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Health care nonprofit must face child sexual abuse claims

A federal judge denied a Pennsylvania-based behavioral health organization’s bid to dismiss a case brought by children who claim they were abused at facilities in several states.

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Children who claim they were sexually abused at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health facilities across the country can move forward with a class action after a Pennsylvania federal judge on Thursday denied the health care nonprofit's motion to dismiss the case.

"These are incredibly tragic stories," attorney Annika Martin of Lieff Cabraser, representing the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview. "There are stories from every corner of the Devereux organization." 

The three plaintiff children, two of whom still live in Devereux facilities, are seeking damages for alleged physical and sexual abuse. Devereux argues the complaints are baseless and filled with hypotheticals of future abuse. 

"Ultimately, in its attempt to remedy the myriad pleading deficiencies Devereux identified in prior briefing, plaintiffs' FAC manages to start as many fires as it puts out," according to a May 2022 brief Devereux filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Senior U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody, appointed by George H. W. Bush, disagreed in her ruling Thursday, finding the plaintiffs sufficiently alleged actual ongoing or imminent future harm.

"Whether framed as the ongoing harm of being confined to facilities with policies that fail to prevent or respond to abuse, or the likely future harm of continuing abuse because of these policies, this alleged injury satisfies the actuality or imminence requirement," Brody wrote.

This is the third time since the complaint was filed in June 2021 that the court has denied a motion to dismiss from the Pennsylvania-based Devereux.

"Devereux is disappointed in and respectfully disagrees with the court’s ruling," attorney Jeffrey Lutsky of Stradley Ronon, representing the company, said in an emailed statement. "The court’s ruling pertains to preliminary matters only. It makes no findings of fact or ruling on the merits regarding the allegations raised in this litigation. Devereux will continue to defend itself vigorously and looks forward to the opportunity to refute the allegations raised by these plaintiffs."

Patients of Devereux's 21 facilities spread throughout 13 states often have psychiatric, behavioral, developmental or intellectual disabilities. This makes them more vulnerable as it can be harder to report abuse, according to the lawsuit, especially when dealing with limited communication abilities or cognitive impairments.

"They put themselves forward as an organization that protects and heals these vulnerable people," Martin said. "Instead, they harm, and they allow harm to happen." 

One of the three plaintiffs, an 8-year-old diagnosed with autism going by the alias W.M., lived in a Florida facility between 2020 and 2021 and reported sexual abuse involving another resident who would visit W.M.'s room and perform oral sex acts. In addition to abuse suffered by other residents, W.M., the youngest child at the facility, experienced physical and emotional abuse from the staff. 

"Devereux staff have forcibly restrained plaintiff, causing unnecessary and excessive bruising and pain," W.M.'s initial brief stated. "He has reacted by pulling out his hair, as he had done in foster care due to abuse and trauma."

The abuse didn't end there for W.M. Withholding food was used as a disciplinary technique despite further triggering his behavior, according to the filing.

"Plaintiff informed his mother that Devereux staff taunted and manipulated him by withholding food," the brief states. "Devereux staff admitted that they make him 'work' for his favorite foods, strategically withholding or offering certain 'reward' foods to make him comply with desired behaviors and to use physical restraints when he protested the denial of favorite foods."

Children like W.M. admitted at Devereux facilities often arrive after previous placement in a state child welfare system facility due to parental abuse or neglect.

The two other boys involved in the case continue to live in Devereux facilities. A 14-year-old living in a Pennsylvania Devereux facility going by A.W. allegedly experienced physical abuse along with witnessing sexual abuse. 

According to the lawsuit, A.W. was punched in the nose, hit with keys and restrained to the point of being bruised by staff. A.W. also reported witnessing instances of grooming from staff members to fellow residents. 

T.S. is a 17-year-old who has spent time in Devereux facilities in Georgia and Colorado. He claims he was restrained to a tree and forced to wear dirty clothes for weeks, and was punched by another resident while staff members watched.

The federal class action seeks to provide relief to the three plaintiffs plus a pathway for the more than 25,000 children and adults in Devereux facilities to receive future relief for abuse. 

"It's happening every day constantly," Martin said. "This kind of abuse ruins kids' lives." 

The denial of the motion means that discovery can move forward. Martin said her side is focused on drilling down specific policy changes that need to be made by Devereux to stop future abuse from happening. 

"If we can get rid of this one source of child abuse, that's a real win," she said.

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