On the same day Maryland’s Child Victims Act went into effect, 50 people filed lawsuits against the state and two of its agencies alleging they suffered rampant and repeated sexual abuse as youths incarcerated under the juvenile justice system.

The six lawsuits, filed Sunday, are part of a new wave of litigation stemming from the state’s decision to eliminate the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse to file complaints against institutions they say enabled harm. Lawmakers earlier this year approved the Child Victims Act and Gov. Wes Moore signed the bill into law, paving the way for decades-old allegations to resurface against major institutions like the Archdiocese of Baltimore as well as the state itself.

The plaintiffs, all adults and some now in their 60s, spent time as children in six state-run juvenile detention centers affiliated with Maryland’s Department of Juvenile Services and Department of Health. There, the plaintiffs say, they suffered systemic physical, sexual and psychological abuse spanning decades. The suits describe shocking scenes of violence and neglect dating to the 1960s and continuing until as recently as 2019, taking place when many of the plaintiffs were teens, pre-teens and some as young as 7 years old.

The state, they say, failed in its “legal and moral duty” to protect the children entrusted to its care. The filings describe staff and guards who violently assaulted or raped the youth as well as those who stood by allowing the mistreatment to continue. The litigation alleged children who spoke about the abuse faced additional incarceration time and other forms of retaliation.

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Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General declined to comment on the suits. Representatives for the Department of Juvenile Services and Department of Health, also named as defendants in the suits, acknowledged the allegations this week.

“DJS [Department of Juvenile Services] takes allegations of sexual abuse of children in our care very seriously and we are working hard to provide decent, humane, and rehabilitative environments for youth committed to the Department,” said spokesman Eric Solomon in an email. “The Department is currently reviewing the lawsuits with the Office of the Attorney General.”

“The Health Department has not provided these services since 1987 but takes all such claims very seriously and always strives to provide the best and safest care for all patients,” said representative Chase Cook in an email. He declined to comment further on active litigation.

Four of the lawsuits filed in local circuit courts center on facilities still in operation: the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, Charles H. Hickey, Jr. School in Baltimore County, Cheltenham Youth Detention Center in Prince George’s County and Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County. The other two suits name the Montrose School in Baltimore County and the Thomas J.S. Waxter Children’s Center in Anne Arundel County, both of which have since closed.

All 50 plaintiffs are jointly represented by four law firms, Bailey Glasser LLP, Rhine Law Firm, P.C., Walsh Law PLLC, DiCello Levitt LLP. Each complaint begins with a 2001 quote from now-Maryland Department of Juvenile Services Secretary Vincent Schiraldi when he was the executive director of a Washington, D.C., think tank on juvenile justice reform.

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“If you were sort of a mad scientist who was sent to Maryland to deliberately make kids into criminals, you could hardly do any better than what’s going on in Maryland’s juvenile facilities. You’d have to work hard to cripple kids worse than they’re being crippled now,” the quote states.

Martin Ramey, an attorney with Rhine Law Firm, said many of the plaintiffs have still not disclosed their experiences to family and friends. Nearly all of the plaintiffs in each case have filed a motion asking for the litigation to proceed under pseudonyms John or Jane Doe to protect their identities.

“Doing away with statute of limitations gives these individuals an opportunity to go back and say, ‘I wasn’t ready then, but I’m ready now,’ and to speak up,” Ramey said.

Ramey said his clients have struggled with serious mental illness as a result of their abuse. Some have attempted suicide or faced psychiatric hospitalizations and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses. One man became so outraged thinking about what was done to him, he put his hand through glass permanently severing three of his fingers, Ramey said.

“[Filing this lawsuit] has given a lot of individuals back the power,” Ramey said. “They’ve managed to stand up for themselves. No one else seemed to care.”

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More than 400 people who resided at one or more Maryland juvenile detention facilities have retained one of the four law firms behind the suits, Ramey said. Attorneys have also fielded more calls since the suits were filed Sunday.

Changes to state laws in places such as California have led to similar waves of lawsuits like the one seen this month in Maryland.

California temporarily suspended its statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims in recent years, leading more than 300 former detainees to sue over sexual abuse they say they endured in Los Angeles County juvenile camps and detention halls, the L.A. Times reported last year.

Even before the lawsuits were filed, Maryland’s juvenile detention facility conditions attracted scrutiny from civil rights groups. The lawsuits point to NAACP recommendations from 1973 that led to the closure of Montrose School in 1988. And they point to a 2006 report from the Civil Rights Division of the Maryland Office of the Attorney General that concluded conditions and practices at Baltimore’s juvenile facility constituted a “dangerous and often chaotic prison-like environment” where youths’ constitutional and federal statutory rights were regularly violated.