Lawsuit accuses PSU in death
Altoona native, an alleged Sandusky victim, endured life of addiction
Editor’s note: This story is based on reporting done by Sara Ganim for her podcast “The Mayor of Maple Avenue.” Funding for this project was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Pulitzer Center. It was originally published Nov. 4, 2021, and is being reprinted with PennLive’s permission.
They called 8-year-old Shawn Sinisi the Mayor of Maple Avenue.
Friends, neighbors, family, even firefighters a couple of streets over — everyone developed a fondness for the kind, upbeat kid from Altoona who seemed to connect with everyone he met.
Then, Shawn and his older brother, Josh, began attending former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s Second Mile football camps at Penn State.
Shawn arrived at Second Mile in 2000 as an endearing boy from a typical central Pennsylvania family. His mother, Marianne, was the beating heart of the family, the fiercely passionate caretaker eager to bulldoze any threat to her children’s happiness. Dad Mike was a quiet truck driver, who spent long days on the road to provide for his family.
Sandusky immediately took a liking to the family, inviting them to charity functions and football games, and taking Josh under his wing. But in 2004, 12-year-old Shawn abruptly called his parents from Sandusky’s camp, begging to come home.
He wouldn’t say why, but those close to him say that marked the moment his life began to unravel.
Years would pass before Shawn told his mother and a lawyer that he was sexually abused by Sandusky. Afraid of disappointing his family, who were fans of Sandusky’s mentorship for Josh, Shawn began coping by self-medicating, first with alcohol and marijuana, quickly escalating to hardcore drugs.
Suddenly, the Mayor of Maple Avenue seemed to be a different person. He began bouncing between jail and rehab and homelessness, spending most of his early adulthood in turmoil. He cycled through more than 10 rehab facilities in search of treatment for both his addiction and trauma, only to find endless roadblocks.
In September 2018, Shawn died of a drug overdose after collapsing in the bathroom of a Pittsburgh-area McDonald’s.
A day earlier, a nationally renowned rehab facility kicked him off its campus, tipping the final domino in a string of struggles to acquire adequate care.
The Sinisis are suing Penn State for wrongful death, arguing that Sandusky’s abuse robbed their son of a normal life. But Shawn’s parents say it wasn’t just Penn State that failed him. It’s clear the systems meant to promote rehabilitation failed Shawn time and time again.
When asked, Penn State didn’t directly address the lawsuit, but noted that in 2012 it hired Praesidium, a Texas-based group, to provide counseling services to individuals who may have suffered abuse from Sandusky.
A multi-chapter podcast, “The Mayor of Maple Avenue” tells the winding and heartbreaking story of Shawn’s life.
Produced by Meadowlark Media in partnership with PennLive, the podcast comes a decade after Sandusky’s arrest on sexual abuse charges and will be hosted by Sara Ganim, who received the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on Sandusky’s crimes.
The introduction and first three chapters are available now on Apple and Spotify, with new chapters scheduled to be released each Thursday.
This story takes listeners into the world of addiction rehabilitation in the post-MeToo era, when society is quick to punish abusers but fails to adequately address the needs of their victims.
Shawn’s story clearly shows what’s lacking: Conversations about the ramifications for victims, and treatment options that address the intersections of trauma and addiction.
‘You don’t know who to trust’
Shawn was not part of Sandusky’s criminal trial but was known to prosecutors and spoke to police. Still, he was an adult when he opened up and told those around him that he’d been molested by Sandusky.
Brother Josh, who was also in Sandusky’s orbit, said the convicted child molester used his good relationship with him to intimidate Shawn into silence,
Instead, Shawn turned to drugs to cope, starting at age 13.
Experts say it’s common for victims of sexual assault in childhood to remain tight-lipped.
“These were young boys,” said Jennifer Storm, a former victim-witness advocate for Pennsylvania. “When you are a child and you are being victimized, there is an incredible amount of shame, a lack of understanding and guilt.”
The Sinisis say that Shawn disclosed a small part of his abuse to detectives when Sandusky came under a grand jury investigation, but he was already mired in the underworld of drugs and addiction by the time the case went to trial. His mother said investigators told her it wasn’t worth pitting two brothers against each other.
Altoona, like many towns across Pennsylvania, was simultaneously in the throes of the opioid crisis. Public documents show Shawn admitted it was easy to get prescription pills, and he quickly moved from them to cocaine and heroin.
In a 2018 conversation with his then-attorney Andrew Shubin, Shawn said he used drugs to “self-medicate.”
“I started using to deal with, like, the emotional pain,” Shawn told Shubin.
His addiction quickly led him to the other side of the criminal justice system. He was arrested for the first time in 2010, at age 18, for carrying marijuana. He faced more legal trouble for selling pills in 2012, even as Marianne was working to find Shawn an addiction treatment center.
“You don’t know what to do,” she said. “You don’t know who to trust.”
So, she sat down and penned a letter to his judge, asking that Shawn be sent to rehab instead of jail.
When the judge agreed and ordered him to check into a nearby facility, Marianne believed Shawn was charting a path toward recovery. But her optimism was quickly crushed.
Rehab after rehab
Shawn was admitted to drug-court programs twice, first at the county level and then at the state. But it was clear that his status as a criminal affected his healthcare, and rehab after rehab failed to address his underlying trauma and therefore failed to end his addiction.
At the first facility, Shawn’s mother confided in staff that she suspected her son was a victim of sexual assault. A staff member then blurted it out and Shawn, who had not yet spoken to his family or experts about his trauma, stormed out of the center after just a week.
The abrupt exit was the first sign to the Sinsis that systems meant to aid drug addiction recovery were ill-equipped to handle the intersection of trauma and addiction.
Shawn spent the next several years cycling through treatment centers and halfway houses.
Almost no rehab centers gave Shawn regular individual counseling. Group sessions meant to target addiction didn’t afford Shawn space to properly deal with his sexual abuse. Other rehab centers readily gave him prescriptions for painkillers, which his mother believes sabotaged his recovery for years.
At every step, his mother Marianne searched for solutions, writing letters, compiling stacks of documents and absorbing heartbreak after heartbreak as her son’s circumstances worsened.
In 2017, she turned to Penn State, which, under intense legal and public pressure, hired a third-party foundation to coordinate treatment for people who credibly claimed to be Sandusky’s victims.
Marianne asked the school not for direct payments but for guidance and money to get Shawn treatment. After initially agreeing to send Shawn out of state, the school instead said it would pay for his stay at The Ranch Behavioral Health Treatment, a rehab center near Harrisburg that says it addresses trauma alongside addiction.
But again, problems emerged. A medical doctor at The Ranch prescribed Shawn a drug called Subutex, which is similar to Suboxone. Suboxone is used to ease the pain of withdrawal, but it too is an opioid. It can be abused if not properly managed and its use remains somewhat controversial in the rehab community.
Shawn’s positive progress abruptly changed for the worse.
The way the Sinisis viewed it, support for Shawn collapsed when he needed it most. Marianne said he didn’t leave The Ranch well-positioned to sustain any progress made in treating his addiction.
“We are pretty much back to square one,” his mom said.
Over the course of the next nine months, other ‘typical’ rehab structures put in place for addicts like Shawn continued to fail him — exposing the loopholes and lack of regulation in halfway houses, counseling services, even at hospitals.
The Sinisis said they tried everything: A treatment facility that had a reputation for employing strict behavior modification methods, a family member who had also been through addiction and who was now sober. They tried tough love. They tried cutting him off. Even hospitalization.
It was nearly impossible to find a therapist Shawn could afford, who would address his trauma along with his drug abuse.
In summer 2018, Shawn left his latest rehab center and began drifting, carrying his belongings in a garbage bag. One night, he slept on a park bench. Most of the time, he crashed with acquaintances.
In one harrowing episode, Marianne took a call from Shawn and realized he was hallucinating. When he came home, he was spasming and puking. His dad recalls watching him struggle with paranoia, unable to fully control his body.
“I was so scared and hurt actually looking at my son … and knowing the kind of pain, you know, that he was going through,” Mike Sinisi said. “It killed me to watch.”
But within a few days, Marianne got the call she’d been waiting to receive.
Penn State had agreed to pay for Shawn to go to The Meadows, a treatment facility in Arizona with a sterling reputation.
Shawn’s parents took him to the Pittsburgh airport on August 26, 2018, for what was only the second flight of his life, hoping this time would be different, hoping he would finally get the right kind of help.
But what happened next would be a mystery to the family for nearly three years. What they did know is that after just eight days in the rehab center, Shawn was told to leave. He was put on a plane to Pittsburgh, with no safe destination lined up for him.
His family doesn’t know exactly what happened from there. He ended up at a McDonald’s and overdosed in the bathroom.
He was 26.
“Our poor Shawn,” Marianne said. “I felt like he wasn’t cared for at all … not even leaving the planet.”
Details of Shawn’s last days would slowly emerge over the next three years. We explore those in “The Mayor of Maple Avenue” podcast, examining the system failures that led to his death, and what must be done to more adequately address the needs of sexual abuse victims long after their perpetrators are jailed.