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200 victims allege child sex abuse in Maryland youth detention facilities

The latest lawsuit, which was filed Thursday on behalf of 63 plaintiffs, alleges rampant abuse at 15 juvenile detention facilities

Jean Hargadon Wehner speaks about the release of the redacted report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore by the Maryland Attorney General's Office
Jean Hargadon Wehner speaks about the release of the redacted report on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore by the Maryland Attorney General's Office on Wednesday, April 6, 2023, in Baltimore.Kim Hairston (AP)

Since Maryland lawmakers eliminated the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse lawsuits last year, the number of victims suing the state’s juvenile justice agency has grown to 200.

The latest lawsuit, which was filed Thursday on behalf of 63 plaintiffs, alleges rampant abuse at 15 juvenile detention facilities. Some of them have since closed while others remain in operation.

At least 10 other complaints alleging abuse of incarcerated youth were filed previously under a Maryland law change that went into effect in October, opening the doors for victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue regardless of their age or how much time has passed. Lawmakers approved the change with the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal in mind after a scathing investigative report revealed the scope of the problem within the Archdiocese of Baltimore. But in recent months, an unexpected spotlight has settled on the state’s juvenile justice system.

The pending cases could encounter significant delays because the Child Victims Act is facing a widely anticipated constitutional challenge that must first be resolved.

The wave of litigation also comes as Maryland lawmakers seek to strengthen oversight of the state’s juvenile justice system and consider rolling back some reform measures enacted in 2022, a proposal that critics say will likely result in more children behind bars.

The complaint filed Thursday chronicles what the plaintiffs’ attorneys call a systemic problem that permeates Maryland’s network of juvenile detention facilities. The allegations span several decades from 1969 to 2017.

The state’s Department of Juvenile Services has long faced criticism for inadequate conditions inside its facilities.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Juvenile Services didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the new lawsuit Thursday. Agency spokesperson Eric Solomon previously said the department was aware of recent sexual abuse allegations and “working hard to provide decent, humane, and rehabilitative environments for youth.”

Among the plaintiffs in Thursday’s complaint is a woman who said she was only 7 when she endured abuse at Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center in 1992. According to the complaint, an abusive staff member commented that she was the youngest girl in the unit and promised to “protect her in exchange for compliance with the abuse.” That facility was closed in 2022.

Many plaintiffs said their abusers offered them extra food, phone calls, time outside and other rewards. Others said they received threats of violence, solitary confinement, longer sentences and transfer to harsher facilities.

In addition to correctional officers, the complaint includes accusations against nurses, librarians, teachers, counselors and more. Many victims claim they reported the abuse, but facility administrators did nothing to address it.

One teenage victim was hospitalized because of complications from two sexually transmitted diseases she contracted from repeated rapes, according to the complaint. That alleged abuse occurred at the Montrose School in Baltimore County not long before its closure in 1988.

A male victim said two guards would enter his cell at night and take turns beating, restraining and raping him. He was detained at Baltimore’s still-operating Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in the early 2000s. The victim sought treatment for injuries sustained during the assaults, but the doctor didn’t believe him, according to the complaint.

In a separate lawsuit filed in December, plaintiffs called the Hickey school a “hotbed of sexual abuse” and accused the Department of Juvenile Services of turning a blind eye for decades.

Jerome Block, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the most recent case, said some of the problems documented in the complaint are likely ongoing. “There’s no reason to believe anything has changed,” he said.

Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, a Democrat, joined state lawmakers earlier this week in announcing proposed juvenile justice measures they said would increase accountability across the system and mandate better coordination between the various agencies involved.

The legislation, which came in response to recent increases in youth gun crimes and car thefts, drew swift criticism from some advocates and attorneys, including Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue, who said it would mean thousands more children being incarcerated every year.

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