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Accused of harming children at its North Philly shelter, VisionQuest now plans to house immigrant youth here

VisionQuest intends to use the same Logan building to house 60 undocumented immigrant children, who arrived alone at the nation's southern border.

Protesters and Logan neighborhood residents opposed to plans by Arizona-based VisionQuest to house 60 undocumented immigrant children gather outside the company's property on Wednesday. Speaking in front of the group are Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, and Josh Glenn, co-founder of the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project.
Protesters and Logan neighborhood residents opposed to plans by Arizona-based VisionQuest to house 60 undocumented immigrant children gather outside the company's property on Wednesday. Speaking in front of the group are Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, and Josh Glenn, co-founder of the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

One child’s head crashed through a wall during an altercation with a staffer at the VisionQuest shelter for troubled youths in North Philadelphia.

Another youngster was struck in the face by an adult worker during an argument over a chair. In a separate incident, a youth was choked and slapped by a staff member.

But physical violence toward children wasn't the only problem at the Arizona-based company's facility, according to Pennsylvania state inspection reports.

Two staffers repeatedly cursed at the children, telling them, "You're nothing," and promising to "make life a living hell," inspectors wrote.

Some workers didn't have adequate training. And the place was dirty.

The shelter closed in late 2017.

Now VisionQuest is back in Philadelphia, intending to use the same Logan neighborhood building to house 60 undocumented immigrant children, all boys ages 12 to 17, who arrived alone at the nation's southern border. They'll come here from shelters around the country, among the thousands of "unaccompanied minors" who fled violence and poverty in their homelands of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

VisionQuest CEO Peter Ranalli said the new program will be better run, better staffed, and much better financed, through a contract with the federal government. As for its previous shelter at the site, he said, complaints of abuse occur at virtually all juvenile-justice centers, and not all those lodged against VisionQuest workers were true.

"Did we have staff do inappropriate things?" Ranalli said. "When you have 130 staff, somebody is going to do something inappropriate."

At least three VisionQuest employees were fired between 2011 and 2017 after hitting or physically handling children, state records show.

VisionQuest had contracted with the city to provide protective care to teenagers awaiting court adjudication and placement, and other at-risk youths needing short-term supervision. The work could be difficult. At one point in 2013, for instance, 40 percent of the children at the shelter were mentally ill, and 85 percent had been judged delinquent.

The first group of migrant children won't arrive for at least two months, during which VisionQuest says it will remake the Logan Plaza domain into comfortable, dormitory-style housing. It plans to try to find foster families for the children. Barring that, the youths could be housed here indefinitely.

The federal government's treatment of migrant children has become an explosive issue.

In the "sanctuary city" of Philadelphia, a surge of opposition brought about 40 protesters to the VisionQuest property at 5201 Old York Rd. on Wednesday. They said immigrant minors need care and love, not group housing.

"VisionQuest has no place in Philadelphia," said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, the advocacy group that organized the demonstration.

Kenney administration officials called VisionQuest's plan "disturbing," and City Councilwoman Helen Gym said the agency "seeks to profit off the misery and terror of children."

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who spoke at the rally, said his 11,000-member union will not "stand by and watch VisionQuest enter our city and perpetuate a profoundly shameful practice." If union members need to march outside VisionQuest, he said, they'll do it.

Councilwoman Cherelle L. Parker, whose district contains the VisionQuest site, wants to hear from neighbors in the area, some of whom have already expressed their concern, her spokesperson said.

Founded in Arizona in 1973, VisionQuest operates in six states, focused on helping youths in the court and correctional systems.

In February 2011, VisionQuest was licensed to run its New Directions Shelter in Logan, two blocks south of Einstein Medical Center. It added children in phases, toward an approved limit of 128 boys and girls.

The youths got meals and schooling, along with group therapy sessions, anger-management counseling, and drug and alcohol therapies, records say. They were assigned four to a room.

Inspectors from the Department of Human Services cited the first deficiencies six months later: A lack of supervision enabled two youths to leave the premises. Boys and girls complained they weren't permitted additional portions of food. Dirt and food droppings littered the stove area, and overall maintenance was poor.

VisionQuest executives filed a plan to make fixes and were allowed to continue operating.

Inspectors documented a physical altercation on July 27, 2012. At 11 p.m., a staffer heard a youth making noises while other children in the room were trying to sleep. Told by an employee to be quiet, the person refused, "but remained harmless to self or others," the inspection report stated.

The staffer put the child in a restraint and took him out of the room, the young person kicking a dent in the wall as he resisted.

VisionQuest fired the staff member, records show.

In April 2013, investigators wrote that two staff members "do not treat the children that live at the facility with fairness, dignity and respect." Those staffers allegedly swore at the youths, and said, "You're going to be nothing in life."

Both workers received written admonishments and warnings that further violations could get them fired, records show.

The state reports do not identify staff members or children by name, age or sex. They provide a summary of events and findings, and in some cases do not specify the date of an altercation or deficiency.

In August 2013, inspectors found that eight staffers had not been certified in CPR and first aid. Fire drills were an issue. VisionQuest needed to be able to evacuate all children within 2½ minutes. Instead, it was taking three, four, or five minutes, and in one drill, nine minutes.

In 2014 and 2015, a staffer was found to be working without a child-abuse clearance. Three had no CPR or first aid training, and five had no medical proof that they were free of serious communicable diseases, required when working around children or food.

An August 2016 summary outlined the episode in which a staff member choked and hit a child. The cause of the violence was not stated, but an examination found scratches on the left and right sides of the youth's neck. The employee was suspended immediately and soon fired.

The cleanliness of the shelter suffered through 2016: shower heads covered in mildew, a water fountain clogged with rusty brown water, mouse droppings in cafeteria heaters. Floors of community lunch areas and youth bathrooms were corroded with a dirty brown substance, a report stated.

"The facility," VisionQuest wrote in response, "is under continuous physical renovation and improvement."

In a November 2016 summary, signed in February 2017, inspectors described the episode when a child's head went through a wall. It occurred in what was called the Quiet Room, when a staff member with no training in restrictive procedures improperly attempted to restrain the child, they wrote.

A May 2017 summary recounted how, after a child and a staffer got into an argument over a chair, the adult struck the youth in the face. The staffer was fired the same night.

In October 2017, the state approved VisionQuest for another year of operation, but the center never made it that far.

VisionQuest's Ranalli said his agency closed the shelter after the city declined to pay more for the program. City officials said that while they did deny a rate increase, they ended the contract because of poor oversight of the children and bad building conditions.

"When it is clear that a service is not meeting our standards, we close intake" of children, said Heather Keafer, spokesperson for the city Department of Human Services. "We have closed sites that we believe do not serve the best interest of our youth."

Staff writers Dylan Purcell and Nathaniel Lash contributed to this article.