Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center

Officials charged with the operation of the Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center, pictured here, need to make clear their procedures for keeping children safe. 

Lancaster County has agreed to pay $400,000 to a girl who was sexually assaulted by an employee of its juvenile detention center in 2017 when she was 15 years old.

The settlement agreement, one of the largest in county history, resolves only the first of numerous federal lawsuits filed against the county over the abusive Youth Intervention Center worker.

The girl’s lawsuit, filed last year, named Lancaster County as well as individual county employees as defendants, including former guard David Stevenson. The girl’s lawsuit alleged a pattern of sexually harassing behavior by Stevenson, escalating to “outrageous criminal acts.”

Though the county acknowledges the assaults occurred and that they had received multiple reports of his behavior prior to them, it has not responded to questions about what, if any, changes have been made to prevent future incidents.

Stevenson, now 56, who worked at the Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center from 2016 to 2017, was charged in 2017 with multiple counts of sexual assault against five girls living at the facility.

He was sentenced in June 2018 to 10 to 25 years in state prison after pleading guilty and no contest to a score of sex abuse charges involving five girls at the county-run shelter.

The girl who settled her lawsuit last month is one of six girls who have each filed lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania related to their stays in the facility and Stevenson’s alleged abuse. Lancaster city lawyer Christopher Lyden represents all the girls.

“For whatever reason, the culture in (the youth facility) seems to be that they had to catch him red-handed before they did anything,” Lyden said.

What did the county know?

The cases have raised serious questions about if and when Lancaster County knew Stevenson posed a substantial risk to the juveniles in its care and whether the county ignored warning signs.

Stevenson’s professional background indicated the county should have had concerns about hiring him, Lyden said.

Had county officials contacted his previous employers, Lyden said, they may have learned that he was possibly fired from Abraxas Academy Shelter of Morgantown after only a few months, and that there may have been an allegation of inappropriate behavior at the Children’s Home of Reading.

Multiple county officials either did not respond to requests for comment or said they were unsure whether Stevenson’s former employers were contacted. The newspaper contacted both facilities and received no response.

Charlette Stout, the county’s human resources director, said the county checked with two references prior to his hiring but did not say who they were. References were blacked out on a copy of Stevenson's application obtained by the newspaper from the county.

There were also several unexplained gaps in employment in the application, and Abraxas Academy and the Children's Home were not listed as former places of employment.

The county has maintained it complied with background check requirements when hiring Stevenson.

“The criminal background check and ChildLine clearance for Stevenson at the time of his hire were clean and indicated no prior misconduct,” county solicitor Chris Hausner said in 2018.

Asked directly this week if the county has reviewed its hiring practices or how it handles complaints, neither Hausner; the county’s chief clerk, Larry George; nor the Youth Intervention Center’s director, Drew Fredricks, responded.

Fredricks did reply via email, sending along a statement on what systems the county uses from background checks as well as how the county complies with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“Unfortunately, despite that, and the fact that he only worked at the Youth Intervention Center for less than a year, he was still able to perpetrate crimes,” the statement said in part. “It is a lesson to us and to all institutions that, as we have noted previously, even the most professional facility with the most rigorous background checks is not totally immune from individuals determined to commit crimes. We must be, and are, on guard for such behavior and will continue to review all policies and procedures.”

Multiple complaints

The county received four complaints about Stevenson’s conduct with female residents prior to his arrest. The county admits in its defense that it received them but doesn’t discuss the details.

Filings from the girls provide insight into what the county may have known.

Just a month into his job, a juvenile resident told a facility employee that Stevenson made her uncomfortable and that he was “looking at the girls funny,” the lawsuits allege. The staffer reported the incident to a supervisor, who in turn contacted administrators.

That same month, August 2016, another juvenile reported Stevenson was trying to touch her and other girls, although the county and the staffer deny they received such a report, according to the plaintiff’s suits and the defendant’s responses.

A month later Stevenson began assaulting the juvenile who made the second report, she claimed in her suit.

In January 2017 two more girls filed complaints to staffers, which were then relayed to the county. One juvenile told three staffers that Stevenson asked her, through veiled language, if she liked having sex, the lawsuits allege.

The same month a different girl told a staffer Stevenson took a picture of her in a dress. The girl also complained in writing that Stevenson repeatedly asked her to “hit him up on the outs,” which she understood as an invitation for her to connect with him outside of the facility for sex.

The complaints continued.

In March 2017 three facility staffers observed Stevenson carrying a juvenile female to her room, where he remained alone with her, the lawsuits claim. The county and other defendants admit that Stevenson was seen carrying the girl but do not discuss the contents of the complaint.

“Stevenson's hands were seen to be on the groin area of the juvenile,” a 2019 lawsuit said.

“They always sided with Stevenson,” Lyden said. “He always denied, and they always swept it under the carpet.”

The lawsuits allege there were other incidents juveniles tried to report to staff, but they went unheeded. One of the girls alleged that when she told a county employee of an assault, she was met with laughter, though the county and employee deny this.

Through Hausner, the county has declined to discuss the cases as they are still in litigation.

Best practices

Christina Sorenson, a Soros Fellow with the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, has been studying instances of institutionalized child abuse in an effort to come up with policies to help mitigate it.

Sorenson has not studied the Stevenson case, but said unfortunately instances like this are not unusual.

“This is not a one-off,” she said.

Part of what she thinks contributes to the issue is a lack of a uniform system across agencies for how reports of abuse from juveniles should be handled. Facilities are required to have a grievance process when they feel their rights are violated, but each facility creates its own policy.

Fredericks, the youth facility’s director, provided LNP | LancasterOnline with a copy of the grievance process, which has not been revised since Stevenson’s arrest.

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Lancaster County Youth Intervention Center Grievance Policy

Sorensen said an outside, independent process is needed for grievances.

Sorenson is seeing positive change in Pennsylvania, however, following Gov. Tom Wolf's creation of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Justice Reform Taskforce in response to reports of widespread abuse at Glen Mills Schools, a youth detention facility in Delaware County.

The task force met for the first time earlier this week.

“I’ve noticed when people focus on one bad actor they lose the big picture,” she said. “The problem is in the systemic structure.”