Thirteen people have come forward and alleged that they, too, were sexually assaulted as children while in the care of Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, according to a lawsuit filed this week.
Of the 13, at least seven said they had complained to a Devereux staffer or social worker at the time, but their allegations were ignored and, in some cases, the abuse continued.
“It shows that this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Robert Mongeluzzi, one of their lawyers. “We believe that more are going to come forward as the scope of this problem is peeled away.”
The revelations come after a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation in August detailed how 41 children — as young as 12 years old, and with IQs as low as 50 — were raped or sexually assaulted by Devereux staff members over the past 25 years.
The 13 plaintiffs — 12 from Pennsylvania and one from Delaware — claim they were abused between 2004 and 2014 at one of Devereux’s three campuses in Chester County. Mongeluzzi said the 13 alleged victims were not among the 41 noted in The Inquirer investigation.
“While we have not yet seen the actual lawsuit, we can tell you any reported incidents involving children formerly in our care are heartbreaking,” Devereux said in a statement Monday afternoon.
The statement noted that the nonprofit had hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch to conduct an independent audit of child safety “to prevent this sort of harm from ever befalling another child.”
“These industry challenges are far more complex than can be surmounted by staff training and financial investments alone, but we understand the hard work that needs to be done and committed many years ago to doing it,” the statement said.
The Inquirer found that Devereux’s leaders over the years promised to root out sexual predators and put safeguards in place to better protect children, but failed to do so.
“This is an unusual sexual abuse case in the level of overwhelming evidence of years of neglect and recklessness by an institution,” said Andrew R. Duffy at the Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky law firm.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers said some of the alleged victims independently identified the same perpetrator.
A plaintiff, identified as L.T., said she was 15 in 2013 when a Devereux staffer named Everol Brackett groomed her with snacks and privileges, then sexually abused her.
Brackett is now serving a 2017 prison sentence for assaulting another girl at Devereux a year later. The Inquirer detailed how Brackett showered C’Kenya Tanksley, almost 15 at the time, with gifts and flattery.
After a staffer found a love letter between the girl and Brackett, he was not punished, and a program manager told her to apologize to Brackett, Tanksley said.
On a home pass, Brackett took Tanksley shopping, then drove her to an alley and sexually assaulted her in his car, before he dropped her off at a bus station to find her way back to Devereux’s Malvern residential facility, she said.
The complaint, filed in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
In 2019, the state enacted a law that extended the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse claims. Victims now have until age 55 to bring a civil claim.
Headquartered in Villanova, Devereux specializes in treating children with intellectual disabilities, mental disorders and trauma at 15 residential campuses in nine states, making it the nation’s leading nonprofit health organization of its kind. It cares for 5,000 children across the country every year.
Kristen Gibbons Feden, of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky and a lead prosecutor in the successful criminal case against actor Bill Cosby, said some victims told Devereux supervisors about the abuse, but “were kind of shut down and silenced.”
Among the allegations in the lawsuit:
• A young woman, identified as K.M., was 8 years old when, in 2004, several Devereux staffers sexually abused and raped her. She complained to her Department of Human Services (DHS) worker but was branded as a liar.
• In 2008, when he was not yet 12, a victim, identified as L.C., said a female staffer touched his genitals and, on a separate occasion, forced him to expose himself in the laundry room, out of view of security cameras. Another staffer, who walked in and witnessed the abuse, reacted by disciplining and sedating him with an injection.
• Also in 2008, P.G., a 17-year-old girl repeatedly was sedated by injection, and as she blacked out, was sexually assaulted by a male staffer. She said that several times she awoke to find blood on her underwear.
The Inquirer investigation detailed how lapses in supervision, training, and care fueled an environment at Devereux where staffers could sexually abuse children.
In an interview in August, Devereux executives denied that campuses currently have issues with staffing or supervision. They said they have increased safety and reduced risk by adopting a number of safeguards to prevent abuse and hold staffers accountable since January 2018, when Carl Clark took over as chief executive officer.
Reporters found that since 2018, four Devereux staffers have been charged with sexually abusing 11 children.
Last month, after a six-week safety review, city officials announced they will pull all 53 Philadelphia children out of Devereux’s residential campuses after finding that staffers repeatedly failed to watch over them.
And last week, Devereux executives said it abandoned its plan to shelter up to 40 undocumented migrant children in Devon, Chester County. Devereux also no longer intends to house 12 migrant children at a facility in Rutland, Mass. The decision comes roughly a year and a half after Devereux secured a $40.2 million federal grant to house and provide services to scores of migrant children in Pennsylvania and four other states.
Erin James, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which licenses and oversees residential facilities, said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit. A state investigation into Devereux, launched in August, is ongoing, she said.
© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC