduct staff background checks. Many persons, in my thousands of conversations with former students, described staff who were alleged to have committed abuse and who after credible allegations were allowed to keep working. Glen Mills purposefully turned a blind eye to thousands of complaints from students about being beaten by multiple staff and made to sit in stress positions for numerous hours daily, for minor offenses such as taking a shower exceeding 90 seconds.
Moreover, according to former student accounts, much of the abuse committed at Glen Mills was to quench many racist staff members desire to harm the mostly minority students. Many students told stories of being called racial slurs, being whipped, and forced to do tasks naked while staff mocked them. Some white staff members spit chewing tobacco into the faces of minority student athletes while calling them racial slurs. In 2019, after the Glen Mills investigation was revealed, approximately 750 former students came forward with their physical and sexual abuse claims. Last year, over 7,000 former Glen Mills students joined this mass tort lawsuit. For me knowing adult Glen Mills staff members committed abuse against vulnerable children made this a personal quest for justice.
While many former students came from places around the U.S., a very large number were sent there directly from Pittsburgh, Scranton, and Philadelphia. Decades of disparate treatment for white versus minority juveniles in the justice system has led to extremely differing outcomes. Many poorer minority students, from single family homes, from Pennsylvania’s larger cities often received harsher sentences than those from more affluent communities and families. Oftentimes poorer students who got into trouble were sent to Glen Mills and reform schools similar to it, to suffer years of abuse. Some students sent to these schools who had never committed a crime were subjected to years of abuse for simply being truant.
In addition to the horrific abuse suffered which happened to many children court-committed to these reform schools, these students described how many of these facilities failed to provide them with an adequate education. While, many of these students had different types of learning capabilities, the education was almost universal and uniform. Almost all students’ classroom education consisted of receiving a video recording and sitting in front of a television to watch it. Many former reform school students claimed, staff members rarely taught them material suitable for their age and were frequently abusive to them. In many of these reform schools, a culture of abuse existed and often assaults were done in the presence of other students, as an example of what would happen if any child disobeyed the staff.
Hundreds of my clients were sexually abused at reform schools across the country, and have gruesome testimonials about the physical treatment they suffered, if they did anything that might be construed as defying the staff’s authority. At Glen Mills in particular former students described being the disciplinary system. Glen Mills students deemed to have violated the rules, were placed “on concern”. When a student was placed “on concern” they were forced to do manual labor for hours without proper equipment and often in dehumanizing conditions. The manual labor included being forced, while naked or in their underwear, to use toothbrushes to clean bathrooms while on their hands and knees and in other situations to use tweezers to remove lint from dozens of carpets. Hundreds of former students we represent recounted that they received less food daily while “on-concern”. Students recounted these “on-concern” incidents where staff encouraged others to mock and harass those being punished.
When the Pennsylvania Department of Health audited Glen Mills, and conducted a compliance review, they found many staff were allowed to continue employment without the mandated child abuse background checks. According to Auditor’s report, Glen Mills failed to ensure every person who worked there was allowed to pursuant to state rules. Glen Mills never audited their staff. The Department of Health discovered from a random sample 33% never had background checks completed. The Auditor determined the reform school failed to insure its employees were compliant. Numerous staff employed by Glen Mills had been convicted of disqualifying criminal offenses which the Auditor determined should have been fully investigated before any person was allowed to work with children in their care. This state audit also unearthed the fact Glen Mills failed to provide adequate child abuse training.
In Pennsylvania, in 2008 there was a major controversy regarding two judges convicted for bribery in a case called “Cash for Kids”. Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella both of Luzerne County, which is located near Scranton, Pennsylvania, were convicted for their roles in accepting bribes for performing judicial acts. These judges collectively sentenced thousands of children to juvenile facilities, oftentimes for many years. The offenses ranged from mocking a school staff member on social media to trespassing in a vacant building. The tough sentences were done to boost capacity at many of juvenile placements which in turn meant more revenue for the respective facilities. I was horrified upon learning many former students at reform schools across Pennsylvania had been sent there by Judges Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, during the Cash for Kids Scandal. Both judges were convicted for their parts in the Cash for Kids scandal with Judge Conahan receiving 17.5 years in federal prison while Judge Ciavarella got a 28-year term of imprisonment. Many poorer minority children suffered years of abuse so others including these sentencing judges could financially benefit.
Many former students provided accounts of the staff protecting the facility’s financial interests. Glen Mills financial interest was protected by hiding the rampant student abuse, combined with staff providing false information to courts, probation officers, parole officers, and the police about fabricated student misconduct which would keep the kids locked away for many months or years longer.
According to former students, accounts, oftentimes judges were provided by staff with false information about the student’s conduct. If a child was serving an adjudication or put on probation and found to have violated court orders, the time they had to spend at the facility would be lengthened. As an example, if joyriding has a maximum two-year imprisonment penalty and the child received a probationary sentence and subsequently a staff member lied about misconduct while housed at a placement the juvenile could be resentenced for this violation and sentenced to a new term of probation or up to two years in prison. The penalties were severe and often based upon the perceived credibility of adult staff members who consciously hid their misdeeds with the assistance of the facility.
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