Missing kids, illicit activity: Staff warn of chaos at Philly DHS office that houses stranded kids
It's a symptom of a broader crisis in the child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems that has kids with complex needs stuck in offices, hospital emergency rooms, and juvenile detention centers.
By the time a foster home was found for the 8-year-old boy, he refused to go. He’d been sleeping in a conference room at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services for two months, either on a folding cot or an air mattress on the floor.
That bare-bones space is not meant for overnight stays. Yet, the child had adapted, according to correspondence obtained by The Inquirer. Staff did finally coax the boy to leave — but 24 hours later, he was back in the municipal building near City Hall.
“Although this was not ideal for him it became familiar to him,” his case manager wrote. Faced with being uprooted, “he went into crisis, he was throwing things, screaming and yelling[,] and he wanted to kill himself. … He’s feeling out of control of everything right now.”
DHS conference rooms have now become a hotel of last resort for a stretched system, housing children and teens for weeks or even months on end, current and former staff said.
More than 300 kids spent at least one night there over the past year — about triple the annual number over the previous four years, DHS data show. In the past, hosting an overnight stay was the exception, said David Krain, who works in the building and is a steward for the DHS employees’ union, Local 2187 of AFSCME District Council 47. Now, he said, five, 10 or more kids sleep each night in what’s known as the childcare room — and the children with the most complex care needs, who are the hardest to place, return night after night, week after week.
Children who were trafficking victims have returned to the childcare room to recruit their peers, three current or former DHS employees said. Others have assaulted building security staff, vandalized the room, or left DHS at night to go out and commit crimes, they said.
Police have put out four bulletins reporting missing kids, aged 11 to 15, from the site this year. DHS said children who go missing generally return on their own.
Calls to police from the building reached a five-year high in June, when more than 80 calls were made for reasons including disorderly conduct, person with a weapon, missing persons, assaults, and break-ins. A list of eight “AWOL Youth” that circulated in June, obtained by The Inquirer, shows that a supervisor ordered security to bar those children from entering the building unless a childcare worker gave authorization to admit them.
“That childcare room is just a disaster waiting to happen,” said Satta Taylor, a former supervisor who left DHS in February after 26 years. “You have teenagers and little kids together. You have kids that come in high on drugs.”
It’s also just one symptom of a system that is straining to keep up — even, paradoxically, as city and state officials have made enormous strides in reducing the number of children removed from their homes across the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Those who are removed are increasingly languishing in what advocates say are inappropriate and unnecessarily restrictive settings conditions — including hospital emergency rooms and juvenile detention centers — for weeks or months.
“The wheels are really falling off,” said Frank Cervone, who heads the Support Center for Child Advocates. “A child welfare system should have sufficient waiting capacity to handle its regular flow.”
DHS declined requests for an interview with Commissioner Kimberly Ali, and cited state privacy rules in denying a request to tour the room. In an email, DHS spokesperson Nya Sturrup said that the agency is relaunching a recruitment campaign for foster parents, which the city calls “resource parents,”and working with Community Behavioral Health to provide in-home supports to stabilize kids with complex needs.
Cervone said all of that is direly needed. “During the pandemic, the in-home support went away, and it hasn’t come back. You bring that absence of in-home support and a really short bench [of resource parents], and kids are going to get stuck.”
In the past, state officials have raised alarms over far smaller numbers of unplaced children. In 2016, when the state threatened to revoke Philadelphia DHS’s license, it noted that children had stayed overnight at the DHS office 84 times in 2015.
“Other states have been sued over things like that,” then-DHS secretary Ted Dallas said at the time. “Those are red flags that could lead to tragedy.”
The dangers are not abstract, said Taylor, adding that she had personally felt unsafe in the childcare room many times. She cited child trafficking as a chronic concern. When that arose, she said, she was told to call a special, multidisciplinary team for help. “But most of the time,” she said, “the kids are already gone before they get here.”
A current DHS employee said the current situation is “a nightmare,” and “out of control.” The worker asked not to be named because staff are not permitted to speak to the press. The staffer said that, one night last week, two young girls left the office to sneak onto a train, making it out of state before they were discovered. Another night, according to an incident report reviewed by The Inquirer, an 11-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl left the building to engage in sexual activity in a park.
Sturrup said that DHS staff work hard to de-escalate conflicts in the room, to discourage children from leaving on their own, and to respond quickly if they spot behavior associated with sex trafficking.
Today, the universe of kids stuck in limbo is significantly larger than just the DHS office. Some are waiting in hospital emergency rooms because psychiatric units are refusing to admit children who are in the child-welfare system.
“A psychiatric facility, even though there are multiple beds, will not necessarily entertain those patients when they don’t know [whether or when they’ll be able to discharge them to DHS custody],” said Karen Vogel, director of social work at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. “That has been our overarching anxiety since May.”
Vogel said administrators at other area hospitals, such as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, have raised the same concerns in meetings with the city. “Everyone is vying for the same beds,” she said. A CHOP spokesperson declined to comment.
Still others are trapped in Philadelphia’s Juvenile Justice Services Center (JJSC).
There were about eight children in that detention center awaiting placements by DHS, and an additional 55 waiting for residential programs for delinquent kids, as of a recent census. The wait for those programs is now five or six months, according to Nicole El, assistant chief of the Children and Youth Justice unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia — for juvenile programs that are in some cases only six to nine months to begin with.
She said it’s stressful to clients and families and extraordinarily costly to taxpayers, at a rate of $850 per child per night. The situation has also recently pushed the population at the center, designed for 150 kids, even beyond what DHS now says is its 184-bed capacity.
“That’s extremely concerning to us,” El said. “You have a child who’s committed, and they just sit in a facility and they don’t get any treatment. “We are supposed to be giving kids treatment, rehabilitation, and supervision. Right now we’re giving them nothing.”
A troubled system
The child-welfare and juvenile justice systems in Philadelphia and statewide are in a moment of profound reckoning.
For years, Philadelphia DHS removed children from their homes at one of the highest rates in the nation. It was an agency shaped, in many ways, by its response to abuse scandals including the 2006 starvation death of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly while under DHS supervision.
Now, the city is part of a national and statewide push to stop institutionalizing kids, spurred on by the federal Family First Prevention Services Act. That shift comes amid a widespread recognition that abuses happen in those institutional settings, too — and with startling frequency. It’s also an acknowledgment of racial disparities: Black children account for 13% of Pennsylvania youth, but 35% of those in foster care and two-thirds of those in state juvenile-justice placements, according to DHS 2021 racial equity report.
That effort has yielded results: In five years, the city has cut in half the rate of children going into foster homes and other placements. (Even so, the city still removes kids at a rate 48% higher than the national average.) Juvenile justice reforms cut the number of Philly kids going into placements for delinquency by 80%.
Philadelphia has also stopped contracting with six facilities in five years due to abuse or neglect concerns.
Wordsworth, Philadelphia’s lone juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility, was shut down by the state in 2016 after 17-year-old David Hess died in a fight with staff. A replacement opened in 2020 — then quickly lost its license, too, due to what the state said were “multiple child right violations.” (The city last year invited two new providers to negotiate contracts for yet another replacement, but it’s not clear when such a facility may open.)
Each of those closures was a victory for advocates. Each also foreclosed an option that judges or DHS workers had counted on for kids with complex behavioral or mental-health challenges.
For instance, El, the public defender, never felt comfortable with her clients being sent to Glen Mills. But now, she said, “We are looking at more secure facilities when before we were looking at open campuses. No child would rather go to Danville, where they’re locked down behind barbed wire. Fewer beds means fewer options.”
Those state secure facilities are currently the target of civil-rights litigation on behalf of youth who allege staff there tormented and provoked them, then used painful, violent restraints.
But even space at those state institutions is in short supply, contributing to the waits at the JJSC. Pennsylvania DHS closed 20% of its secure beds for delinquent kids during the pandemic. In June, DHS notified counties it was closing 32 more beds temporarily due to staffing challenges.
The state Department of Human Services is actively working reduce the backlog, spokesperson Ali Fogarty said, by recruiting staff, seeking contractors to open more placement beds, and reallocating state secure beds to align better with what’s needed.
Philadelphia DHS also is seeking to contract with additional juvenile-justice placement providers, Sturrup said. The city has also increased funding for GPS house arrest monitors.
For now, though, kids stuck at Philadelphia’s youth detention center are struggling with the uncertainty, according to Kendra Van de Water and James Aye of the nonprofit YEAH Philly. One young man they work with has been there eight months, Aye said. “None of that time counts” toward his one-year sentence.
It’s taking a toll, Van de Water said. “They’re not going outside. They’re fighting all the time. When we do visits, a lot of times they’re high.”
Tanja Carter, whose 17-year-old son spent a few weeks at the JJSC this year, said that given the crowding there she does not believe children are safe. She said her son called her daily saying no one was protecting him from frequent assaults or from bullies who stole his food at every meal. After he was attacked in the shower there, he told her, he stopped showering altogether. By the time he came home, she said, he’d lost close to 20 pounds.
Carter wants her son to be held accountable for his offenses — he shot into a bodega, she said, after the owner allegedly assaulted a family member — but she also wants him to be safe.
She advocated to get him released on house arrest, and into community-based programs.
“You have an overwhelming amount of youth in the center and you don’t have enough staff,” she said. “I know by what he disclosed to me that it’s going to take him time to get through this trauma.”
‘We just cannot find the staff’
The transformative shift in both the juvenile-justice and child-welfare systems was necessary, advocates say — but it has had unintended side effects.
For one, the rapid move away from residential institutions has destabilized the industry that provides those services, according to Samea Kim, of the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth & Family Services, a statewide organization of private providers. The group’s members have had to slash capacity in response to declining demand, she said. Some providers, including the Archdiocese-run St. Gabriel’s Hall in Montgomery County, shut down altogether.
“But that means when there are children with really complex or sophisticated behavioral mental health needs, or on the juvenile justice end with complex treatment needs, it is a struggle now for us to find a placement,” Kim said. “That has an unfortunate bottleneck effect where children may be languishing at an inappropriate level of care.”
Critical worker shortages have constrained providers’ ability to reopen needed beds.
Nancy Kukovich, who runs Adelphoi — a nonprofit organization that provides in-home services, foster home supports, and residential treatment programs — said she spent $1 million on recruiting last year, $450,000 of it on Indeed.com alone. She was still left with so many vacancies that she had to temporarily close three group homes, including one for boys with sexual behavioral issues, a cohort with particularly limited placement options.
“We just cannot find the staff, and we’re scared to death to provide something that we don’t have the staff for,” she said.
Kim said all her member agencies are struggling with turnover rates averaging 30% annually. That includes the agencies Philadelphia DHS contracts to handle its casework, as well as agencies tasked with recruiting and supporting foster parents.
Counties across the state are feeling the same pain — and fighting for the same shrinking pool of beds.
“There is, I would describe it as a crisis in our system right now,” Jim Anderson, the former head of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission, testified at a state Senate hearing in May. For 67 counties, there are just 14 pretrial detention facilities; some kids are sent as far as Ohio to await court dates.
Most recently, Allegheny and Delaware Counties’ detention centers were closed due to abuse allegations. Delaware County officials, at public meetings, said they’ve found limited alternatives. A police official said the county had been forced to release kids who should be detained, causing a “dire” public-safety threat.
In Anderson’s view, state DHS must take leadership to coordinate, adequately fund, and properly supervise care for kids across all counties.
Other experts say legislative action is also critical to reduce the number of kids in placements even further, while providing the supports needed so they can remain safe at home.
For kids in the justice system, one important step would be to pass proposed legislation strictly limiting when kids can be put into placement, said Ruth Rosenthal, who works on Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project. A statewide analysis found that, as of 2018, two-thirds were locked away for misdemeanors or contempt of court for not paying fines.
In the child-welfare system, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia’s Kathleen Creamer said the city needs to double down on preventing family separations.
Already, she noted, Philadelphia DHS has reformed its process for screening and investigating abuse allegations, and increased funding for legal aid for families. It also begun holding rapid-response meetings to enlist extended families to help kids in danger of being removed. She said that work now needs to go even further, reallocating some of the millions that would be spent on group homes or foster care to properly fund the supportive services that can help families working to stay together.
“The question is, what’s the policy solution for this?” she said. “The policy solution is to stop separating so many families. We don’t have good placements for them, so let’s actually try to work with the family.”
‘A lot of needs’
On a recent evening, the childcare room at DHS was in chaos.
“One girl who had been coming there every day for the past month has pulled the fire alarm,” Krain said in June. “Yesterday, she spit and swung on a security guard. She cursed out a director. And they called the police to have her arrested.”
That, he said, was a predictable and unfortunate outcome for a child who should have been in a treatment facility to begin with. The situation at the childcare room, according to Krain and others, represents a system that is failing the kids with the greatest needs.
Child-welfare system from Washington to Texas are grappling with a similar crisis of “hoteling” children with complex needs in offices, hotel rooms and other temporary settings. Georgia began offering $5,000 bonuses to any provider who removes a kid stuck in an office.
But there are no simple fixes to serving those kids, said Kerry Krieger, who oversees efforts to recruit and support foster parents at the nonprofit Delta Community Supports. Many referrals she’s seeing are for “kids that have a lot of needs and much more extreme behaviors than they’ve had in the past.” Those kids are already hard to find homes for. On top of that, given the long waiting list for behavioral health services in the city, she said, “resource parents are reluctant to take kids when the resources are not in place.”
If the child is placed without those needed services and the placement fails, Kim said, “It causes these ripple effects where resource parents don’t want to stay in the system, and young people are traumatized because they are being moved from place to place.”
Kukovich said she frequently hears from counties that have contacted 30 or 40 providers seeking a placement.
“[They] are desperately seeking a specific service for a kid and cannot find it,” she said. Those are the kids most likely to end up at DHS offices.
But Krain and others said administrative issues are compounding the problem.
Krain said that, when children arrived late at night — brought in by police, or walking in on their own — DHS staff are often unable to reach the contracted caseworkers from the community umbrella agency (CUA) in charge of finding new placements. They won’t hear back until the next day, he said.
Cervone, the child advocate, said that he pushed DHS to review eight cases involving kids who were stuck awaiting placements. It turned out six had no referrals in place from the CUA back to DHS — meaning no work at all was being done on their cases. He worries many more cases may be affected.
In the meantime, workers said the minimum DHS must do is ensure sufficient trained staff are on duty overnight to keep the kids there safe.
“Kids get into fights or they damage property, but nothing somehow gets done,” said Krain.
He acknowledged that DHS had made one improvement. Until recently, he said, there were only five or six cots in the conference room, leaving the remaining kids to sleep on mats.
Recently, DHS bought more cots. Now, there are 14 of them, and a few air mattresses.
This story has been updated to protect the identity of an alleged crime victim.