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After Glen Mills, legal center warns Pa.: Juvenile programs do more harm than good

The Juvenile Law Center, which is suing the state over abuses at the Glen Mills Schools, hopes its recommendations will inform the state’s decisions surrounding an overhaul of programs for court-ordered youth.

The administration building at Glen Mills Schools.
The administration building at Glen Mills Schools.Read moreJessica Griffin / File Photograph

One of the organizations suing Pennsylvania officials over violence at the Glen Mills Schools will on Friday attempt to persuade state leaders to stop sending children to juvenile institutions like Glen Mills, saying these programs do more to harm youth than reform them.

The nonprofit, Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, a national power player in children’s advocacy, will release a report saying that Pennsylvania sends too many children to these facilities over minor, nonviolent offenses, and should set a minimum age for placement to even be considered for youth.

The report’s Nov. 1 release is not a coincidence: Three months ago, when Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order authorizing a council to probe the state’s oversight of these juvenile institutions and create a road map for improvements, he gave it the same deadline.

Jessica Feierman, senior managing director of Juvenile Law Center and one of its report’s five authors, said the group is hoping to influence the governor as he makes decisions surrounding these state-licensed facilities.

“The goal here would be to join forces," Feierman said. “We think reduction in youth placements can be dramatic, and needs to be dramatic. ... One of the real dangers of juvenile facilities is that young people are out of our sight and anything can happen to them."

In February, an Inquirer investigation exposed decades of violent abuse at Glen Mills, a prestigious reform school in Delaware County that once housed 1,000 boys from across the country, Bermuda, Germany, and beyond.

» READ MORE: At Glen Mills Schools, boys are beaten, then silenced

State officials closed Glen Mills in early April. Days later, Juvenile Law Center filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of former students abused at the school. In addition to Glen Mills, the petition named several state officials, including Teresa Miller, secretary of the Department of Human Services (DHS), which was in charge of licensing and monitoring Glen Mills and other juvenile programs.

This summer, Gov. Wolf announced he would overhaul DHS. “Outdated systems and regulations prevented anyone from piecing together the frequent and numerous allegations at Glen Mills School until a journalist put the pieces together,” he said.

Last month, a second Inquirer investigation showed how DHS failed to stop and detect abuses at Glen Mills and other private facilities for juveniles, despite frequent warning signs.

» READ MORE: Despite warnings, Pennsylvania failed to detect, stop abuses

The Juvenile Law Center report, titled “Transforming Justice: Bringing Pennsylvania’s Young People Safely Home From Juvenile Justice Placements,” focuses on how and why the state should put fewer children in programs to begin with.

The authors point to national research that juvenile institutions do not decrease a young person’s likelihood to re-offend, but rather make them feel isolated from their families and communities at a crucial stage in their development.

The report also tackles the high rate that black and Hispanic children are put in programs, as well as the misconception that most of the youth put in institutions are violent. Eighty percent of youth in Pennsylvania are held for offenses not on the violent crime index; of 73 Philadelphia youth in programs on July 12, the majority — 45 — had been sent because of technical probation violations, such as breaking curfew or skipping school, according to data from the Philadelphia Defenders Association.

To curb the state’s reliance on institutions, Juvenile Law Center recommends changing state law to prevent judges from sending children to placements over technical violations. It also recommends setting a minimum age of 14 for youth who go to programs.

The authors also recommend installing video cameras in common areas, conducting “exit interviews” of children who leave these programs, and limiting the use of physical restraints against students.

“The reality is we can’t go from where we are to where we want to be in a day or a month, and probably not in a year,” Feierman said. “We know young people are in facilities right now, and we want to ensure they’re safe, have oversight, and are not being subjected to harm.”

Glen Mills filed an appeal in April to keep its licenses and stay open, arguing that DHS investigators were a frequent presence on campus and would have noticed widespread abuse of students by staff. The hearing on Glen Mills’ appeal has yet to be scheduled.

In its October investigation, The Inquirer found that DHS failed to rigorously inspect Glen Mills or detect patterns of violence, such as six complaints of abuse within six months in late 2016 and early 2017. When complaints of abuse came in, they were rarely proven true, as inspectors failed to review photographic evidence or interview potential witnesses.

Miller, the DHS secretary, acknowledged the department’s lapses, and committed to improvements across the board.

Marsha Levick, the chief legal officer and cofounder of Juvenile Law Center, said it is possible state officials “could do enough” in the way of reforms to merit dropping them from its Glen Mills lawsuit. In addition to Miller, former DHS Secretary Theodore Dallas, former DHS Deputy Secretary Cathy Utz, and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera are also named in the suit. Each defendant has filed a motion to dismiss.

The governor’s office is expected to make the Council on Reform’s report public Friday, a spokesperson said.

Wolf explained in July that he expects a report “that identifies past, unimplemented recommendations and new reforms to further protect vulnerable populations.”

The council is composed of 25 voting members, all appointees of the governor, according to the executive order. The members are designees from various state departments, including human services, health, and education, as well as the state police and the Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission.

Feierman says she hopes that, however state officials choose to move forward, they include teenagers who attended these programs in their conversations “in a meaningful, not-token-ism way — not one young person at a table with 19 adults."

“I can look at laws and policies around the country, but the youth who have been in the system are the ones who know. They know what’s working," she said.

"And they know what’s not.”