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Devereux, the Villanova-based behavioral health organization where an investigation recently uncovered systemic sexual abuse, also holds a federal contract to house unaccompanied immigrant children in Pennsylvania.
After Philadelphia Inquirer reporters detailed how 41 children had been raped or abused at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health locations over the past quarter-century, local fallout was swift. The City of Philadelphia temporarily stopped sending children to the organization, and 14 of 17 councilmembers have called for the complete termination of all city contracts with the company.
But Devereux still has an active $40.2 million contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to house migrant youth in several states, including Pa.
The ORR program is an extension of the federal migrant detention centers that have caused widespread outcry over the past couple of years. Residents in Devon, Pa., where Helena Devereux founded her namesake organization over a century ago, have been fighting the organization’s proposed facility in their town since 2019. This latest development just fuels their concern.
“When we saw [the Inquirer] story, I think it was just an order of magnitude worse than anything that we could’ve ever imagined that would be going on,” said Stephanie McAlaine, who lives across the street from the planned Chester County campus.
She and other neighbors have been working to stop the ORR shelter — which Devereux wants to locate in a Highland Avenue building it already owns — by attending township meetings and putting pressure on the zoning process.
The zoning board last fall agreed with the neighbors’ argument that Devereux should have to get a variance to switch the facility from behavioral health to immigrant housing. But an appeal is still possible, said Eugene Briggs, interim township manager for Easttown Township. He clarified in an email that Devereux had been granted “an indefinite extension of the Application to the Zoning Hearing Board.”
The terms of Devereux’s federal grant included provisions to house immigrant children in five states plus a transitional foster care program in New Jersey. The ones in Colorado, Texas, and Connecticut are already licensed to receive youth, ORR confirmed via email, though it’s unclear if any children are yet living there. A license has not yet been granted for the Pa. facility.
Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senator Bob Casey condemned the situation, saying the ORR program was inappropriate from the start.
“Devereux should never have received a federal contract to detain migrant children in the first place,” Casey told Billy Penn and Keystone Crossroads.
“Pennsylvania facilities that detain children and families should be closed for good,” Casey said, “Whether children who are immigrants, children with disabilities or children who have been abused, our responsibility is to support and protect them.”
Claims of physical abuse put Devereux in crosshairs last winter
Local immigrant rights groups mobilized last winter to protest Devereux landing the $40 million ORR contract.
Philadelphia nonprofit Juntos got involved after one mother whose autistic son had been placed in Devereux care came forward with allegations that he had been badly physically beaten.
The woman, whose name is being withheld due to immigration status concerns, said she found her son bruised across the cheekbone and on the outside of one eye. She said she never received the results of an internal investigation, with Devereux staff telling her it was an isolated case.
“I don’t even know who the [perpetrator] was. They protect his identity at all times and I’m not sure if he was ever fired,” the mother wrote in a November 2019 letter.
“In my opinion [existing clients] deserve a place that is impeccably clean, with a qualified and prepared staff who are adequately trained with a commitment to protect and care for the children under their care,” she wrote. “If they can’t take care of the children under their current care with these standards, how can they take care of immigrant children?”
Cathi Tillman, founder of nonprofit La Puerta Abierta, which provides mental health services to immigrant youth, said she believes the problems manifesting at Devereux are systemic.
“Somehow the issue of Devereux as an ethical and adequate place for youth to be in placement without being hurt, abused, molested and all those other things [is] conflated with the larger subject of why we are incarcerating youth who don’t have places to live,” she said.
A Devereux spokesperson, speaking in relation to the allegations detailed in the Inquirer, said the organization had taken steps to prevent further instances of abuse.
“To prevent this sort of terrible harm from ever befalling another child, over the last three years, Devereux has actively reorganized itself, and is proactively and assertively addressing complicated industry-wide challenges that must be overcome,” spokesperson Leah Yaw wrote in an email.
Spurred by the Inquirer report, Gov. Tom Wolf’s office launched an investigation into Devereux, which could put its local licenses at risk. ORR facilities are required to maintain valid licenses in the states in which they are hosted.
For now, the fate of the pending Devon facility appears to rest with the local zoning board.