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'We should have done more to protect you.' Kids in placement describe abuse, isolation and lack of education

More than 1,300 young people from Philadelphia are confined youth placements, at a cost of $119,000 per child annually to the city and an additional $30 million annually to the school district. Young people spoke about physical and verbal abuse; schools without books, teachers or grades; and solitary confinement practices in violation of state law.

City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who called a hearing on juvenile placements, speaks in City Council chambers in this file photo.
City Councilwoman Helen Gym, who called a hearing on juvenile placements, speaks in City Council chambers in this file photo.Read moreAVI STEINHARDT / File Photograph

In 2016, after 17-year-old David Hess suffocated while being restrained by staff at Wordsworth Academy, the state moved quickly to shut down the Philadelphia facility with a long, troubled history of reported rapes, sexual abuse, and physical assaults.

Yet more than 1,300 young people from Philadelphia continue to be confined in 70 similar residential placement programs that are scattered around the state, and a handful as far away as Arkansas, at an average annual cost of $70,000 per child to the city and an additional $30 million to the School District — and reports of mistreatment continue.

At a City Council hearing on Thursday — called in response to Hess' death and other incidents — young people spoke about physical and verbal abuse; schools without books, teachers or grades; and solitary confinement practices in violation of state law.

"We should have done more to protect you," Councilwoman Helen Gym, who called the hearing, told them.

Officials pledged to do better, including continuing an effort to keep more young people out of placements and create more options closer to home. However, they also outlined the limits of their jurisdiction: For example, neither the Department of Human Services nor the School District has oversight of educational offerings at the placements. The state Department of Education reviews the programs only in a limited fashion, and only once every six years.

Kids in such placements are typically aged 14 to 18. They are disproportionately African American and between 2.5 and 3.5 times more likely to require special-education services than their peers. About 45 percent come through the juvenile justice system; the rest are placed through the child welfare system. Nearly 10 percent are in psychiatric treatment facilities.

"Fewer kids are in placement than once was," Gym said. "That decline was not good enough for David Hess, who was murdered at Wordsworth. That decline was not good enough for the dozens of young women sexually assaulted by staff at Wordsworth. And it was not good enough for Omega Leach, who was strangled and killed in 2007 at the … Chad Youth Enhancement Center in Tennessee."

As the testimony made clear, abuses continue.

Beatriz Jimenez, 16, described being thrown on the floor, body-slammed, and intentionally burned by staff at a facility where she was placed starting when she was 13.

"My mother thought going to a juvenile holding facility would be good for me," she said. "She thought I would be safe. She didn't realize I would be abused, strip-searched, mistreated, or that I wouldn't be able to continue my education."

There was no school at the facility, she said — just a TV that was only on when the guards felt like watching it.

Aqilah David, 19, said a staffer threw a walkie-talkie at her head. She described receiving fifth-grade work while in 11th grade.

And Jihid Mayes, 19, sustained a busted lip and broken ribs from a guard's assault, and also spent a week in solitary confinement. "It made [me] feel weak, because there was nothing I could do to get out," he testified. "There was only really me, the walls, and the floor."

Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey showed a video of a youth who was arrested for attacking guards and spent two months in adult jail — until her office obtained the footage that showed he was actually the victim of an attack, not the perpetrator.  "What you're viewing," she narrated, "is the counselors pummeling this one child, and the other children are just sitting there, because this is normal to them."

DHS is getting the message, Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said.

It's reduced the number of youth in placement, ended contracts with some facilities, and is developing a new assessment tool to evaluate facilities, including input from young people. The department has also issued requests for proposals for Philadelphia-based programs, and opened two new dependent group homes and an emergency shelter in the city.

Part of the problem with placements, she said, is that the city and School District do not have direct oversight over the facilities. For instance, Figueroa said, she could not order a facility to fire a problem staffer. Instead, she could lean on them by refusing to allow the use of city funding to pay that staffer.

But Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, said the bigger question is why placements are still being used.

"We need to look at the responsibility of DHS for placing children there, because we are responsible for the welfare of those children," she said.

Rather than helping kids, Bradford-Grey said, the facilities often lead to lasting trauma and significant consequences. She said that on Wednesday, she learned that 10 young people in the Carson Valley Children's Aid facility in Montgomery County were arrested after a fight there.

"Sometimes, we're sending these kids to facilities for dependency needs, and they're coming out for criminal convictions," she said.

Youths in placement have a legal right to attend public schools in the community, said McInerney, but most are either prevented from doing so or do not know to ask.

Instead, they fall further behind while attending on-the-grounds schools, she said. Some of those schools provide multiple-grade classrooms and uncertified teachers; others have no teachers, and leave kids to work alone on computers or from worksheets.

In some cases, said Katharine Vengraitis of the Defender Association, young people are pushed through to graduation.

"I've had clients who graduated from placements and tried to go to [Community College of Philadelphia] and they're told they are only reading at a third-grade level," she said in an interview.

In others, they attempt to return to public school after they come home.

"Too often, youth returning from placement find themselves far behind their peers academically," McInerney said. "They give up and drop out of school."