Citing revelations of violence against children at the Glen Mills Schools, Gov. Tom Wolf on Wednesday ordered the state to overhaul its oversight of Pennsylvania’s juvenile residential programs.
Wolf signed an executive order creating an Office of Advocacy and Reform, with a new Child Advocate position. The advocate will act as an ombudsman for youth in the state’s facilities. The order also establishes a Council on Reform to provide recommendations for further action.
Additionally, the governor directed state agencies to reduce the number of children in institutional placements; strengthen oversight of the programs in their purview; and increase accountability for these institutions.
“Today is a day of reckoning,” Wolf said shortly before signing the executive order. “Today, we are being honest that the decades-in-making, outdated, rigid, convoluted system is not working for too many Pennsylvanians.”
A recent Inquirer investigation exposed decades of violence by staff against students at Glen Mills, the Delaware County campus founded in 1826 as the Philadelphia House of Refuge. The oldest existing reform school in the United States, Glen Mills drew students from all over the country with its redbrick buildings and focus on athletics.
The Inquirer found that so-called counselors had been beating children and breaking their bones, then coercing them into lying about their injuries with threats of worse placements in the state system. In April, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) announced that it was revoking Glen Mills’ licenses.
“Outdated systems and regulations prevented anyone from piecing together the frequent and numerous allegations at Glen Mills Schools until a journalist put the pieces together,” Wolf said.
J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for the governor, said The Inquirer’s reporting “helped inform the administration’s work and perspective on the needed reforms to these systems, especially related to child residential treatment facilities and comprehensive oversight of these institutions more broadly.”
Wolf said he was directing DHS — the agency that licenses and monitors programs like Glen Mills — to procure a “state-of-the-art” licensing system to make sure “suspicious activities” don’t go undetected between state departments and bureaus.
He emphasized the need to use data to “identify high-risk providers” and recognize patterns of abuses such as those at Glen Mills, ordering DHS to build a statewide electronic child welfare case management information system.
The Council of Reform will be composed of 25 voting members appointed by the governor. They include designees from across state departments, including human services, health, aging, and education, as well as the state police and the Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, among others.
The council’s first task, Wolf said, is to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s laws and policies, and make recommendations for changes by Nov. 1. “I’m asking that the council issue a report to me that identifies past unimplemented recommendations and new reforms to further protect vulnerable populations,” he said.
The order also provides some protections for senior citizens, veterans, and the disabled. The Office of Advocacy and Reform will conduct a study on the financial exploitation of senior citizens and its economic impact on taxpayers. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman, an existing position, will move under the office’s umbrella, joining the new child advocate and executive director positions.
The governor said that in addition to reforming the state’s programs for juveniles, he wants to reduce the number of children in placements by finding more community-based solutions. He said he intends to pursue “extensive regulatory and legislative actions with input from the General Assembly.”
State Sens. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne) and Judy Schwank (D., Berks) released a joint statement supporting the governor’s actions Wednesday. The two lawmakers have repeatedly proposed a bill to create an interbranch commission on child welfare issues.
“We have heard the troubling stories and profound questions from survivors of abuse and from family and friends of those lost to abuse," the senators said. “These come from our districts and many places across Pennsylvania. We owe them answers in the way of effective and lasting reform of state law and practices.”
Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who heads the Children and Youth Committee, called the coming state changes “long overdue and desperately needed.”
“We have witnessed horrific abuses when such oversight is not established," she said. “This is a victory for young people who bravely stepped forward to speak their truths, for quality investigative journalism, and for our city.”
Gym and other local officials joined with state lawmakers to call for action after The Inquirer published its investigation into decades of violence at Glen Mills in February. In response, Wolf ordered DHS to execute a complete review of its oversight and interactions with the school for court-ordered boys. The state Office of the Inspector General took over this investigation in March.
The school has been shuttered since the state ordered the emergency removal of students, then revoked its licenses. To invoke an emergency removal order, DHS officials must find that conditions “constitute gross incompetence, negligence and misconduct in operating a facility, including mistreatment and abuse of clients, likely to constitute immediate and serious danger to the life or health of children in care.”
Glen Mills appealed these actions, arguing that too many state inspectors, local officials, and children’s advocates had been on campus for violence to have gone undetected. The hearing is expected to take place later this year.
A spokesperson for Glen Mills said school leadership supports the executive order and — if the hearing goes in the school’s favor — “looks forward to cooperating fully" with the new office and systems.
DHS Secretary Teresa Miller, former Secretary Theodore Dallas, former Deputy Secretary Cathy Utz, and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera are being sued alongside Glen Mills by former students.
Wolf said he is trying to figure out what role any state departments may have played in failing to stop or detect abuse at Glen Mills. He noted that what unfolded at Glen Mills is “one of the reasons” behind his executive order.
“We need to make sure that we are serving the individuals in our care," he said. "When something like Glen Mills happens, it is pretty much a clear indication that we are not succeeding in that.”
Staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.