Investigating violence in Pennsylvania's juvenile justice system

Published on
October 19, 2018

Coming to Philadelphia for my new job at the Inquirer, I wasn’t sure which stories I would tackle. I came up as an education reporter, and recently completed a series on a juvenile auto-theft ring in Pinellas County, Florida, so I knew I was drawn to youth issues. But I had never lived in Philadelphia before, and the last thing I wanted to do was to parachute in and assume the topics that I wanted to pursue were actual stories playing out in my new community.

So I began meeting with experts who worked with children, asking them what problems were in most need of attention from an investigative reporter. I had coffee with advocates, lawyers, public officials and parents. What I heard, over and over again, were stories of physical violence in juvenile residential programs.

Pennsylvania is sometimes lauded for how it handles its young offenders. It was described as a flagship state on juvenile justice and the first participant chosen by Models for Change, a program supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in the early 2000s. Its decentralized set-up, wherein counties place juveniles and a state agency supervises them, has also been celebrated. But children were being victimized after being adjudicated delinquent and sent away to residential programs, these experts told me, and I set out to find out why and how. I’ll continue the investigation under the auspices of the 2018 Data Fellowship.

I began reading Chapter 3800 of the Pennsylvania Code, which covers the private facilities that the state licenses and the counties contract with to house youth who have committed crimes. It extensively details the records private programs are required to keep. The reports include instances of physical restraint, both proper and improper, and seclusion, or isolation rooms. I am currently working to get these records from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. In the meantime, I have scoured publicly available state inspection reports. Although they don’t provide a complete picture, these records lend a grim credence to the stories my sources have told me.

The juvenile justice system can feel like a closed book — and often for good reason. Protecting the privacy of youth offenders is an important part of the rehabilitative lens the juvenile system wears. But closed courtrooms and sealed records can also cultivate a secrecy that allows for the very injustices these procedures are designed to prevent. Without a spotlight, children and teenagers can fall victim to violence. And no kid deserves that, regardless of whether he or she broke the law.