Philadelphia leaders push for safer youth placements

By Lisa Gartner and Laura McCrystal

Residential programs that serve Philadelphia children should be required to install video cameras, train and pay staff well, and commit to reducing or eliminating the use of physical restraints, a group of local leaders said Tuesday.

Additionally, Philadelphia should appoint a children’s ombudsman to investigate safety issues, and commit to building small, local residential programs to keep youths from becoming isolated from the community in far-flung and often dangerous placements.

The Youth Residential Placement Task Force, formed in June 2018 and composed of leaders from the city Department of Human Services, Public Defender’s Office, and City Council, among others, released its final report Tuesday urging local officials to reduce the number of youths put in institutions in the first place.

“Over-institutionalizing young people makes no sense,” said Councilwoman Helen Gym, who helped form the task force. “It’s bad for children, it’s bad for communities, it doesn’t help their families in any way and it’s also bad for our bottom line.”

In October 2016, a 17-year-old from Philadelphia died at the hands of his counselors at Wordsworth Academy, a residential treatment center close to Fairmount Park. Earlier this year, an Inquirer investigation detailed decades of violent abuse and cover-ups at the Glen Mills Schools, a revered residential program in Delaware County where Philadelphia judges sent thousands of local boys.

Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who worked with Gym to create the task force, said he heard rumors of abuse at Glen Mills when he was growing up in South Philadelphia.

“Their stories weren’t foreign to me,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure that this document is executed. So this is just the beginning.”

Residential programs — dubbed “kid jails” by critics — house juveniles who have committed crimes and whom judges have deemed need to be placed outside their homes, often after petty violations like missing school or failing a drug test. Residential treatment centers cater to youth who may have medical needs, intellectual disabilities, or are on the autism spectrum. These institutions are licensed by the state, but Philadelphia decides which facilities to contract with.

In its 46-page report, the task force also argued for better education opportunities for these children, saying youth fall so far behind that it is difficult to go back to their neighborhood schools, where their credits often don’t transfer.

Programs “closer to home,” or within 25 miles of city limits, would ensure school officials could keep a close eye on the curriculum at these programs, the report says, while increasing the safety of these youth.

Improving safety starts with improving staffing at these institutions, the task force says. It directs city leaders to work with its contracted providers to raise the minimum wage for program counselors to $18 an hour and offer comprehensive benefits.

“Front-line staff at residential facilities have challenging and high stakes jobs for which they often receive low pay and insufficient training,” the report reads. “Improper restraint usage and cases of abuse toward youth may occur as the result of poor training or lack of support.”

Physical restraints, which are supposed to be used only if a juvenile is an imminent danger to himself or others, became a euphemism for abuse and punishment at Glen Mills. The task force directed the city to require contracted programs to reduce or eliminate the use of physical restraints. These programs would also have to install cameras to record surveillance video, a key piece of evidence in child abuse investigations.

City leaders are also recommending the creation of an independent Youth Services Ombudsperson office “to receive and investigate concerns from youth and families about safety or services.”

Tyrone Jones, who served as a youth representative on the task force, said officials should ensure that young people and their families know their rights. “It’s also important that they are aware of how to make a complaint and who to contact if there’s an issue,” he said.

With local decision-makers like DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa serving on the task force, its leaders appeared confident that its recommendations would have traction. Mayor Jim Kenney voiced his support at a news conference Tuesday morning.

“We look forward to continuing to listen to our young people and take to heart their experiences, not just to inform our policies but also our actions moving forward," the mayor said.

But the report also acknowledges the possibility of budgetary restraints; for instance, the proposal to increase staffers’ minimum wage by July 2024 is “contingent on available resources.”

“The participating city government agencies and other entities represented on the Task Force are committed to implementing these recommendations to the extent that resources and legal authority allow,” task force members wrote.

Local leaders also recognized that Philadelphia will need the cooperation of state officials, who, as the oversight authority, wield the most power over juvenile programs. They appear to be in lockstep: In late July, citing The Inquirer’s investigation into Glen Mills, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a sweeping overhaul of state oversight of residential programs and treatment centers.

He also created a children’s ombudsman position to investigate complaints of abuse and other issues at these juvenile facilities. Additionally, Wolf formed a new Council on Reform, which released recommendations this month to improve the safety of children in state-licensed programs.

Between the summers of 2017 and 2018, a total of 2,183 Philadelphia youths spent time in a residential program or treatment center. These placements disproportionately involve African-American children; about 75% of children in placement are black, despite black people’s making up 47% of the city’s under-18 population.

Task force members said strategies to combat this racial inequity, along with discrimination against LGBTQ youth, would be the focus of an upcoming strategy report. Gym said the community needs to recognize “the pain of what happens when we take black children away from their parents for no other reason than being poor.”

“The findings in here are brutally honest," Gym said. "They force us to confront our own practices.”

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