Devereux Abuse Survivors Come Forward

Attorney Explains Abuse Lawsuits Against Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health

Video Transcript:

Nancy Winkler:

Sadly, over many years, there have been allegations involving sexual and physical abuse.

Rob Rosenthal:

If you or someone you know has been the victim of physical or sexual abuse at a Devereux health facility, can you take legal action? Well, that's what we're going to find out today when we ask the lawyer.

Hi, again, everybody. I'm Rob Rosenthal with askthelawyers.com, and my guest today is Philadelphia attorney, Nancy Winkler. Nancy, good to see you again. Thank you for helping us out.

Nancy Winkler:

Good to see you, Rob.

Rob Rosenthal:

Let's just start. Tell us who is Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health?

Nancy Winkler:

Well, Devereux goes by several different names, but Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health and the Devereux Foundation is an organization that runs homes, group homes, and residential facilities for children and young adults across many states. They are children and young adults that have special needs, behavioral health needs, and intellectual disabilities—the most vulnerable of our population.

Rob Rosenthal:

What are the allegations now surrounding these facilities?

Nancy Winkler:

Sadly, over many years, there have been allegations involving sexual and physical abuse. It has been reported that there are many residents that have been sexually and physically abused over many years.

Rob Rosenthal:

One of the reports I saw said 41 instances of physical or sexual abuse over this 25 year period, but you're saying that number is low.

Nancy Winkler:

We do believe that number is low. People have come forth other than those individuals that were reported. We have a number of clients, potential clients, that have contacted us with regard to their abuse over many years. They're young adults now.

Rob Rosenthal:

What is it about these facilities, Nancy, that makes them a breeding ground for this type of predatory behavior?

Nancy Winkler:

Unfortunately, what makes them breeding grounds is that the most vulnerable of our population are residents there. These children and young adults that have special needs, that have intellectual disabilities or behavioral disabilities, some are autistic, they've come to these facilities because this is a place where they're supposed to get help. They’re supposed to be educated; they're supposed to be cared for. What makes them most vulnerable is just what has caused them to be there, their special needs. And it's not all of them, certainly. Many people who have worked for the Devereux schools are wonderful people who have helped clients, but there are predators there, sexual and physical predators that have really focused on these young kids and young adults that are vulnerable and could not reach out to other people.

Rob Rosenthal:

Has there been litigation? Is there ongoing litigation? Where does that stand?

Nancy Winkler:

There are some lawsuits that have been filed already, and we have a lawsuit that we intend to file within the next couple of weeks, and a few others. We are carefully investigating all of our cases before we file suit, but I urge these families who have any young children or young adults that have been abused over the years to come forward. The only way to effect change is to be able to pursue this litigation against Devereux.

Rob Rosenthal:

It seems to me one of the things that unfortunately makes these residents at these facilities a target would also make it difficult for them to be a witness or to be involved in a case.

Nancy Winkler:

Well, when you say that, there are investigations that have been done involving some of these individuals. Sometimes there are witnesses, sometimes there are not, but these children that are now young adults that I've spoken with, have had devastating injuries over the course of years and have been able to express themselves as to what has transpired. And/or their families have noticed things over the course of years and now understand that there may have been things that were not investigated fully, and reasons why their children were so scared, so frightened over the course of years. By engaging in litigation and requesting numerous documents, we can uncover a lot of what has happened.

Rob Rosenthal:

This has, as you said, been happening over a long period of time. What if the victim is no longer alive? Is there still a case to be had for their survivors, their family?

Nancy Winkler:

Well, generally speaking, that's not the case with the Devereux schools because it's a younger population, but it is certainly possible. With the death case, it really depends. That's what I'll say to you, because it depends on the timing, it depends on what the allegations are and if there is any proof that we can garner since the individual themselves is not here to be able to testify for themselves. So I suggest that if there is any family that has had an unfortunate death involving a loved one that they believe was abused at the Devereux schools, that they should contact an attorney so that investigation can be done. They can speak with someone for no charge; my office doesn't charge anything for consultations. The only time that we get paid is if we're successful with either a settlement or a verdict on behalf of the client. But we're glad to always answer any questions.

Rob Rosenthal:

In these instances, Nancy, is the case against the person who actually did the abuse, or is it against the higher-ups? Is it against the corporation as a whole? How does that work?

Nancy Winkler:

Very good question, Rob, and this is very similar to our cases that we have involving the Glen Mills schools. You certainly could name the perpetrator of the individual that abused the child or young adult, but what we have found is this is a more systemic problem. It has to do with policies; it has to do with procedures; it has to do with training. And the individuals that were working for the Devereux school at the time are in the employ of the Devereux school, in the control of the Devereux school, so our allegations would be framed against the Devereux school itself for many, many violations and breaches of what we call the standard of care.

Rob Rosenthal:

You mentioned Glen Mills. Tell me a little bit about your firm's experience with handling these types of sexual abuse cases.

Nancy Winkler:

Well, we have for years been handling all types of catastrophic injury cases, but I have specifically been involved in representing families of intellectually challenged individuals who have been abused, either restrained improperly or sexually or physically abused for many years; I've done that involving other group home facilities. Our law firm has been involved extensively in the Boy Scout sexual abuse cases and physical abuse cases. And at the Glen Mill school we have numerous cases involving individuals that were children at the time that were physically and sexually abused while there. That's a different type of facility, but similar types of allegations, unfortunately. When you have a vulnerable population, either young kids that have had some scrapes with the law, or young kids that are intellectually challenged or have behavioural issues, a lot of times you find that nobody is going to believe what they say—or at least the perpetrators tell them that nobody is going to believe if you come forward and say that I abused you, nobody's going to believe you and you’re worthless. And when they tell these poor kids that, a lot of times the kids believe it and don't do anything about it until years later. And that's really what's happened when it's come to light that this is a systemic problem at the Devereux school. Now people are finding the courage to come forward. It takes a lot of courage for these individuals to come forward and the families to come forward, but that's the only thing that really effectuates a change.

Rob Rosenthal:

I think some people may be surprised; they may think, “Oh, it's a criminal case. The police will handle this.” They may be surprised to find that there is a civil aspect to this and a personal injury case to be had. Have you found that to be true?

Nancy Winkler:

I do, but the standard is very different for a criminal case than it is for a civil case. What I mean by that is the evidentiary standard; for a criminal case the evidence has to be beyond a reasonable doubt, and that's what the jury needs to convict. In a civil case, the jury must find that we've met our burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence, and it's a very different standard of proof. You don't necessarily have to have a criminal case that you are pursuing or that you have pursued in order to file a civil action. What we do is we file civil lawsuits on behalf of clients, and we try to get justice for them by getting them monetary compensation and hopefully sometimes affecting change. That's what we like to do. We like to think that by bringing our lawsuits on behalf of injured folks that really need someone to speak for them and to be advocates for them, that we do effectuate change so that this doesn't happen to any other kids.

Rob Rosenthal:

Finally, Nancy, I know you're located in Philadelphia. If somebody was a victim at one of the Devereux campuses outside of Pennsylvania, can they still contact your firm?

Nancy Winkler:

They can contact my firm and depending upon the situation it may be a case that we can still file in Philadelphia because Devereux’s headquarters are right outside of Philadelphia. Or alternatively, we have licenses in some other jurisdictions, or could certainly refer them to another lawyer that might be able to help them if we could not help them. But certainly we should be a resource for anyone that has any type of investigation that they would like to pursue as a result of any abuse that occurred to one of their loved ones at the Devereux school.

Rob Rosenthal:

Very important information, Nancy. Thank you for taking some time and helping us out today.

Nancy Winkler.

Thank you. This is a systemic problem in our country that vulnerable people, vulnerable kids, are abused, and we really need to stop this.

Rob Rosenthal:

That's going to do it for this episode of Ask the Lawyer. My guest has been Philadelphia attorney Nancy Winkler. Remember, if you want the very best information or you want to make sure you can choose a lawyer that lawyers choose, go to askthelawyers.com. Thank you for watching. I’m Rob Rosenthal with AskTheLawyers™.

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