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Philly to remove 53 kids from Devereux’s live-in facilities after it finds lax supervision

After finding lax supervision, the city has decided to remove all 53 Philadelphia children from Devereux residential facilities.

Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Ali (front left), then a deputy commissioner with DHS, and Cynthia Figueroa (front right), now the Deputy Mayor of the city's Office of Children and Families, speaks during a City Council hearing unrelated to Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in February 2019.
Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Ali (front left), then a deputy commissioner with DHS, and Cynthia Figueroa (front right), now the Deputy Mayor of the city's Office of Children and Families, speaks during a City Council hearing unrelated to Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in February 2019.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

City officials will pull all 53 Philadelphia children out of residential campuses run by Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health after a six-week safety review found that staffers repeatedly failed to watch over them.

“We found [staffers] doing nothing. They weren’t doing their jobs,” Kimberly Ali, city commissioner of human services, said late Wednesday. “They were not watching the children. And if they were doing it, some of them were doing it sporadically.”

That finding was among those revealed in an Inquirer investigation, published Aug. 11, that detailed how lapses in supervision, training, and care fueled an environment where staffers sexually abused children at Devereux.

The day after the story ran, workers with the city’s Department of Human Services and Community Behavioral Health (CBH), contracted by the city to place Medicaid recipients in psychiatric residential treatment, were immediately dispatched to Devereux’s three campuses in Chester County. They talked to children, their parents, and Devereux employees.

"The article raised issues around young people being sexually abused by staffers at Devereux, and given the fact that Devereux was our provider, of course we wanted to assess the safety of young people at Devereux,” Ali said.

With headquarters in Villanova, Devereux specializes in treating children with intellectual disabilities, mental disorders, and trauma at 15 residential campuses in nine states, making it the nation’s leading nonprofit health organization of its kind. It cares for 5,000 children across the country every year.

On Wednesday, city social workers began to call families with children at Devereux about alternative placements. The process of relocating children will take several months, Ali said.

In a statement Thursday, Devereux said, “We are incredibly saddened that we will no longer be able to fulfill our mission and provide the best care available" to these Philadelphia children.

Devereux is seeking additional explanation from CBH and DHS.

“We believe the decision is unjustified and inconsistent with findings of multiple reviews conducted by various independent entities and conversations we’ve had with CBH and DHS during the past six weeks regarding the quality of care provided in our residential programs,” Devereux wrote.

The Inquirer investigation detailed how 41 children as young as 12 years old, and with IQs as low as 50, were raped or sexually assaulted by Devereux staff members over the last 25 years. Of those, 10 said they were assaulted at Devereux’s local campuses, while the others were abused at facilities in New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Connecticut, New York, and Arizona.

Child welfare workers made 13 unannounced visits, mostly at night, to Devereux facilities and in 15 instances examined closed-circuit video monitoring at the residential facilities. In some cases, the city found that staffers failed to do required bed checks that, depending on the child, should be done as often as every 15 minutes. Staffers are supposed to record the checks in a log, said Donna E.M. Bailey, CEO of Community Behavioral Health.

Ali said privacy concerns prohibited her from saying whether her staff recently found cases of abused children. But in cases where abuse is found, the agency can remove the child the same day. The city did not do that at Devereux, she said.

“There were inconsistencies with regard to what was recorded and what we saw on video,” Bailey said.

The Inquirer found that Devereux understaffed its campuses and failed to adequately supervise its patients and staff members, who all too often disappeared for hours and slept through shifts. The nonprofit brings in more than $497 million in annual revenue, nearly all of it government funding.

In an interview in August, Devereux executives denied that campuses currently have issues with staffing or supervision.

In fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, DHS paid Devereux roughly $7.1 million, most of it for foster-care services. About $1.1 million went to house and treat children with psychiatric, intellectual and behavioral disabilities, which was the focus of The Inquirer investigation. In 2019, CBH paid Devereux $12.9 million. Of that, $7.7 million was for residential treatment facilities, according to city spokesperson Mike Dunn.

Ali and Bailey said the other contracts with Devereux, including for foster care and supervised independent living, will continue. That decision fell short of demands by 14 City Council members last month to not only remove local children who lived there but cut all ties with Devereux.

During its six-week review, the city gave Devereux multiple chances to fix lapses in supervision, but the problems persisted, Ali and Bailey said.

Bailey said the majority of families interviewed as part of the safety assessment told the city that they were satisfied with their child’s care at Devereux.

Caroline West’s 16-year-old son, Jack, who has autism, has been at Devereux since the end of January. When West received a call Wednesday night that the city plans to move him, she was very upset.

″I am devastated by the disruption this is going to cause to my child’s therapy and progress," West said. "He has received quality care and therapeutic support during his past seven months at Devereux, and I worry that this abrupt transition is going to set his progress back.

“Children with autism deserve stability, and that is being ripped from them if CBH moves them to a new location mid-course where they have to meet new therapists, staff, and peers,” she said.

In its statement, Devereux said it was concerned about disruptions: “The treatment disruptions to these children and their families is deeply regrettable, and our thoughts are with them as they must now face a series of very difficult transitions and destabilizations.”

Earlier this month, Devereux hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch to conduct an independent audit of child safety. Lynch served as the country’s top prosecutor from April 2015 to January 2017 during the Obama administration.

Ali and Bailey said they are interested in Lynch’s findings. They left open the door to restart child placements at Devereux in the future.

Chester County Department of Children Youth and Families (CYF) has two teens, ages 17 and 19, living at Devereux, according to a county spokesperson.

In response to the article, county child welfare workers interviewed the teens to “assess their safety —without Devereux staff present,” spokesperson Rebecca Brain said in a statement late Thursday. “Neither youth reported any concerns or mistreatment.”

Chester’s CYF staff will continue to closely monitor those teens, Brain wrote.

Devereux executives have told The Inquirer that they have increased safety and reduced risk by adopting a number of safeguards to prevent abuse and hold staffers accountable since January 2018, when Carl Clark took over as chief executive officer.

Reporters have found that since 2018, four Devereux staffers have been charged with sexually abusing 11 children.

The state Department of Human Services, which licenses and inspects Devereux’s three Pennsylvania facilities, is conducting its own investigation into the nonprofit, a spokesperson said this week.

On Thursday morning, Councilmember Helen Gym said DHS and CBH leaders made the right decision to pull children. She said the state needs to strengthen oversight.

“The horrific incidents at Devereux are a reminder that the state needs to take immediate action on oversight and reform of this system," she said. "More than ever, our young people need alternatives that are close to home, trauma-informed, and designed to meet their needs.”