Children as young as 11 years old were allegedly strip searched in full view of other kids when they entered the new Family Court building this week, according to sources, but when court administrators learned of the practice they put a stop to it.
The new Family Court building at 15th and Arch streets just opened this Monday, but for a building that was mired in controversy during its construction, this was yet another sticky, ugly hurdle.
In an email from child advocates that was sent to the Family Court judges on Monday, concerns were raised about young children being strip searched in front of each other by adults, including the strip searching of children who may have been awaiting trial, not just those who have been adjudicated.
"After all the clothing is removed, the child must then 'bend over and cough' so the sheriff can 'look' - all while in the presence of other youths in the same room," wrote the email's author, whose name the Daily News is withholding.
In a written statement released today, Frank Keel, spokesman for Family Court, said the strip searches have ceased.
"On Tuesday morning of this week, in response to concerns raised by child advocates over allegations of strip searches of juveniles, the leadership of Philadelphia Family Court directed the Sheriff's Office to cease and desist all strip searches pending further notice," Keel wrote. "Today, Family Court issued new rules governing the screening and detention of juveniles that the Court developed in collaboration with the Sheriff's Office."
Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, said it was very good the court responded so quickly and shut down the strip searches.
While he said that most people acknowledge some form of a search is necessary to achieve a level of safety and security for the children and staff at the building, there must be security protocols in place to keep all kids safe - including children who may be victims of human trafficking.
"From my understanding the (previous) protocol was applied to all kids being held in the detention facility - and that includes kids for which there was no apparent need to be searched and kids who may have had some trauma history," Cervone said.
It's unclear if such a blanket strip-search policy existed at the old Family Court building.
"We don't know, it certainly wasn't a known problem and we're all left now to wonder what was happening that we didn't know about," Cervone said. "It's the belief of the advocate community that the search policy was not applied nearly as broadly as this initial protocol."
The Philadelphia Sheriff's Office conducted the searches, but Joseph Blake, a spokesman for that office, deferred all requests for comment to Family Court officials.
"The Sheriff's Office is just an arm of the courts" Blake said.
According to the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, a personal search of a child may be conducted if "there is a reasonable suspicion to believe that the child possesses contraband," when "a child is transported or taken into custody" or "when a child enters or leaves a detention center, institution or other facility for alleged or adjudicated delinquent children."
The new Family Court building was mired in controversy during its construction when a 2010 Inquirer investigation revealed that the legal representative of the court was also serving as its private developer.