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Child sex abuse claims part of systemic problem at youth facilities, lawsuits claim

Posted at 6:27 PM, Mar 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-13 18:27:57-04

HALETHORPE, Md. — Though it's been closed for seven years, signs celebrating the anniversary of Good Shepherd Services still hang outside the facility in Halethorpe. Since 1970, children were sent here for either behavioral health treatment or correctional services. It was also a residential facility for kids in the foster care system. But as two lawsuits filed in Baltimore yesterday allege, Good Shepherd Services was also a "site of unimaginable trauma."

"Instead of protecting their safety and nurturing them, they allowed horrific harms to occur to them during that time,” Frank Natale said.

Natale, managing attorney for Slater, Slater, and Schulman LLP, filed one of the suits on behalf of 26 people, mostly women. Another was filed by Brown Kiely LLP and Levy Konigsberg LLP for similar allegations on behalf of 13 people. Both complaints were filed against the State of Maryland and the three state agencies that oversee facilities like Good Shepherd: the Departments of Health, Human Services, and Juvenile Services.

The reports of sexual abuse span decades - from the 1980s to 2017, when the facility closed, and ranges from inappropriate touching, to rape.

"It's absolutely systemic and a pattern of abuse, and it's really a sad testament to the fact that the folks who were working in these facilities saw an opportunity to take advantage of children who were vulnerable and who were in a position that they couldn’t voice or advocate for themselves at that time, and really couldn’t until this Act was passed.”

The act Natale references is the Maryland Child Victims Act signed into law in 2023. It allows survivors to file retroactive lawsuits, even if their claims already expired under an existing statute of limitations. The victims in these cases were kids when the abuse allegedly happened, and now range in age from 25 to 55.

The attorneys bringing forth these cases say this wasn't just one bad apple abusing kids and getting away with it; rather it was many staff members, including guards, counselors, priests, and nuns.

The victims report being drugged to make it easier to manipulate and abuse them. According to the lawsuit, the abusers were able to get the kids alone often; for example, under the pretext of a "wellness check" in their rooms, or by bringing them to the chapel to pray with them.

The victims say the abusers bribed them with gifts like food, clothing, or special privileges, then threatened them to stay quiet by saying things like - if you tell anyone, you'll be placed in solitary confinement, you'll be forced to stay here longer, or you'll be moved to another facility where your mom can't visit you.

On some occasions where kids did report their abuse to staff members, nothing was done. There were three incidents listed in the two suits where staff members were fired after abuse was reported. In desperate attempts to escape the abuse, some victims say they resorted to self-harm. Others ran away.

"It's really head-scratching in the sense that - there's evidence that the state knew there were problems at this facility, at Good Shepherd. They issued different edicts like moratoriums and warnings and limitations on this facility when they found out about certain abuses occurring, but yet they didn't do enough to stop the abuses, they didn't do enough to intervene to stop children from going there,” Natale said. “It really is a question that probably doesn’t have an answer, but why did they allow children to keep going there when they knew of those abuses?”

The three departments named in the license released the following joint statement:

"The State has not been served with the lawsuit yet. However, the Departments of Health, Human Services, and Juvenile Services work to ensure the safety and well-being of all children and youth placed in state care. We take allegations of sexual abuse of children in our care seriously.”

The lawsuits argue -- this was not an isolated incident but part of a culture of abuse, both at this facility and other juvenile detention facilities across the state.

The suit filed on behalf of the 13 individuals who stayed at Good Shepherd says: "Some of the Plaintiffs were also confined and abused at other facilities run by the State. Similar abuse of children at Maryland’s juvenile detention facilities continues to this day.”

The suits accuse the state agencies of negligent hiring, training and education, and supervision at their facilities.

"Despite knowing of the history and high risk of sexual abuse against children by Defendants’ facility staff, Defendants recklessly disregarded those risks and failed to enact new policies or enforce existing policies intended to protect children from sexual abuse by Defendants’ facility staff. Despite knowing of the high risk of sexual abuse of children at Defendants’ facilities, Defendants cultivated a culture that enabled facility staff to prey on children’s vulnerabilities and deliberately disregarded a widespread practice of facility staff abusing children, or condoning abuse of children,” the suit filed Slater, Slater, and Schulman claims.

Natale says his office is working with more than 500 clients who have reported abuse at different juvenile detention facilities in Maryland. He says more lawsuits are coming.