Five years ago, the phone rang in Pennsylvania’s child-abuse-reporting call center. The woman on the line said she was not calling to report an instance of abuse at the Glen Mills Schools. She was calling to report a pattern.
A postdoctoral fellow at Pennsylvania State University, Michaela Soyer had spent the summer interviewing young inmates at a state prison. Six of the men had formerly been placed at Glen Mills, a reform school for court-ordered boys in Delaware County. All six told Soyer they had witnessed, or experienced firsthand, violent abuse while there.
Young men can exaggerate. Soyer knew that. But she also knew they were telling the truth, she says, when each of the six described the same details, down to the specific rooms where staff took boys to beat them.
It was October 2014 when Soyer shared all of this with the abuse-reporting hotline run by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS). “It will be recorded,” she says the DHS employee told her. And, “Thank you for making this phone call.”
For the next five years at the state-licensed school — as boys’ bones were broken, as they were hospitalized with head injuries, as their parents cried for help — nothing happened. Then an Inquirer investigation, published in February, exposed decades of abuse and cover-ups at Glen Mills, the nation’s oldest reform school. In response, DHS officials closed the once-renowned campus, pulled its licenses, and promised that “no more children will be subjected to the culture of abuse, coercion, and silence that ran deep at the school.”
They did not say how the $39 billion agency failed to detect and stop abuse at Glen Mills for so long.
A new Inquirer investigation has found that Pennsylvania’s oversight of Glen Mills and other privately run juvenile programs has been bare-bones at best and negligent at worst. Former students, family members, and professionals tried to alert the state to physical violence against children, only to see their pleas go ignored.
Even when DHS investigated claims of abuse, it rarely substantiated them, allowing virtually every adult accused of beating children to continue working with them. In the rare cases where abuse reports were proven true, state officials took months to notify the cities and states that send children to these programs.
The violence has gone so unchecked that since fall 2016, when Cynthia Figueroa became commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, she has stopped sending children to seven private campuses, including those at Mid-Atlantic Youth Services and George Junior Republic. As a city official, she was using one of the only moves she has to hold state-licensed facilities accountable.
“If this stuff happened on the street, that would be an assault arrest, no question,” said Figueroa. “And these people are getting paid to take care of kids.”
Pennsylvania relies more heavily on privately run juvenile placements than nearly any other state. In 2015, it sent 2,151 children, or 76% of its court-ordered youth, to private programs; the national average is 31%. Offering smaller settings and specialized philosophies, private programs can be a good option, particularly over Pennsylvania’s large, lockdown public facilities.
But without proper state oversight, the system has fallen apart, The Inquirer found. Charged with monitoring private juvenile facilities, DHS was instead not a serious presence on campuses, giving advance notice of inspections and renewing the programs’ licenses even when indicators of abuse were found and not fixed. Former counselors said they were easily able to navigate DHS visits and keep students quiet about the violence.
“Everyone’s fully aware of who they talked to,” said Ray O’Malley, who worked as a counselor, as an admissions officer, and in other roles at Glen Mills from 1989 through 2017. “If anything came out, we’d know.”
After The Inquirer spent months asking DHS questions about its oversight of private juvenile programs, Gov. Tom Wolf announced plans to reform DHS in late July.
In a recent interview, DHS Secretary Teresa Miller said she was taking steps to overhaul the state’s licensing system and inspection processes, and was considering new ways to investigate abuse on campuses.
“I wish I could go back and fix all of these problems. I wish I could do something to prevent them from having happened,” said Miller, who became secretary in 2017. “I can’t change what happened, but if you get nothing else out of this interview, certainly know that going forward, we’re not going to ignore problems.”
The violence was such an open secret that Glen Mills counselors, when at a nearby pub, felt comfortable bragging about punching students and bouncing boys off the walls, bartenders told The Inquirer.
It was the fodder of online forums, message boards, and Facebook comments, and that was one of the reasons Soyer, now an assistant sociology professor at Hunter College in New York, said she did not expect anything to happen when she called DHS in 2014.
“It was out there,” she said. “If they wanted to do something about it, they would have.”
In February, DHS investigators were at the Mid-Atlantic Youth Services campus in Pittston Township, in northeastern Pennsylvania, to interview a 15-year-old boy about a complaint he had made about another program. Speaking with the investigators, the Philadelphia teen made a disturbing allegation: He had also been mistreated at Mid-Atlantic the week before. The Feb. 14 incident was captured on surveillance video:
The teenager stands in a red hoodie and jeans or dark pants with his head bowed and his arms hanging in front of him, one hand clasping the opposite wrist. Two staff members stand on each side of the skinny teenager, a third in front of him, all facing him. A woman is also in the room, sitting on an L-shape desk, swinging her legs and watching.
As the boy turns just his head to speak with the staffer on his right, the man on his left lunges at him. The boy doesn’t see it coming, and as the man on his right joins in, they force the teenager to the ground. He lands on his stomach, and the men twist him onto his back. The third staffer also climbs on top of the teen. From under the pile, the boy’s leg sticks out at an unnatural angle.
Three more men come into the room. The boy is sitting up, slumped forward, as a man in a polo shirt pulls both his arms behind his back at a severe angle, what wrestlers call a “chicken wing” hold. It is not an approved restraint because it is considered exceedingly painful, endangers a child’s breathing, and can cause joints to hyperextend and dislocate.
Pennsylvania said that was not abuse.
Shoddy investigations have kept all but a handful of child-abuse complaints from being dismissed in Pennsylvania’s residential programs, The Inquirer found. About 2% of allegations of abuse at these facilities were substantiated by DHS investigators over the last 10 years. In 2011, investigators substantiated just eight of 862 reports — less than 1%. And after appeals, these numbers fall further.
To make a finding of child abuse, investigators must prove that a staffer “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” injured a child or created a situation where a child could have been injured, either via “any recent act or failure to act,” according to state law.
DHS investigators are required to interview the alleged victim, perpetrator, and any witnesses, as well as review all surveillance video, photographs, medical records, and written reports related to the incident, said Amy Grippi, acting deputy secretary for DHS’s Office of Children, Youth and Families.
Grippi said the substantiation rate is so low because, prior to a training push in 2018, juvenile programs reported a wide range of incidents to ChildLine, the abuse reporting hotline, even if they didn’t suspect abuse. “Our facilities were erring on the side of caution, which we appreciate,” Grippi said.
But The Inquirer found dozens of examples of suspected abuse that investigators routinely cleared. The question is how.
In February at Mid-Atlantic, “The Regional DHS Representatives did not view any video, interview employees, review medical or internal incident report documentation, or conduct a formal interview with the youth regarding the alleged mistreatment,” wrote Melanie Spade, the program’s admissions coordinator, in an email at 5:55 p.m. the day the boy brought forth the allegations.
It is not clear whether DHS later took these required steps in its investigation, which was completed “and deemed unfounded” by March 15, according to emails. Mid-Atlantic officials did not respond to multiple phone messages and emails, and Grippi said she could not comment on a specific case.
In general, she said, a claim won’t be substantiated if investigators can’t find sufficient evidence, if the incident doesn’t rise to the legal definition of abuse, or if DHS determines nothing improper happened.
The Inquirer was given access to unedited surveillance footage of the incident. Over the course of more than an hour, a reporter watched three 10-minute videos showing the incident from three distinct camera angles.
Despite Mid-Atlantic officials’ claims that the teen was properly restrained “after attempting to hit a staff,” the teen does not try to strike staffers and the take-down appears unprompted.
Mid-Atlantic has two campuses in Pennsylvania. Figueroa, the Philadelphia commissioner, stopped sending youths to both after watching the video. “I couldn’t physically sit in the position that that child was held in,” she said. “In my opinion as a professional, when I watch the footage, it’s difficult to determine why the Mid-Atlantic incident was unfounded.”
At Glen Mills, incident reports show that DHS investigated counselors for violence but failed to substantiate complaints. In 2016, a student complained of a headache. Angry that the student had kept playing basketball after being instructed to stop, a counselor “slapped him and banged his head a few times off the bleachers,” the boy said.
A DHS investigator interviewed the student and the counselor, then “stated that the investigation was verbally unfounded.” Within a year, the same counselor was accused of punching, choking, and slamming three more Glen Mills students. He was cleared each time.
Cynthia Dunlevy said she called ChildLine in 2005 or 2006 after visiting her son Kenneth at Glen Mills and finding purple-black bruises on his arms; he told her that three counselors had jumped him after they ordered him to spit on another student and he refused. “No pictures,” a staffer barked, but Dunlevy snapped one anyway with her point-and-shoot camera.
After sharing this with the state, Dunlevy, who lives in Glenolden, hustled to a pharmacy to get the photograph developed. She even ordered double copies so she could give one to state investigators.
But no one from DHS ever asked to see the photograph of Kenneth’s bruises, she said. In fact, no one called Dunlevy again or wrote to her.
“You think you’re sending your kids to these places to get help,” she said, “but the state is not protecting our children.”
A small number of abuse allegations at private juvenile programs do end up being substantiated by DHS investigators. One of those reports concerned Kevin Endrick.
Struggling with her son’s Asperger’s syndrome, mood disorder, and ADHD, Joanne Endrick and her husband made the difficult decision to voluntarily send Kevin from his home in Bethlehem to George Junior Republic on Sept. 6, 2017.
A large, well-reputed program in the northwest corner of the state, George Junior’s residential treatment center appeared to offer the structure Kevin needed.
On Sept. 15 — his ninth day there — Kevin got in trouble for putting his head down during class. A counselor named Shawn King took the 16-year-old into a small, windowless “timeout” room. Documents show that Kevin wanted to nap, so he reached past King to turn off the lights. In response, the counselor grabbed the teen, lifted him in the air, and dropped him on his head.
King did not respond to multiple phone messages from The Inquirer. His attorney declined to comment on his behalf. Nathan Gressel, chief executive officer of George Junior, also declined to comment for this story.
Kevin knew what a concussion felt like; when he was 5, he had tangled himself in a hula hoop and hit his head on the ground. Immediately, he told King he had one. He complained to the school nurse of a headache and light sensitivity; he had already vomited in the 30 minutes since his “restraint,” medical records show.
Instead of calling ChildLine, the nurse told Kevin to go to his room and rest. He continued to vomit for two days, he later told his mother. Staff threw him a mop and told him to clean it up.
The abuse claim against King was substantiated within weeks, but the counselor filed an appeal. Endrick drove Kevin to Pittsburgh to testify at the March 14, 2018, hearing. “It was so tough for him,” his mother recalls. He was afraid of facing King. Mother and son both breathed a sigh of relief when the appeal was denied in April.
But then King filed a second appeal, and waited.
Perpetrators who appealed to DHS’s hearings bureau were more likely to have their substantiations thrown out than upheld, The Inquirer found.
The Bureau of Hearings and Appeals (BHA), housed within DHS, decided on 38 appeals in 2016 and 2017. Of those, 22 — or 58% — were overturned. (The Inquirer could not conclusively analyze 2018 appeals because most have not been decided.)
Counselors found to have committed abuse have multiple attempts at appeal, so if their first fails, they can try again through the court system. And staffers have figured out a loophole. It’s one word in the state’s child abuse definition:
In May 2017, Philadelphia stopped sending boys to George Junior over an incident similar to the one at Mid-Atlantic. The complaint was substantiated against at least one staffer. He appealed. He won.
In an email obtained by The Inquirer, DHS regional director Amber Kalp explained that the staffer testified that he knew he was not using an approved restraint, but believed he could minimize injury that way.
“BHA found that [the staffer] did not intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly create a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury; instead, [the staffer] ‘engaged in a careful, deliberate thought process to take the subject child to the ground [in] the safest way he believed possible at the time,’ ” Kalp wrote.
In addition, at least one other George Junior staffer was cleared of his substantiation “prior to an appeal hearing even taking place,” according to an email from one of the program’s vice presidents.
DHS Secretary Miller said she could not speak to why the appeals bureau “makes the decisions that they make.” Although operating within DHS, the bureau is independent. Grippi cited the availability of witnesses and evidence as possible reasons that BHA might reach a different conclusion than the agency’s investigators.
What is clear is that the “reckless” case led to others.
At King’s second appeal hearing on Feb. 11 this year, judges considered his argument that he had not acted recklessly because he did not intend to slam Kevin to the ground or injure him. “In a split second, I had to think … I got him by the waist. I intended for an upper torso. It did not happen. I made a mistake,” King testified. “But I had to commit, or a more serious injury could have happened.”
The March 27 decision admits that King used “a modified wrestling move” on the teen. It says, “The facts of this case are not in dispute.”
But judges ruled that the action wasn’t “reckless.” King was cleared.
No one notified the Endricks. Not Kevin, who still gets dizzy and complains of headaches, whose behavior has only worsened since he left George Junior. Now 18, he was recently charged with retail theft and robbery.
No one told his mother, who learned of the reversal from a reporter in August.
Endrick has not found the words to tell Kevin that, even after he testified, King’s record would be clean.
“The staff member clearly injured my son, who now has lifelong effects,” she says. “And yet he is unscathed by the entire incident.”
To Endrick, it’s bad enough that the state didn’t notify her when the man who gave her teenage son a concussion was cleared.
But more so, she wishes she had known that the largest city in Pennsylvania had stopped sending children to George Junior over violence just four months before she voluntarily enrolled her son. “I would have never sent him,” she said. “This would have never happened.”
DHS officials say it is not their responsibility to alert all the municipalities that contract with its juvenile programs when one decides to stop sending youths. Additionally, state officials have argued that it would be irresponsible to disseminate information about abuse complaints before they were substantiated.
But because DHS rarely upholds abuse claims, it sent out few notifications. And even when the state did substantiate a complaint of abuse, weeks or months could pass before DHS notified the local agencies who send children there.
Earlier this year, a letter from Cathy Utz, then a DHS deputy secretary, alerted public officials across Pennsylvania that a staff member had “sexually abused or exploited a child over a three-week period” at Adelphoi Village’s privately run juvenile program in Towanda.
“The Department of Human Services is committed to assuring [sic] the health and safety of the children placed in residential facilities,” Utz wrote. “This notification is for your information as you make decisions about individuals who may be placed with this program or who you have placed with this program.”
The letter was dated March 14, 2019. But the abuse had been substantiated on Jan. 31. Six weeks had passed between DHS determining that a child was sexually abused at a program, and DHS alerting the other agencies that were actively sending children there.
“That’s outrageous,” said Joette Katz, the former commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families. In 2012, she directed Connecticut to stop sending its youth to any out-of-state placement after a boy from that state was allegedly beaten at Glen Mills.
“These things are only valuable when they’re timely,” Katz said. “Otherwise, it’s useless.”
Grippi, the acting deputy secretary, said DHS is “trying to correct issues of untimeliness.” Going forward, she said, the agency will send out notifications within five days of a substantiation. “I don’t think that expectation necessarily existed before, and it’s something we’re committed to correcting,” she said.
Additionally, as of August, DHS began notifying local officials at the point when it begins investigating an abuse complaint or other serious allegation at a juvenile program.
These new notices offer few details. For example, a notice dated Aug. 29 states, “This letter is to inform you that an incident in a facility resulted in a staff being removed from child care duties based on an approved plan of supervision.”
DHS does not shed light on the nature of the incident, let alone its severity. While local officials say they are grateful for more communication from the state, these notices have created confusion as counties scramble to figure out whether they should be taking action based on these letters.
Miller said DHS is bound by confidentiality laws, but understands that the notices are vague. It’s a work in progress, she said: “This is something we’re going to continue to work with stakeholders on.”
Two years after his release from Glen Mills, Ian Cain told his mother through tears that a counselor had picked him up, run him down a hallway, and slammed the then-17-year-old into a wall with such force that he defecated.
Horrified, Joanna Cain searched online as she wondered if she should alert DHS. “I could find allegations ... going back about 15 years,” the Harrisburg mother said of that day in 2011. “But in all of the cases, all of the charges were always unfounded and pretty much that told me that nobody was going to believe me or believe him.
“I would have been comfortable reporting the incident when I found out about it if I thought that someone was going to take it seriously.”
For at least two decades, Pennsylvania has claimed that its oversight system works, rebuffing the efforts of advocates and lawmakers to add an independent set of eyes.
Legislation to create a children’s ombudsman has been introduced eight times into at least one chamber of the General Assembly since 2000. Twenty-seven other states have created such a position, acknowledging that families sometimes feel more comfortable reporting abuses to an independent authority, rather than to the state agency licensing these children’s programs in the first place.
But DHS officials still failed to lend support for the office that could have independently investigated abuses in juvenile programs. As recently as June 2018, in testimony to state lawmakers, Miller suggested that DHS monitoring of privately run juvenile programs was operating smoothly and did not need additional oversight.
In reality, DHS inspectors rarely went to campuses, reissued licenses even after red flags were found but not fixed, and failed to investigate large numbers of runaways and injuries self-reported by these facilities as accidents, The Inquirer found.
To get a more detailed picture of what DHS’s oversight of a private juvenile residential program looks like, a reporter analyzed 10 years of inspection records and the last three years of incident reports at Glen Mills.
Chapter 3800 of the Pennsylvania code requires these programs to comply with 70 pages of standards, from bathroom-sink water temperatures to a child’s right to not be abused. To make sure these facilities are up to code, state law requires DHS to inspect juvenile residential programs at least every 12 months.
Annual inspections, for the purpose of license renewal, are announced in advance. The state is also permitted to make additional unannounced visits to these facilities, to get a better sense of what the programs are like when staff hasn’t had a chance to prepare.
“When you announce in advance, then everyone’s on their best behavior and the paint is fresh and everything is cleaned,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a leading national expert in the oversight of juvenile correctional facilities. “You’re not seeing things as they are the rest of the time.”
But for at least 10 years, DHS inspectors only went to Glen Mills unannounced if an incident had already happened, or a complaint had already been made. And for at least four years between 2009 and 2013 — a span in which several boys told The Inquirer they were beaten — DHS did not conduct any unannounced campus inspections, state records show, even when annual inspections raised concerns.
In an interview, Glen Mills acting director Christopher Spriggs denied that DHS oversight was lax. In a petition to win back its licenses, Glen Mills has argued that DHS was routinely on campus and would have noticed widespread abuse.
“They were out here unannounced all the time,” said Spriggs, although he acknowledged that the visits came after a potential issue had already arisen.
For example, in the spring of 2012, state inspectors found “two violations concerning the well-being of the children” at Glen Mills. According to state records, an “inappropriate restraint technique” was used to punish a child. As a result, “rights were violated.”
“The facility must ensure that a child is not mistreated, harassed or subject to corporal punishment,” the inspection report notes.
Glen Mills, in a short memo, promised to retrain staff. DHS could have come to campus for an unannounced inspection to make sure Glen Mills kept these promises. But the agency’s records show that it waited a year, until it was time for another announced review.
DHS could not provide any records indicating that it conducted that minimal annual inspection at the majority of Glen Mills’ dorms in 2017. Yet all of Glen Mills’ buildings received their licenses in the mail.
How was that possible? A few years earlier, DHS started sending out license renewals as soon as programs that were already fully licensed applied for them — before the annual inspection took place. This “streamlined and modernized the human services licensing process,” said Ronald Melusky, a DHS administrator, in a March 26, 2013, letter.
Melusky told the juvenile programs that the department would still conduct annual inspections, and if it detected problems, staff would have to make corrections to keep their licenses. This set up a system where a license had to be lost, not earned.
That’s what played out when state inspectors went to Glen Mills one year later. Between March 10 and 13, 2014, DHS inspectors determined that the Glen Mills staff trainer was not teaching counselors how to properly restrain a child — mirroring findings from two years earlier. DHS once again asked Glen Mills to fix this with a “plan of correction.”
No such plan had been received on March 26, however, when DHS mailed Glen Mills’ buildings their license renewals, good through the following summer.
It was more than a month later when then-Glen Mills director Randy Ireson, on April 30, submitted the school’s plan of correction. It was one paragraph long. Once more, Glen Mills promised that staff would receive “supplemental training.”
DHS approved the plan the next day.
“These are things that we’re looking at right now,” said Miller, who pledged that DHS would standardize its process for plans of correction and withhold a full license until their receipt. “There’s going to be specific timelines for how quickly this needs to happen. It can’t just happen whenever.”
The Inquirer found that the agency created yet another roadblock to detecting abuse on campus when it separately licensed each building housing children at its juvenile residential programs. In an interview, state officials could not explain why this was their practice.
When it comes to violence, this system makes it more difficult to see patterns of behavior that are occurring at the same program, but under different licenses.
On July 26, 2016, DHS went to Glen Mills after receiving a complaint that a counselor had choked a child, leaving visible red marks on his neck. In its one-paragraph corrective plan, Glen Mills said the staffer had been fired, and promised more training.
But DHS employees were back on Sept. 20. A student had fled into an office after a staff member allegedly hit him twice in the torso. The staffer chased the child inside, shoving him to the ground.
To most eyes, this appears as six episodes of abuse at Glen Mills in less than six months. But to DHS’s licensing system, it is one incident of violence at each of six facilities.
That’s because each incident happened in a separate hall at Glen Mills, each named for a different U.S. president, each with its own license.
Miller said the state was developing a new licensing system that would make it easier to detect and analyze patterns of abuse at its residential programs. Additionally, officials are rewriting the Chapter 3800 regulations so that inspectors keep their eyes out for violence, regardless of which license it falls under.
“Clearly, one of our problems is that our current system wasn’t designed for investigation,” said the secretary. “It was designed for record-keeping.”
Another way Pennsylvania officials made it easy for private facilities to hide violence, former counselors and students say, is the method state inspectors use to interview students during the facilities’ annual reviews.
DHS officials told The Inquirer that they randomly select students to interview ahead of these campus inspections. They choose names off a list of all the children at the program — but they request this roster from the program.
“Wow, wow!” said Deitch, the oversight expert. “Relying on the facility that you are monitoring to indicate who you should be talking to is not an independent way of doing this.”
Bernard Steward, who graduated from Glen Mills in 1996 and said he was once thrown across a room for breaking eye contact with a counselor, said injured or angry students were kept out of sight of DHS inspectors.
“When a boy would get beat up, he would have to be with staff everywhere staff goes, because they wanted you to never get a hold of a letter or a phone or anything,” said Steward. “No way they would let DHS get near him.”
This was easy to enforce, former counselors say, because in the rare case they did not know who DHS was going to speak with beforehand, they certainly knew afterward.
State inspectors often brought students into an office in the campus administration building to interview them, said O’Malley, the 28-year Glen Mills staffer. The students were seen entering the office by not just counselors and supervisors, but also top administrators.
“And then they’d be asked afterward exactly what happened,” O’Malley said.
Briefed on these findings, DHS leaders said they would consider changing how they select students to interview, and where and how they speak with them. “I’m not sure why that was ever initiated,” Grippi said.
Spriggs denied that Glen Mills held back students’ names from inspectors or threatened students before or after interviews with DHS. He acknowledged that these student interviews sometimes took place in the administration building. “DHS controlled that,” he said.
When DHS ordered the emergency removal of boys from Glen Mills in March, it said campus leaders hid abuse by forcing students to say their injuries were from sports.
But for years, DHS failed to investigate the large number of “accidental injuries” that Glen Mills attributed to sports. Between 2016 and 2018, the school submitted 142 reports concerning serious “accidental” injuries; of these, nearly 70 percent involved athletics.
Sean McDevitt, who worked as a counselor at Glen Mills for three months in 2018, saw his coworkers “just beat the living s—” out of a teen from North Philadelphia. His crime? Forging a counselor’s signature on classwork. The teen’s lip was broken open.
“My manager brought me in and was like, ‘This is what happened: He got that playing football,’ ” remembers McDevitt, who eventually quit over the violence and still wrestles with not speaking up sooner.
“There were situations when kids needed to be handled physically, like when a fight broke out,” McDevitt says. “But it wasn’t like that. This kid didn’t deserve to get beat like he did.”
Spriggs denied that Glen Mills encouraged counselors to lie about student injuries to conceal abuse.
DHS also failed to meaningfully investigate the large number of runaways from Glen Mills in these years. Between 2016 and 2018, according to incident reports, boys ran away from the school 202 times, jumping out of second-story windows and barreling out of vans at stop signs to escape their counselors. One boy knocked desperately on the door of a nearby house, asking where the nearest hospital was.
In a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this year, a 16-year-old boy identified as Walter, “terrified and desperate to escape from violence at Glen Mills,” said he tried to run away with another student in May 2018. A staffer chased Walter, dragged him back through thorn bushes, and then “violently assaulted” the teen while two other staff members watched.
Multiple other former students told The Inquirer that they, too, tried to run away after witnessing or experiencing violence at Glen Mills. But DHS investigators did not consistently follow up to ask why they had tried to get away. Instead, dozens of boys, like Walter, received misdemeanor escape charges. They had to stay at Glen Mills even longer.
The marquee item: a new Child Advocate position to act as an independent ombudsman for children under the state’s watch — the very same job that Pennsylvania deemed unnecessary for two decades.
“We’ve heard and seen the horror stories, most of which stem from a government too eager to serve the needs of institutions and too reluctant to serve the needs of people,” Wolf said. “For these systems, today is a day of reckoning.”
Imagine if that day had come sooner.
Michael Miller lights a cigarette in front of his house in Mifflinville, a small town on the Susquehanna River. The smoke floats over the sidewalk where his fiancee has helped their 2-year-old daughter draw a cat in pink chalk. He is thinking about what it would have been like to be believed.
“If one person would have listened, maybe a thousand other kids wouldn’t have been abused,” he says. “But nobody listened.”
In 2002, when Miller was 15, he violated his probation by smoking marijuana and was sent to Glen Mills. From the first day “I was just scared, basically, like, where did they send me? Like, I need to get out of here.
"I need to tell somebody what’s going on.”
He wanted to tell someone that he was attacked for taking an extra doughnut at dinner. That after swim team practice, the coach punched him in the face for throwing soap foam in the shower. He wanted to tell someone that at the encouragement of the staff, other boys spit on him, and then men took him to a back room to beat him.
But he couldn’t tell anyone. When DHS inspectors interviewed him at Glen Mills, he says, they allowed the school’s counselors to stay in the room: “It was just something I had to keep inside the whole time.” When counselors left welts on his back after a beating, he says, they forced him to tell the nurse and his swim teammates that the marks were shingles.
When he finally got out in 2003, Miller began trying to make reports. He sent Glen Mills repeated emails over the years, but never heard anything back. He even filled out a job application for the school — not to be hired, but as a form of contacting it: “I wrote in the job application that they were abusing people.” (Glen Mills officials denied any knowledge of these emails.)
Miller says he went to talk to his probation officer, but no one believed him: “It was ‘Oh, he’s making it up. He’s just a bad kid.' ” He left feeling hopeless. He leaned into drugs, hoping to block it all out.
Six years ago, Miller says, he got clean, started a family, and tried to forget about his time in the state-licensed facility. Then in February, the 33-year-old read The Inquirer’s investigation into abuse at Glen Mills. He saw that Glen Mills was promising to conduct a review of the allegations. He called the school’s main line. He thought: Now they’ll believe me.
He does not know the name of the employee who answered, but he remembers telling her that he had names and dates, and that some of the men who abused him still worked at Glen Mills. The woman gave him a phone number. “This is the number of the person handling the abuse claims,” she told him, and abruptly hung up.
Miller called the number he had been given. It rang and rang, but nobody picked up. As he listened to the voicemail greeting, he slowly realized:
Glen Mills had sent him to its public-relations firm.
Spriggs, the acting Glen Mills director, declined to comment. The Inquirer has reviewed Miller’s call logs, which corroborate the former student’s account. A spokesperson for Glen Mills confirmed that the firm forwarded a message from Miller.
Spriggs tried to call Miller the next day, after reviewing a voicemail he left describing his abuse. He also says he referred the case to ChildLine.
Miller, too, tried to turn to the people whom he hadn’t been able to tell back in 2002: the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. He called ChildLine himself.
It took a few months for DHS to call him back, Miller says, but he was grateful. He thanked them profusely for calling. Maybe someone would finally listen to him, he thought, about all that he had seen and suffered.
He was on the other line with a lawyer. He asked the state investigator to call him back later.
They said they would, but nobody did.
This article was written while Inquirer staff writer Lisa Gartner was participating in a data fellowship run by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.