Last year, youth advocates in Philadelphia finally achieved their long-held goal of opening a psychiatric residential treatment facility that could keep kids with complex needs in the city and near their families and communities.

Now, mere months after the first child was accepted, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has revoked the license of the facility run by New Jersey-based Legacy Treatment Services. The licensing action cites “failure to comply with department regulations; and gross incompetence, negligence and misconduct.” A spokesperson described the revocation as necessary due to “multiple child rights violations.”

The inspectors reported finding staff asleep or on their phones during times they were supposed to be monitoring children, leaving them for hours without required checks. The report also indicated that staff had used inappropriate restraints and “an unusual form of discipline” in a way that amounted to child abuse.

Community Behavioral Health, the city’s nonprofit behavioral health care agency, which holds a contract with Legacy, closed admissions there after DHS’s licensing action.

Gregory Wilson, executive director of the Legacy Foundation, called the move “arbitrary and unprecedented,” which he said was based on two isolated incidents that did not result in injury. He said Legacy had already undertaken corrective action and would appeal the “completely unjustified action.”

The 12-bed facility, called Thomas House, currently houses six youths ages 14 to 18 in West Philadelphia. According to Wilson, the program “has already helped several Philadelphia youth to recover from the severe trauma experienced earlier in their lives and reach our shared goal of family reunification.” A second, six-bed Legacy facility in East Germantown, Washington House, has been licensed but not yet opened.

A state DHS spokesperson said the department had not yet removed children from Thomas House, as it only undertakes emergency removals in cases presenting serious and imminent health and safety concerns.

Finding safe placements for children has been a perpetual challenge for Philadelphia, as one facility after another has been racked by allegations of abuse.

“It seems fair to say that this is a reminder that institutional placements small or large often fail to provide services to kids and often harm them rather than help them,” said Marsha Levick of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Juvenile Law Center. “This is another reminder of the importance of building a continuum of care that allows services to be delivered as often as possible to children in their own home environments if we’re serious about both providing them services and keeping them safe.”

In 2016, the state shut down Wordsworth — then Philadelphia’s only psychiatric residential treatment facility — after a teenager, David Hess, was killed there during an altercation with staff. An Inquirer report found that was only one of a string of alleged abuses, including 49 sex crimes in a decade.

By the end of 2019, the majority of Philadelphia youths in psychiatric residential treatment were housed in Devereux facilities. Then, after an Inquirer investigation, the city said it would remove all children it had placed at Devereux, where 20 staff in its Chester County facilities have been criminally charged since 2018 in connection with abuse allegations, including punching and whipping children and forcing them to fight.

A city spokesperson said city agencies and Community Behavioral Health have been informing youths and families of their rights and care options.Since learning of the state DHS licensing action, the City and CBH have completed regular unannounced site visits,” the spokesperson added.

DHS itself is currently the subject of multiple lawsuits related to youth facilities, including Glen Mills, which was shut down and is now the subject of numerous lawsuits after an Inquirer investigation.

The nonprofit Disability Rights Pennsylvania is also suing the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services on behalf of youth who reported abuse at the state’s secure Youth Detention Facilities. The organization alleged staff provoked “youth with disabilities into self-harming behaviors or other escalated behaviors as a pretext to justify abuse in the form of physical restraint.” One child, according to the complaint, suffered a punch so hard it fractured the orbital bone. The group also alleged staff used intimidation tactics to frighten young residents into refusing the release of their records to the nonprofit.

In that context, Levick said, the DHS action against Legacy does stand out.

“It may be that they are acting more swiftly because of failures to act appropriately in the past,” Levick said.

“The fact that this may reflect heightened vigilance is a good thing,” she added. “At the end of the day, the safety of those kids has to be the first priority.”