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Report: Pa. DHS failing vulnerable children due to lack of oversight at placement facilities

In a new report, an advocacy group found “statewide patterns” of abuse at facilities where Pennsylvania children have been sent for foster care or rehabilitation.

The former Wordsworth facility for troubled youths, which was shut down after 17-year-old David Hess died in a struggle with staff members in 2016.
The former Wordsworth facility for troubled youths, which was shut down after 17-year-old David Hess died in a struggle with staff members in 2016.Read more(Avi Steinhardt/ For the Philadelphia Inquirer)

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) has failed the state’s most vulnerable children by allowing its system of residential facilities for troubled or disadvantaged youths to become plagued by physical and sexual abuse, poor supervision, or other problems, according to a report released Thursday by two advocacy groups.

“Children in Pennsylvania’s residential care are being harmed by the very system created to protect them because of a shocking lack of oversight and accountability,” said the report, written by staffers with the organizations, Children’s Rights and the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center.

The report, about a year in the making, said it found “statewide patterns” of abuse or violence at facilities where Pennsylvania children have been sent for foster care or rehabilitation. It also alleged that DHS — the agency tasked with licensing such facilities and correcting reported issues — often gave a “rubber stamp” to corrective plans that the facilities developed, then failed to meaningfully enforce them even if similar issues were reported again at the same facilities.

Colin Day, a DHS spokesperson, said in a statement that agency officials had not yet reviewed the report but planned to meet with the authors after doing so. Day also said that DHS was “engaged in a multi-year process to strengthen the health and safety protections” of its licensing process, which he said would include quicker action around corrective plans and altering how it examined data when deciding whether to issue a license.

The report comes in the wake of stories published over the last two years by the Inquirer and Daily News that detailed allegations of child abuse at two Philadelphia-area facilities, Wordsworth and the Glen Mills School.

>>READ MORE: ‘I can’t breathe’: Probe underway at Glen Mills after staffer attacks boy

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym also has developed a task force — which includes representatives from the city’s Department of Human Services, the District Attorney’s Office, the Defender Association, and the School District, among others — to try to reduce the number of children in institutional placement.

At Wordsworth, 17-year-old David Hess died in a struggle with staffers in October 2016. The West Philadelphia facility was later closed, and the Inquirer and Daily News reported that it had a hidden history of abuse in the decade before that, with dozens of reports of sex crimes and assaults against children.

This July at Glen Mills, two staffers allegedly assaulted a 17-year-old from Philadelphia. The two men, Christopher Medina, 32, and Patrick Raquet, 34, were later arrested and charged, but the case against Raquet was dismissed last week, according to court records. Emily Harris, a spokesperson for the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office, said he was expected be rearrested on a charge of simple assault.

Medina, meanwhile, was held for trial last week on counts of aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment, and endangering the welfare of children, according to court records. An additional count of aggravated assault and four additional counts of simple assault were dismissed, the records said.

>>READ MORE: Death, rapes, and broken bones at Philly’s only residential treatment center for troubled youth

In an interview Thursday, Gym said she found the report “upsetting and appalling.”

“I think it confirms what we’ve known for a long time: that these facilities lack consistent, serious oversight, to the extent that I have serious concerns that children in certain situations can be in danger," Gym said.

Elissa Glucksman Hyne, who coauthored the report with Christina Wilson Remlin and Maura McInerney, said it was based off a review of publicly available violation reports for 259 facilities owned by 36 separate legal entities. The facilities house children who have been placed outside the home due to juvenile justice or child welfare issues.

According to the findings, children at those facilities were physically maltreated 156 times between May 2010 and May 2018, and children were exposed to inappropriate sexual contact 73 times. There were also 92 incidents in which a staff member inappropriately restrained a child, according to the report.

Nearly half of the legal entities operating such facilities had repeat violations for physical or sexual maltreatment, the report said. And while facilities are required to develop corrective plans in writing, the authors said DHS “typically approved the plans of correction regardless of their quality" and did little to enforce them.

The report also said that there was not sufficient oversight and accountability for the schooling that children receive in out-of-home placement, exacerbating the fate of children who most need assistance.

Hyne said that she has studied the child welfare system for more than eight years and that the findings included in this report were “alarming.” She and her coauthors called for DHS to develop stronger corrective oversight and increase staff training, and for the state to reduce the number of children in placement overall.

The children "don’t have a voice, they kind of fade into the background,” Hyne said. “Enough people aren’t looking out for them.”