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Nevada can start tabulating ballots earlier on Election Day for quicker results

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Nevada election officials can start tabulating in-person Election Day votes as they come in, rather than waiting for polls to close in an effort to get results out quicker, Democratic Secretary of State Cisco Aguilar said Wednesday.

Aguilar cited state law in making the recommendation to county election officials that also include tabulating mail ballots as early voting is underway. The recommendations apply to both Nevada’s primary on June 11 and the November general election.

The changes could help quell anxiety over close races in a western swing state known for razor-thin margins. The nation watched Nevada closely in 2022 for the outcome of a U.S. Senate race that was decided by less than 8,000 votes, as the final mail ballots were counted after other battleground races were settled.

If county election officials adopt the recommendations, results will roll out throughout Election Day. Previously, in-person voting results weren’t released, and officials didn’t tabulate mail ballots until after polls closed.

“We will be able to release more data to the public more quickly with this new process,” Aguilar said during a news conference Wednesday.

Every voter in Nevada automatically receives a ballot by mail, unless they opt out, a pandemic-era change that was later codified in state law. The mail ballots can arrive at county election offices up to four days after Nov. 5, which is Election Day, but the ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day.

Aguilar said he consulted with election officials in the state’s two most populous counties — Washoe and Clark counties — over the past year and a half in crafting the recommendations.

“This is not about putting additional strain (on local election officials),” Aguilar said. “This is about creating efficiencies and allowing the staff and the clerks to be able to be more efficient in the work that they’re doing.”

Mail ballots take longer to count because of the numerous verification steps built into the process to guard against potential fraud. Those include matching ballots to the voter registration database and verifying signature or identification information.

Pressure to have results out quickly has only increased since the 2020 election, when former President Donald Trump sowed doubt about the election process by highlighting that ballots came in after Election Day and blasted those who showed him losing in a state after initially being ahead. The process is normal, as officials administer elections with rules and processes that vary across the country, and it simply takes time to count large amounts of ballots.

Most states allow local election officials to handle mail ballots before Election Day, a process that includes verifying the voter requested the ballot, confirming the ballot matches the one sent to the voter, and either matching a voter signature to one on file or matching voter ID information to records.

Some states even allow ballots to be scanned into a counting machine days in advance with a process designed to keep results secret. This allows election officials to run a report on Election Day that provides a tally of these votes quickly.

And when results are released on Election Day, they are unofficial. It takes days and sometimes weeks for election officials to count every ballot and to certify the results.

Already, the top election officials in Nevada’s Washoe and Clark counties outlined plans to more quickly process ballots.

Lorena Portillo in Clark County told state lawmakers earlier this month that the county now has six mail ballot readers, up from four in 2022 and two in 2020. The machines can tabulate 8,000 ballots per hour. The county that includes Las Vegas also will use 26 machines that tabulate in-person ballots on Election Day from flash drives, up from 10 in 2022.

Portillo also said the county will introduce double shifts on Election Day for election workers.

In the less-populated Washoe County, interim registrar of voters Cari-Ann Burgess told lawmakers that the county is looking to upgrade the mail balloting processing room to sort ballots quicker. She added that, as the county that includes Reno grows, so too will the capacity of the elections department.

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Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy contributed reporting from Atlanta. Stern is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Follow Stern on X: @gabestern326.


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A self-inflicted hit of pepper spray drives off an attacking grizzly in Grand Teton National Park

A grizzly that accidentally inflicted itself with a burst of pepper spray while attacking a hiker in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park won’t be captured or killed because it may have been trying to protect a cub, park officials said in a statement.

While mauling a hiker on Signal Mountain, the grizzly bit into the man’s can of bear repellent and was hit with a burst of it, causing the animal to flee. The 35-year-old Massachusetts man, who’d pretended to be dead while he was being bitten, made it to safety and spent Sunday night in the hospital.

There was no word when Signal Mountain or a road and trail to its 7,700-foot (2,300-meter) summit would reopen after being closed because of the attack. Such closures are typical after the handful of grizzly attacks on public land in the Yellowstone region every year.

The decision not to pursue the bears, which officials determined behaved naturally after being surprised, also was consistent with attacks that don’t involve campsite raids, eating food left out by people, or similar behaviors that make bears more dangerous.

Rangers track and study many of the Yellowstone region’s 1,000 or so bears but weren’t familiar with the ones responsible for the attack Sunday afternoon, according to the statement.

The attack happened even though the victim was carrying bear-repellant spray and made noise to alert bears in the forest, the statement said.

Speaking to rangers afterward, the man said he came across a small bear that ran away from him. As he reached for his bear repellant, he saw a larger bear charging at him in his periphery vision.

He had no time to use his bear spray before falling to the ground with fingers laced behind his neck and one finger holding the spray canister.

The bear bit him several times before biting into the can of pepper spray, which burst and drove the bears away.

The man got to an area with cell phone coverage and called for help. A helicopter, then an ambulance evacuated him to a nearby hospital.

Investigators suspect from the man’s description that the smaller bear he saw was an older cub belonging to the female grizzly that attacked. Mother bears aggressively defend their offspring and remain with them for two to three years after birth.

Park officials didn’t release the victim’s name. He was expected to make a full recovery.


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Second US dairy worker infected with bird flu confirmed in Michigan

CHICAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A second human case of bird flu has been confirmed in the United States since the virus was first confirmed in dairy cattle in late March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday.

The infection of a dairy worker in Michigan expands the outbreak of the H5N1 virus, though the CDC said the risk to the general public remains low.

A Texas dairy worker was confirmed to be infected in April. Michigan and Texas are among nine states to report bird flu in dairy herds.

Similar to the Texas case, the patient in Michigan only reported eye symptoms, the CDC said. The Michigan worker had mild symptoms and recovered, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The worker had regular exposure to livestock infected with bird flu, Michigan said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it believes unpasteurized milk is the primary vector for transmitting the virus among cows, though officials do not know exactly how it spreads.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek, Julie Steenhuysen and Jasper Ward; Editing by Eric Beech and Franklin Paul and Anna Driver)


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UCLA police chief reassigned following criticism over handling of campus demonstrations

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The police chief at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been reassigned following criticism over his handling of recent campus demonstrations that included a mob attacking a pro-Palestinian encampment.

Chief John Thomas was temporarily reassigned Tuesday “pending an examination of our security processes,” said Mary Osako, UCLA vice chancellor for strategic communications, in a statement released Wednesday.

The Daily Bruin reported late Tuesday that Thomas said in a text to the campus newspaper, “There’s been a lot going on and, I learned late yesterday that I’m temporarily reassigned from my duties as chief.”

Neither Osako nor Thomas identified his reassigned role.

The reassignment of Thomas follows UCLA’s May 5 announcement of the creation of a new chief safety officer position to oversee campus security operations.

Thomas told the Los Angeles Times in early May that he did “everything I could” to provide security and keep students safe during days of strife that left UCLA shaken.

But his response was roundly criticized and prompted Chancellor Gene Block to order a review of campus security procedures. Block then announced that Rick Braziel, a former Sacramento police chief, would lead a new Office of Campus Safety that will oversee the UCLA Police Department.

“To best protect our community moving forward, urgent changes are needed in how we administer safety operations,” Block said in the May 5 statement.

Sporadic disruptions continued following the dismantling of a pro-Palestinian encampment and some 200 arrests on April 30.

Block has been summoned to Washington by a Republican-led House committee to testify Thursday about the protests on the Los Angeles campus.


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Cancer victims sue Johnson & Johnson over ‘fraudulent’ bankruptcies

By Dietrich Knauth

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of cancer victims sued Johnson & Johnson on Wednesday, accusing the healthcare company of committing fraud through repeated and continued efforts to use a shell company’s bankruptcy to resolve tens of thousands of lawsuits alleging its talc products contained asbestos and caused cancer.

Five plaintiffs who seek to represent over 50,000 people who have sued J&J over its talc products filed the proposed class action in New Jersey federal court. They allege that J&J’s bankruptcy strategy put billions of dollars out of the reach of plaintiffs in an attempt to “hinder, delay, and defraud these women and prevent them from ever having their day in court.”

“Johnson & Johnson is playing a dark game of chess with this country’s financial and judicial systems,” said Mike Papantonio, an attorney for the cancer plaintiffs.

J&J’s worldwide vice president of litigation, Erik Haas, said the lawsuit was a “Hail Mary pass” by plaintiffs’ lawyers who don’t want their clients to vote on the company’s latest proposed bankruptcy settlement.

“Why are they so desperate to stop the vote?” Haas said. “Our focus has been and will remain reaching a full, fair and final resolution of this litigation, and allowing the claimants to speak for themselves.”

Most of the talc lawsuits have been brought by women with ovarian cancer, while other cases involve people with mesothelioma, a deadly cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

J&J has said that its baby powder and other talc products are safe, do not contain asbestos, and do not cause cancer.

J&J first used a corporate maneuver called the “Texas two-step” to place its talc liabilities into a new subsidiary that then filed for bankruptcy in 2021. The bankruptcy stopped the lawsuits from moving ahead against J&J, although it did not file for bankruptcy itself.

That and a second similar attempt to resolve the litigation failed as courts ruled that J&J and its subsidiary was not in financial distress so not eligible for bankruptcy. The company said on May 1 that it plans to pursue a third bankruptcy once it gets enough votes to support a $6.48 billion talc settlement.

Wednesday’s lawsuit seeks a ruling that the Texas two-step transaction was fraudulent, because it was undertaken solely to shelter J&J’s assets from the talc litigation.

Subsequent transactions, including J&J’s spinoff of its consumer health business Kenvue, were also fraudulent, according to the lawsuit, which also seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

J&J says the planned third bankruptcy for its unit will be different because it will have support from over 75% of the people with talc-related claims.

The company has streamlined the proposed third bankruptcy by reaching separate settlements with law firms representing people with mesothelioma, as well as U.S. states that alleged the company failed to warn consumers about the dangers of its talc products.

Litigation against J&J resumed after its second bankruptcy was dismissed. In recent trials, J&J was ordered to pay $45 million in a mesothelioma case while winning an ovarian cancer case.

(Reporting by Dietrich Knauth, Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Bill Berkrot)


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Iowa crews search for survivors after deadly tornadoes

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – Rescue teams in Iowa searched through the ruins of homes and buildings in Greenfield on Wednesday, looking for survivors of a deadly tornado that tore through the town the day before.

Authorities were still determining how many people were killed, injured and displaced by the twister in the farming town of 2,000 located about 60 miles (97 km) west of Des Moines, Sergeant Alex Dinkla, a spokesperson with the Iowa State Patrol, told a news conference.

“It is still a search mission as far as we are looking to make sure all residents are accounted for,” he said. “When we have this many homes that have been destroyed, fully demolished, we want to make sure every person is accounted for.”

Images from Greenfield showed a path of utter destruction, with homes reduced to splinters, debris strewn everywhere and several large wind turbines toppled.

“It’s horrific. It’s hard to describe,” said Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who declared a disaster emergency for 15 counties.

The twister that touched down in Greenfield was among a swarm of tornadoes that were reported in southwestern Iowa on Tuesday evening. At least one person, a woman in nearby Adams County, was killed in the storms, the county’s medical examiner said.

Reynolds said state officials were working to send a request for President Joe Biden to approve a disaster declaration in order to get federal assistance for state residents.

Among the buildings damaged in Greenfield was a hospital, forcing authorities to create a makeshift medical care center at the lumberyard and send some of the injured to other area facilities.

State Representative Ray Sorensen said several residents used their own vehicles to transport those who were injured to safety moments after the storm struck.

“We pulled a guy from the rubble and put him on a little makeshift stretcher we made and threw him in the back of a truck,” he said.

Tornadoes along with severe storms packing large hail and damaging winds were likely again on Wednesday across the Southern Plains as well as Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, the National Weather Service warned.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Sandra Maler)


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Congress aims to overhaul presidential ethics rules with a plan led by an unlikely pair of lawmakers

WASHINGTON (AP) — Bipartisan legislation introduced in the House on Wednesday would require presidents and vice presidents to publicly disclose tax returns before, during and after their time in the White House as Congress makes an election-year push to curb foreign influence in American politics.

The proposal, led by the unusual pairing of Republican Rep. James Comer and progressive Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, is the latest effort to bolster congressional oversight of presidential ethics as both parties grapple with congressional investigations into their leading candidates for the White House.

Democrats on Tuesday introduced rival legislation that would enforce the Constitution’s ban on emoluments, which prohibits a president from accepting foreign gifts and money without the permission of Congress. Proponents of that proposal say Republican Donald Trump brazenly ignored the clause while president as foreign government officials flocked to his various hotels and properties.

The release of the dueling bills suggests bipartisan appetite in Congress for revising presidential ethics rules. But those proposals are intertwined with fiercely partisan fights about the conduct of Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden, and it remains to be seen whether any bill can make it through the House, let alone become law.

The White House said in a statement Wednesday that Biden has already complied with many of the provisions laid out in the legislation and “made clear his commitment to upholding strong ethical standards.”

The proposal from Comer, R-Ky., and Porter, D-Calif., is focused on greater transparency and requires the disclosure of foreign payments, gifts and loans made to officials’ immediate family members. Presidents and vice presidents would be required to disclose when immediate family members accompany them on official travel and specify when they do so for official business purposes. The provisions are a direct response to concerns surrounding the business dealings of Trump’s children and Biden’s son.

The approaches by Trump and Biden to financial disclosures have been starkly different. Trump has persistently rejected efforts to share details about his financial history, counter to the practice of transparency followed by all his predecessors in the post-Watergate era. Biden has routinely released his annual returns.

Comer, chairman of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee, said the legislation would ensure “that moving forward, American presidents, vice presidents, and their family members cannot profit from their proximity to power.”

“Although we have not needed to develop a full-blown legislative machinery to enforce the Emoluments Clause for more than two centuries, Congress must now enact a law to prevent Presidents from ever again exploiting the presidency for self-enrichment by selling out our government to foreign states,” Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat, said in a statement.

GOP lawmakers led by Comer have asserted for the past 17 months that the Biden family has traded on the president’s name by trying to link a handful of phone calls or dinner meetings between Biden, when he was vice president or out of office, and his son Hunter and his business associates.

The committee has released records showing that from 2014 to 2019 several members of the Biden family have received more than $15 million in payments from foreign entities. Additionally, Republicans have criticized a series of loans Democratic donors have given to the president’s family, including more than $6 million that entertainment attorney Kevin Morris has provided to Hunter Biden.

However, Republicans have not been able to produce evidence that shows Joe Biden was directly involved or benefited from his family’s businesses while in public office.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee released a report in January that found that Trump’s businesses received nearly $8 million from 20 foreign governments during his presidency.

It outlined how foreign governments and their entities poured millions into various Trump properties, including the Trump International Hotels in Washington and Las Vegas as well as two Trump properties in New York. The payees ranged from China to Saudi Arabia to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Government ethics lawyers condemned Trump’s decision to hold onto his vast business empire after taking office, saying the decision provided ample opportunity for people who want to influence U.S. policy to curry favor with the president.

Trump and his legal team asserted that critics have misinterpreted the emoluments clauses, saying that the framers of the Constitution did not intend for them to cover fair-value transactions between a business and its customers, such as offering a hotel room for the night for payment.

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This story has corrected to reflect that Democrats introduced their proposal on Tuesday, not Monday.


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Uvalde, Texas, to pay $2 million to families of school shooting victims

(Reuters) -The city of Uvalde has reached a $2 million settlement with families of the victims of a 2022 mass shooting at a public school in the Texas city, one of their lawyers said on Wednesday, ahead of the second anniversary of the massacre.

In one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, 19 children and two teachers were killed on May 24, 2022, when a gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde and barricaded himself inside adjoining classrooms with dozens of students.

A U.S. Justice Department review found local police ignored accepted practices by failing to confront the gunman, instead waiting outside the classroom for more than an hour despite calls for help from the children.

“The city of Uvalde has agreed to pay its insurance of $2 million, which is all that there was,” Josh Koskoff, who represented families of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, said at a briefing to announce the agreement.

He said the settlement involved the families of 17 of the children who were killed and two children who survived.

Families agreed not to sue the city but would file lawsuits against the state of Texas and the federal government over the response of their law enforcement officers, he added.

Families are suing 92 Texas Department of Public Safety officers who were at the incident, Erin Rogiers, partner at Guerra LLP, who is representing families together with Koskoff and Bieder PC, said in a statement.

State and federal officers made up the majority of the 376 law enforcement operatives who waited 77 minutes before confronting and killing the 18-year-old gunman, Koskoff said.

Families of victims filed a lawsuit in December 2022 against local and state police, the city, and other school and law enforcement officials seeking at least $27 billion and class-action status for survivors.

It was not immediately clear how the settlement would affect the earlier lawsuit.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Andrew Hay; Edited by Frank McGurty and David Gregorio)


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FCC will consider rules for AI-generated political ads on TV and radio, but can’t touch streaming

NEW YORK (AP) — The head of the Federal Communications Commission introduced on Wednesday a proposal to require political advertisers to disclose when they use content generated by artificial intelligence in broadcast television and radio ads.

If adopted by the five-person commission, the proposal would add a layer of transparency that many lawmakers and AI experts have been calling for as rapidly advancing generative AI tools churn out lifelike images, videos and audio clips that threaten to mislead voters in the upcoming U.S. election.

Yet the nation’s top telecommunications regulator would only have authority over TV, radio and some cable providers. The new rules, if adopted, would not cover the tremendous growth in advertising on digital and streaming platforms.

“As artificial intelligence tools become more accessible, the commission wants to make sure consumers are fully informed when the technology is used,” FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement Wednesday. “Today, I’ve shared with my colleagues a proposal that makes clear consumers have a right to know when AI tools are being used in the political ads they see, and I hope they swiftly act on this issue.”

The proposal marks the second time this year that the commission has begun taking significant steps to combat the growing use of artificial intelligence tools in political communications. The FCC earlier confirmed that AI voice-cloning tools in robocalls are banned under existing law. That decision followed an incident in New Hampshire’s primary election when automated calls used voice-cloning software to imitate President Joe Biden in order to dissuade voters from going to the polls.

If adopted, the proposal announced Wednesday would ask broadcasters to verify with political advertisers whether their content was generated using AI tools, such as text-to-image creators or voice-cloning software. The FCC has authority over political advertising on broadcast channels under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

Left for commissioners to discuss are several details of the proposal, including whether broadcasters would have to disclose AI-generated content in an on-air message or only in the TV or radio station’s political files, which are public. They also will be tasked with agreeing on a definition of AI-generated content, a challenge that has become fraught as retouching tools and other AI advancements become increasingly embedded in all kinds of creative software.

Rosenworcel hopes to have the regulations in place before the election.

Jonathan Uriarte, a spokesperson and policy adviser for Rosenworcel, said she is looking to define AI-generated content as that generated using computational technology or machine-based systems, “including, in particular, AI-generated voices that sound like human voices, and AI-generated actors that appear to be human actors.” But he said her draft definition will likely change through the regulatory process.

The proposal comes as political campaigns already have experimented heavily with generative AI, from building chatbots for their websites to creating videos and images using the technology.

Last year, for example, the RNC released an entirely AI-generated ad meant to show a dystopian future under another Biden administration. It employed fake but realistic photos showing boarded-up storefronts, armored military patrols in the streets and waves of immigrants creating panic.

Political campaigns and bad actors also have weaponized highly realistic images, videos and audio content to scam, mislead and disenfranchise voters. In India’s elections, recent AI-generated videos misrepresenting Bollywood stars as criticizing the prime minister exemplify a trend AI experts say is cropping up in democratic elections around the world.

Rob Weissman, president of the advocacy group Public Citizen, said he was glad to see the FCC “stepping up to proactively address threats from artificial intelligence and deepfakes, including especially to election integrity.”

He urged the FCC to require on-air disclosure for the public’s benefit and chided another agency, the Federal Election Commission, for its delays as it also considers whether to regulate AI-generated deepfakes in political ads.

Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York, said it’s now time for Congress to act on the spread of online misinformation, which the FCC doesn’t have jurisdiction over. She has introduced legislation for disclosure requirements on AI-generated content in online ads.

As generative AI has become more cheap, accessible and easy to use, multiple bipartisan groups of lawmakers have called for legislation to regulate the technology in politics. With just a little over five months until the November elections, they still have not passed any bills.

A bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, would require political ads to have a disclaimer if they are made or significantly altered using AI. It would require the Federal Election Commission to respond to violations.

Uriarte said Rosenworcel realizes the FCC’s capacity to act on AI-related threats is limited but wants to do what she can ahead of the 2024 election.

“This proposal offers the maximum transparency standards that the commission can enforce under its jurisdiction,” Uriarte said. “It is our hope that government agencies and lawmakers can build on this important first step in establishing a transparency standard on the use of AI in political advertising.”

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The Associated Press receives support from several private foundations to enhance its explanatory coverage of elections and democracy. See more about AP’s democracy initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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Lawsuits claim 66 people were abused as children in Pennsylvania’s juvenile facilities

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Dozens of children who were sent to juvenile detention centers and similar facilities in Pennsylvania suffered physical and sexual abuse including violent rapes, according to four related lawsuits filed Wednesday.

The lawsuits describe how 66 people, now adults, say they were victimized by guards, nurses, supervisors and others. Some attacks were reported to other staffers and were ignored or met with disbelief, the lawsuits allege.

Their claims point to a broken juvenile justice system in Pennsylvania, said Jerome Block, a New York lawyer whose firm filed the new cases and is helping pursue similar lawsuits in Illinois,Maryland, New Jersey and Michigan.

“The purpose of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate and educate and reform, to equip them to lead healthy, productive lives,” Block said in a phone interview before filing the suits. “Instead these men and women were sexually traumatized as children. They came to these facilities needing help. Instead, they had trauma inflicted upon them.”

The lawsuits involve the Loysville Youth Development Center, the South Mountain Secure Treatment Unit and the North Central Secure Treatment Unit in Danville, which are run by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services; Merakey USA’s Northwestern Academy outside Shamokin, which closed in 2016; and facilities run by Tucson, Arizona-based VisionQuest National Ltd. and Villanova-based Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.

The press secretary for the state Department of Human Services, Brandon Cwalina, declined comment on the lawsuits but urged anyone who suspects children are being sexually abused or harassed at any facility to call Pennsylvania’s ChildLine at 1-800-932-0313.

The agency “has zero-tolerance towards abuse and harassment, and we take seriously our responsibility to protect the health and safety of children at licensed facilities,” he said in an email.

Copies of the lawsuit also were emailed Wednesday morning, seeking comment, to spokespeople for Devereux and Merakey, and several messages were left in recent days for VisionQuest.

All of those who are suing were born after Nov. 26, 1989, and meet the state’s legal standards for filing claims of sexual abuse when they were children.

Block said the legal team also represents more than 100 people who were similarly abused, but too long ago under time limits to file civil claims. Proposals to open a two-year window for such outdated claims have been blocked by Senate Republicans in the General Assembly.

Eighteen of the latest plaintiffs describe rapes and other sexual abuse at Devereux facilities. One man says that when he was 14, while sedated during “major anger outbreaks,” a staff member sexually abused him while he was restrained “so he could not fight back.”

Other claims, by 15 people who were confined at the state-run facilities, say children there “have long been subjected to a culture of exploitation, violence and rampant sexual abuse” committed by guards, counselors and other staff.

“The sexual abuse at commonwealth juvenile detention facilities has ranged from inappropriate strip searches to rape using violent physical force,” according to their lawsuit, which alleges negligence and failed oversight.

One of the plaintiffs says she became pregnant as a teenager as the result of a violent rape by a counselor at North Central about 20 years ago, and that another staffer didn’t believe her when she reported the rape. The lawsuit doesn’t describe what happened regarding her pregnancy.

Merakey USA, which operated Northwestern Academy before it shut down in 2016, is accused of a “culture of sexual abuse and brutality,” including “inappropriate and criminal sexual relationships with children,” who were granted or denied privileges to pressure them into sex.

That lawsuit says one 14-year-old girl who had not been sexually active was forced into sex acts by two Northwestern Academy staffers, and when she complained, she was accused of lying and her home leave passes were removed.

A male therapist then had her write about her sexual encounters during twice-a-week sessions for five months, telling her it was treatment for sex addiction and for a book he was writing. When she asked for the book upon leaving the facility, its director told her the book did not exist and her experience “would not be considered mental health treatment,” the lawsuit says.

A task force to address problems in Pennsylvania’s approach to juvenile justice — established by legislative leaders, the court system and then-Gov. Tom Wolf — concluded in 2021 that too many first-time and lower level juvenile offenders were being locked up, and Black offenders were disproportionately prosecuted as adults.

A Democratic-sponsored bill to adopt some of the task force’s recommended changes is pending in the House after passing the Judiciary Committee in September on a party-line vote, with all Republicans opposed. There has also been a decades-long effort to establish an independent Office of Child Advocate. Supporters say talks about such legislation are currently ongoing.

Malik Pickett, a senior attorney at Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said the lawsuits “ring far too familiar for what we know from our nearly 50 years of advocacy.”

The state’s youth detention facilities are dangerous places for children, his emailed statement said.

“We have experienced one crisis for youth in detention after another,” Pickett said, while failing to pass meaningful changes.


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