In June, Philadelphia celebrated a major victory with the establishment of a youth ombudsperson office and the funding to support it.
We hope that when this office is formed, it has the authority to provide a local, easily accessible, and independent way to collect and investigate concerns from youth and families about safety and services while they are in foster care group placements and in the justice system in residential placements. The challenge now is to make sure the position is implemented correctly and with true power to help youth.
As young people with experience in these systems, we, along with our colleagues from Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy Program, testified before City Council back in April to explain why such an office is long overdue. We hope that Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council understand how important it is to have this office remain fully independent from the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) and to have subpoena power.
We know all too well the unsafe situations that have continued while kids have been under DHS care. Too many horrific situations took place under the supervision of facilities under DHS contract. Tragedies like the killing of our friend David Hess at Wordsworth Academy, a place where many others were also put at risk. Tragedies experienced by those harmed at Glen Mills and Devereaux while grievance after grievance from youth went ignored. DHS pulled contracts with these facilities too late — only after kids were harmed and the abuse was publicly exposed by the media. This is unacceptable.
Most importantly, the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office must ensure transparency and increase safety measures for youth by putting the office under the city’s inspector general. This is critical so youth feel they can trust the process of making reports of mistreatment with assurance that there is no conflict of interest if the ombudsperson investigates grievances against DHS at facilities where DHS oversees or holds contracts.
DHS has failed us young people too many times; we want to ensure youth feel they can trust this office and our county to protect us. Without this assurance, we do not believe youth will feel any level of trust to report harm. We want transparency and a process with an outside entity who would help hold people like DHS staff accountable for our care, well-being, and safety. We believe if the Department of Human Services was doing its job well, we wouldn’t have had to call for an independent office in the first place.
As the city moves to create this office, we hope that they consider our voices and the voice of our peers about what we would like to see the office prioritize.
The city must ensure that the ombudsperson’s office responds within a timely manner to youth concerns; we recommend responding to youth within 24 hours. We also hope that after youth make a report, the office has a team of dedicated people who will work with youth to plan for their next steps after the grievance, including ensuring that youth are protected from backlash and retaliation.
The city should consider individuals with lived experience in residential facilities and/or with extensive background and knowledge of what commonly happens in these facilities when hiring for the ombudsperson. We want the leader of this office to understand the challenges youth face in our county, and in these systems and institutions. This means working in collaboration with youth in Philadelphia to understand their concerns and create peer supports.
We want an ombudsperson office to help take power back for youth and ensure we are never put in unsafe environments. We thank the mayor and Council for approving the creation of this office and hope that the staff in this office are dedicated to protecting youth who are most vulnerable. All youth deserve to be in homes with people who love and care for them, and not at risk of harm in institutions. We deserve to have an ombudsperson and adults who will hear our experiences and hold those caring for us accountable when we are hurt, neglected, unsafe, and put at risk. The youth of Philadelphia deserve all this and more.
Qilah David is a Juveniles for Justice Youth advocate and a member of the Youth Advocacy Program at Juvenile Law Center. Duane Price is a student at Community College of Philadelphia and a member of the group Youth Fostering Change in the Youth Advocacy Program at Juvenile Law Center. Price also serves as a youth advocate for the National Youth Advisory Board with the National Association for the Counsel of Children.