After more than a year of intense listening, research and discussion, the Youth Residential Placement Task Force created in spring 2018 by Philadelphia City Council is releasing its final report. Our report provides recommendations to continue reducing the number of children sent to residential placements and to ensure quality programming for youth who need the services of a residential program. The report underscores our commitment to improve experiences for youth in Philadelphia.
Following the tragic death of David Hess, a young man staying at Wordsworth Academy, testimonies from youth and advocates, and accompanied by incisive investigative reporting by The Inquirer about abuse at Glen Mills, City Council members Helen Gym and Kenyatta Johnson gave the task force’s work its start. Members of the task force represented all parts of the system, from child advocates and agencies, city departments, professionals in law enforcement and education, and most importantly, youth and parents. This committed group heard from experts in other cities who have been successful, and also listened to 170 people at two public sessions. The stories we heard troubled us, stirred us, and oblige us to ensure that these recommendations don’t end up gathering dust as have many in the past.
We learned that the intervention that is supposed to help often ends up hurting even more. The treatment has too often included overaggressive disciplinary procedures as well as physical attacks, strip searches, and sexual assault committed by staff and other youth. In addition, the quality of education received in residential placements was inadequate and not aligned with state standards. As one youth said, the experience was not trauma-healing but rather “trauma-inducing.”
Through efforts of city departments and the courts, the number of Philadelphia young people placed in institutional settings has already been reduced by 55 percent over the last five years. This is a good start, but we can do more to demand quality and make further reductions. There still are approximately 800 young people in these institutions and most are living outside of Philadelphia. The majority are teenagers of color, an injustice we must address. In addition, young people who are LGBTQ-GNC (gender nonconforming) have been met with ignorant and overtly hostile treatment.
Within this context, the task force members came together and developed 19 recommendations. At the top of the list is bringing youth close to home. This means providing more community-based service and alternative options to placement. One example is a new small psychiatric treatment facility that will open in the city next year. Staff across the treatment system will be trained on strategies to avoid using restraints on children who are behaviorally triggered.
Other critical components are making sure that youth and their families know their rights, are listened to, and maintain lasting ties to their support networks. Our recommendation is to create processes within our systems that allow consistent family involvement and identify who to turn to for help. And in the education arena, our system leaders and partners will work to assure academic progress for our children placed in residential environments.
The report also acknowledges that while the state holds much responsibility for ensuring the safety and quality of youth in residential care, the task force is committed to do what is within the city’s power to accomplish while continuing to advocate for more leadership from the state.
We cannot wait for others to act. These, our most vulnerable children, are depending on us and we are committed to shaping better futures for them and for our communities.
Estelle Richman and Patricia Fox are the cochairs of the Youth Residential Placement Task Force. Richman is former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Fox is former deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department. Read the report at https://www.phila.gov/hhs