Shortly after David Hess died in a struggle with staffers at Wordsworth last fall, the state shuttered the West Philadelphia facility, decrying it as "an immediate and serious danger" to the children who lived there.
The death of Hess, 17 – ruled a homicide – was yet another violent chapter in a hidden history of abuse at the city's only residential treatment center for troubled young people. In the last decade, at least 49 sex crimes have been reported at Wordsworth, including 12 rapes and 23 accounts of sexual abuse, an Inquirer and Daily News investigation has found.
Interviews, court records, state inspection reports, and police records reveal a trail of injuries to children, from broken bones to assaults to the suffocation death of Hess. Along the way, lawyers, licensing inspectors, and others found conditions there appalling and sounded the alarm with little success.
In 2015, three girls at the center were sexually assaulted by a counselor who lured them with promises of money and gifts, they would later tell police. While rumors of the incidents swirled, Wordsworth officials were slow to investigate, and the girls say the assaults continued for weeks.
"I couldn't believe that. It's pretty outrageous," said Frank Cervone, executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, which represents victims of child abuse and neglect.
For Hess, who suffered from profound mental illness, and the other behaviorally challenged young people who called Wordsworth home, the center was supposed to be a refuge, a place to get needed help. Taxpayers shelled out $119,000 a year for the care of each child, but all too often reaped failure.
"He died a child," said Hess' sister, Elizabeth, 28. "He died a child in a facility designed to help him, and it didn't help him. It killed him."
On the sprawling grounds of a former hospital on Ford Road, Wordsworth, a nonprofit, runs a variety of programs that aim to help children and families in need. The redbrick-and-glass residential treatment facility housed 82 young people the night Hess died. Many had been placed there by the city after suffering abuse or neglect. Others were ordered to stay there by juvenile court after committing a crime. All had mental illness or behavioral problems, posing severe challenges for their caregivers.
Ranging in age from 10 to 21, the young people in Wordsworth's care lived in a rundown facility and slept in rooms with holes in the walls, exposed wiring, broken light fixtures, and faulty heaters. There, records show, they were sometimes tended to by ill-trained staffers.
Despite its deficiencies, Wordsworth had its license renewed by the state Department of Human Services again and again, and child welfare agencies and the courts continued to send young people there.
DHS officials declined to explain its decisions to allow Wordsworth to operate after compiling a long history of violations. They said the agency is examining how it handled problems at Wordsworth and whether changes need to be made.
Officials at Wordsworth, which has appealed the closure order, declined to be interviewed and declined to respond to a detailed list of questions.
In a statement, Wordsworth's board chairman, Thomas V. Johnson, said: "At Wordsworth, there is no greater value we have than the responsibility to care for our children." He said many of the young people who live there "had experienced exceptional hardships in their lives with behavioral and other mental health issues."
Johnson said pending lawsuits prevented him from discussing specific incidents at the facility. However, he said, "we would like to state unequivocally that Wordsworth remains committed to ensuring a safe and secure environment for all children in our care." He also noted that in January Wordsworth hired a new CEO.