If the mark of an evolved society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens, Pennsylvania is the equivalent of a Neanderthal. The most recent and egregious example of failure has been the saga of Glen Mills Schools, a residential facility for juveniles in the justice system, when allegations of sexual and physical abuse came to light in a series of reports by The Inquirer’s Lisa Gartner. Complicit in the mistreatment of its young charges was lax oversight by the state, which finally revoked Glen Mills’ license in April.
Unfortunately, Glen Mills was just one of many such facilities in the state with a troubled history of putting its charges in harm’s way — including robbing them of education.
Glen Mills’ closure was a positive development, but the response by Governor Tom Wolf on Wednesday calling for a more thorough reform of such institutions is even more welcome. Wolf’s statement was notable not just for the scope of the reform he’s calling for — the executive order demands the “protection of vulnerable populations,” which encompass the elderly in nursing homes, the mentally ill seeking treatment, and foster and delinquent children sent by the state to institutions.
Also notable was the strong language Wolf used in his announcement, in which he cited “a government too eager to serve the needs of institutions and too reluctant to serve the needs of people. The problem is that institutions have lobbyists and powerful advocates while the people within them simply do not.”
That’s refreshingly blunt language that acknowledges not only a broken system, but the state’s role in keeping it broken.
The executive order calls for global change, moving away from the practice of institutionalizing people who need care or rehabilitation. The order creates an office of advocacy and reform, a governor-appointed position of Child Advocate, and a council on reform to revamp the way the state provides social and protective services.
But moving away from the routine institutionalization of children — whether in the foster care system or the juvenile justice system, will require a shift in mind-set. Advocates and others, including leaders in other states who have grappled with this issue, insist that community-based solutions are ideal. That means building — and funding — a new kind of infrastructure that can provide what is needed. It’s more complicated providing funding and oversight of individual organizations than larger institutions like Glen Mills. The good news is that there is no need to reinvent the wheel; the state should look to other states and municipalities who have made this shift.
But there’s a larger, more profound mind-set shift required that will be more challenging. There is something sickening that our response to vulnerable, traumatized, and troubled children is to separate them from their families and put them in warehouses where they are endangered even further by abuse, neglect, and lack of adequate education. Do we place so little value on children? What kind of monsters are that indifferent to vulnerable children? Until we’re ready to grapple with that unpleasant truth, nothing will truly change.