Pa. governor’s council recommends sweeping changes to juvenile justice programs

Pennsylvania should make comprehensive changes to its juvenile justice programs and the agencies overseeing them to ensure the safety of children ordered to these state-licensed facilities, a council formed by Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday.

The Council on Reform recommended that state officials improve training for everyone from juvenile judges to residential program staff; hold adults who fail to report abuse accountable in court; and improve the rigor of child-abuse investigations, among other suggestions in its 11-page report to the governor.

“It is our hope that Pennsylvania will rise to the occasion and put its best effort into driving this much-needed change — our most vulnerable are counting on it,” said the authors, acknowledging the funding implications and “substantial amount of time and work” it would take to implement the report’s recommendations.

“This timeline was built on a desire to provide as much time as possible for public input, while still allowing enough time for fiscal year 2020-21 budget considerations,” they noted.

In July, Wolf signed an executive order creating the Council on Reform and directing it to deliver recommendations to improve juvenile justice programs and other services for children, citing abuses at the Glen Mills Schools and other state-licensed institutions for court-ordered youth.

The state closed Glen Mills, the nation’s oldest existing reform school, after an Inquirer investigation in February exposed widespread abuse and cover-ups at the Delaware County campus long-revered for its athletics program. Three months later, after repeated questions from The Inquirer about the state’s oversight of Glen Mills, state officials said the system was broken and vowed to reform its oversight of juvenile programs.

second Inquirer investigation, in October, showed how the Department of Human Services (DHS), the state agency that licenses and monitors these programs, for years failed to act on repeated complaints of violence at Glen Mills and other facilities. DHS inspectors were not a serious presence on campus, and rarely substantiated complaints of abuse, in some cases failing to examine photographic evidence of the violence.

The wide-ranging recommendations released Friday by the Council on Reform addressed many of these findings. The report urged the governor to overhaul licensing inspections to move away from “technical compliance” and toward identifying serious issues.

It also recommended that state officials enhance training and decrease caseloads for abuse investigators, and press charges against adult staffers who witness the abuse of youth but don’t report it, despite a legal requirement for them to do so.

All adults who work with children in these facilities are considered “mandated reporters" and must call ChildLine, the state’s abuse-reporting hotline. But The Inquirer’s reporting found that many counselors at Glen Mills turned a blind eye to the abuse, afraid of being demoted or fired by their supervisors.

The council also suggested the governor launch a public awareness campaign “to educate the public on identifying and reporting abuse.”

Additionally, the report noted, DHS should interview children within two to five days of their discharge from these programs to get a true picture of their experiences. The Inquirer found that DHS inspectors interviewed Glen Mills students in the school’s administration building, a place where boys were sometimes not truthful about the violence they endured for fear of retaliation from staff.

Several state officials, including DHS Secretary Teresa Miller and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, are named alongside Glen Mills in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of former students. Marsha Levick, chief legal officer of Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group leading the lawsuit, said it is possible state officials “could do enough” in reforming their systems to merit dropping these officials from its lawsuit.

The law center released its own report Friday morning, urging Pennsylvania officials to stop relying on juvenile institutions and instead find solutions for youth in the community.

“We think reduction in youth placements can be dramatic, and needs to be dramatic," said Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of the Juvenile Law Center. "One of the real dangers of juvenile facilities is that young people are out of our sight and anything can happen to them.”

The center, based in Philadelphia, pointed to national research that shows juvenile institutions do not reduce a youth’s likelihood to reoffend. Rather, the report said, children in placement are more likely to become isolated from their families and communities.

The Council on Reform also recommended reducing youth placements. It urged state officials to “increase capacity and access to evidence-based services in the community for children” and reinvest savings from these expensive juvenile institutions into “mediation, strength-based treatment, mentorships, and education and employment services.”

Additionally, the council recommended training for judges on trauma, diversity and implicit bias — a subconscious form of racism — noting the outsize number of black and Hispanic youth placed in juvenile programs.

Despite misconceptions, youth are not always sent to programs because they’re deemed dangerous to the community. In fact, most local youth are not in placements because of violent offenses. Data provided by the Philadelphia Defenders Association shows that, of its 73 clients in juvenile programs on July 12, the majority — 45 — had been sent because of technical violations, such as skipping school or breaking curfew.

The report also included recommendations to improve conditions for senior citizens and other vulnerable populations, such as families caring for children with complex medical issues, and victims of domestic violence.

The council is composed of 25 voting members from a wide range of backgrounds: a pediatrician, a psychologist and a juvenile probation officer are among its ranks. It is also includes nonvoting members, including appointees of DHS, and the health, education, and corrections departments. The executive director is Drew Wilburne, director of intergovernmental affairs for DHS.

Philadelphia Councilmember Helen Gym, who helms a task force to reduce the number of juveniles sent to faraway facilities, said she wanted to see strategies to make Council’s recommendations a reality.

"Everyone wants to talk about reducing the number of youth in placement facilities, but the system is very complicated and very fractured,” Gym said. "Knowing what you want to do isn’t the problem; knowing how to do it is the biggest stumbling block.”

A 45-day public comment period began with the report’s release Friday. The council said it expects to review these comments and ultimately release more recommendations based on the feedback.

It also recommended that state officials conduct a study to “determine additional unmet needs” for children involved in the juvenile-justice system and a plan to address them.

Wolf expressed gratitude to the committee members in a news release Friday.

“Your tireless commitment to this process demonstrates your passion for protecting all Pennsylvanians, especially our most vulnerable," he said. "I look forward to reading and analyzing these recommendations and to our next steps to make much-needed changes.”

[This article was originally published by The Philadelphia Inquirer.]