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Here’s how Philly kids ended up sleeping in a DHS conference room for weeks on end

The Philadelphia Department of Human Services office has become a hotel of last resort for kids that have no place else to go. Critics say it's a symptom of a system that's breaking down.

A view of the municipal building housing the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.
A view of the municipal building housing the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

In the Center City office of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS), workers say they’ve come to expect that any given night could dissolve into chaos. The source: The DHS childcare room, which is not designed for overnight stays but has become a hotel of last resort for kids without other options. It’s little more than a conference room equipped with air mattresses and folding cots (the supply of which DHS roughly doubled recently, to match the growing population).

The number of children spending at least one night in the room tripled in the last year, compared with the four years prior. Guests have included teens, toddlers, and young mothers with their infants, staff said. And where overnight stays were once the exception, staff say, kids are now returning for weeks or even months on end. They warn that children there are not safe, citing incidents of children showing up high, assaulting staff, leaving late at night to engage in illicit activity, or attempting to recruit others into sex trafficking.

» READ MORE: Missing kids, illicit activity: Staff warn of chaos at Philly DHS office that houses stranded kids

The child-care room, however, is just one manifestation of a system grappling with much larger challenges. Here’s what’s going on:

1. Far fewer kids are being removed from their homes.

The scene at the DHS office is unexpected, in part, because the city and state are actually succeeding in an effort that all sides agree is worthwhile: removing far fewer kids from their homes across the child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems. Through prosecutorial and juvenile justice reforms, Philly is sending about 80% fewer justice-involved teens to institutions than it was just five years ago. The city also cut in half the rate of children going into foster homes, kinship care, or other placements. That said, Philadelphia is still an outlier, removing children from their homes at a rate 48% higher than the national average.

2. The rapid shift has upended an industry already rocked by scandal.

Plummeting demand for beds has led providers to take beds off-line or, as in the case of St. Gabriel’s Hall, to close altogether. That complicates the picture for an industry already teetering after numerous abuse scandals, such as the physical assaults at Glen Mills Schools and the abuse at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.

Philadelphia pulled kids out of both those facilities. It has also been without a residential psychiatric treatment facility for kids after its only facility shut down following a boy’s death — then was replaced by a facility that also lost its license because of abuse allegations. Now, the city and state are looking to bring more facilities online, seeking contractors to run psychiatric and juvenile-justice facilities.

But some providers say it won’t be easy, citing an impossible labor market and insurance premiums that have skyrocketed due to the numerous civil-rights lawsuits.

3. Many kids removed now have complex treatment needs.

While fewer kids are in the system overall, those who are removed from their homes represent some of the most complex cases, providers say. That means they may need therapy and other professional supports above what a typical foster parent may be able to offer.

The move away from institutional care for such kids has left counties scrambling to find settings that can house them, sometimes calling dozens of placements in search of a bed. Providers warn that some children are placed in foster homes without enough supports in place, causing “ripple effects” when the placement fails.

4. Those are often the kids getting stuck — in offices, hospitals and detention centers.

Bottlenecks in the child-welfare system are leaving kids stranded in a range of settings: the child-care room at the DHS office, hospital emergency rooms, and Philadelphia’s juvenile detention center. One hospital administrator said she and other hospitals are “all vying for the same beds” — but no psychiatric facility wants to admit kids if they won’t be able to discharge them due to DHS backlogs.

And at the city’s overcrowded juvenile detention center, the kids awaiting DHS placements are stuck alongside those waiting to serve court-ordered sentences. The latter can wait five or six months for a bed in a state institution, one of the only options left after the closures of reform schools and psychiatric treatment facilities.

The Defender Association’s Nicole El said the long delays are taking a toll on her young clients: “We are supposed to be giving kids treatment, rehabilitation, and supervision. Right now we’re giving them nothing.”

5. The solution, advocates say, is to remove fewer kids and provide more in-home support.

The problem here is, in part, a snarled bureaucracy and, in part, the transitional jitters of a system in flux. Advocates say what’s needed now is to address the short-term glitches while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home — not backsliding into the era when congregate beds were ample and eagerly filled by a system that saw removing and institutionalizing kids as an easy fix.

At the city level, insiders and advocates say that DHS and its contracted caseworkers need better coordination, because the population at the child-care room shows that cases are falling through the cracks. On the state level, they are calling for Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to take more leadership and for the legislature to impose strict limits on when children can be sentenced to institutions.

Across the board, they say, there’s a need to double down on prevention: providing services and supports for families at home so that kids won’t be removed in the first place.

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