Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing a $5.1 million funding boost to the state’s oversight of residential juvenile programs, after Inquirer investigations into child abuse at the nation’s oldest reform school and the state’s failure to detect or stop it.
The extra millions in the 2020-21 budget would fund more than 100 additional staff positions to several program areas within the Department of Human Services, the state agency that licenses and monitors privately run residential facilities for court-ordered youth.
At a news conference in Philadelphia on Wednesday, the governor described the additional funds as "critical because these are our frontline employees, the ones who need to be trained, the ones who need to be able to detect violations.”
The funds would enable DHS to “complete timely inspections of facilities to ensure full compliance with regulations, investigate complaints, and monitor the implementation of corrective action measures,” according to materials provided by Wolf’s office. The governor, who recently announced a juvenile-justice task force, is expected to pledge additional funding for the troubled system in the 2021-22 budget as well.
Last year, an Inquirer investigation documented decades of physical abuse and cover-ups at the Glen Mills Schools, a prestigious campus for court-ordered boys in Delaware County. Founded in 1826 as the Philadelphia House of Refuge, Glen Mills drew students from across the country with its redbrick buildings and strong athletics program.
The Inquirer exposed how Glen Mills counselors kept students in line by beating them up, then keeping them quiet with threats of longer sentences at worse programs. In response, DHS ordered the emergency removal of all students, then revoked the school’s 14 licenses, shuttering Glen Mills after 193 years.
A second Inquirer investigation showed how families and professionals had repeatedly warned DHS over the years about abuse at Glen Mills, to no result. Even when DHS looked into abuse complaints, The Inquirer found, investigators failed to interview witnesses or examine photographic evidence of injuries.
Over the course of 10 years at Glen Mills, The Inquirer found, DHS repeatedly flagged the campus over violence, yet failed to meaningfully follow up on “corrective action plans” put forth by Glen Mills. Inspectors also failed to connect the dots between abusive incidents that occurred on the same campus but in different, separately licensed buildings. Unchecked, the violence continued for decades.
In July, the governor signed an executive order commissioning a Council on Reform to identify flaws and offer solutions for vulnerable Pennsylvanians. Wolf cited The Inquirer’s reporting when he signed the order directing an overhaul of DHS.
“Outdated systems and regulations prevented anyone from piecing together the frequent and numerous allegations at Glen Mills Schools," Wolf said then, “until a journalist put the pieces together.”
The council’s preliminary recommendations, released Nov. 1, mirrored many of The Inquirer’s findings: shoddy investigations, a lack of staff training, and issues flagged but not fixed. He said the council’s work “does much more than just correct those issues that led to those awful incidents.”
Wolf is to propose the $5.1 million to address these lapses on Feb. 4. DHS receives $13 billion in state funding, $1.3 billion of which is earmarked for the Department of Children, Youth and Families, which oversees juvenile programs like Glen Mills.
The governor announced in December that Pennsylvania leaders have partnered with Pew Charitable Trusts to form the Juvenile Justice Task Force, which will spend a year studying ways to improve the safety of youths in its care.
Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, who recently led a local effort to reduce the use of far-away facilities for youth in the delinquency and dependency systems, was appointed by Wolf to serve on the new statewide task force.
“This is a victory for young people, who organized to tell their stories of abuse at these facilities, and for our city, which has led the charge to bring young people closer to home and end the systemic abuses that have traumatized our youth for generations," Gym said in a statement. “I applaud Governor Wolf’s efforts to fix the system by investing in meaningful oversight and improved standards.”
Some analysts have opposed the use of juvenile programs, urging state and local leaders to abandon the practice and focus on solutions that keep youth in their communities. Juvenile Law Center, a national nonprofit that is suing Glen Mills and state leaders on behalf of abuse victims, released a report in November warning that these institutions often do more harm than good.
Michaela Soyer, a professor at Hunter College in New York who reported abuse at Glen Mills to DHS in 2014 — but saw nothing come of it — said she agreed. She called the state’s efforts to improve oversight “like putting a Band-Aid on a leg that probably should be amputated."
“I think the crisis at Glen Mills forces us to completely rethink how we engage with disadvantaged young people who have come in conflict with the law,” Soyer said.
Glen Mills has remained closed since April. It filed an appeal to win back its licenses but has yet to schedule a hearing with state officials.
The governor also proposed additional funding Wednesday for adults with disabilities in long-term care, legal services for abuse victims, and community-based services.