October marked the second anniversary of the tragic death of 17-year-old David Hess, who was killed during an assault by staff in his bedroom at the now-closed Wordsworth residential treatment facility. Two years later, we continue to uncover examples of abuse, isolation, and substandard education in facilities that are supposed to provide treatment and supervision to youth involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Rather than provide trauma-informed care, institutional placements too often provide what one youth glibly referred to as "trauma-inducing care."
This summer, a staff member at Glen Mills Schools violently assaulted a child. In the presence of other youth, the staff member slapped the seated child in the head, lifted him up over his chair, threw him to the ground, and punched him. As many as 30 other youth watched, sitting motionless and seemingly unaffected, as though this kind of treatment is commonplace. Other staff members dragged the child away from the group into a different room, where a counselor grabbed his face and continued to punch him.
The severity of this incident rightly led Philadelphia Department of Human Services to stop sending children to the facility. The two staffers who punched the child were fired and now face criminal charges. Notably, Glen Mills only documented the first part of the assault in an incident report, and the facility opposed the child's defense attorneys' request for the video footage. This lack of transparency is deeply alarming. Without better access to information about what happens inside facilities, we cannot ensure that tragedies like David Hess' death are not repeated.
Abuses like those uncovered at Wordsworth and Glen Mills cannot be attributed to individual bad actors. National studies have shown that abuse and maltreatment are endemic in large, institutional facilities. The model of removing kids from their communities for "treatment" or "rehabilitation" is inherently flawed, as it separates youth from their support networks and replaces individualized, community-based services with a one-size-fits-all institutional approach.
This flawed model is also steeped in a history of racist policies and practices, the effects of which continue to this day. In 2015, a black youth in Pennsylvania was 10 times more likely than a white youth to be committed to a juvenile justice institution. Girls and LGBT and gender-nonconforming youth, who already experience abuse and discrimination in the community, face further trauma in institutional placements. Yet Pennsylvania does not even keep data on committed LGBT and gender-nonconforming youth, except in limited circumstances. The Vera Institute of Justice is partnering with Philadelphia to undo this harmful reliance on institutional placement with the goal to end incarceration of girls and LGBT and gender-nonconforming youth.
While rates of institutional placements through both the dependency and delinquency systems are steadily declining, Philadelphia still sends too many young people to facilities each year. Teens in foster care are routinely placed in institutional settings, often due to a lack of family-based alternatives. Across the state, more than a third of the youth placed in institutions through the juvenile justice system are there for minor probation violations or status offenses — noncriminal acts, such as truancy or running away. Youth on probation can end up in places like Glen Mills or in facilities across the state for reasons as simple as skipping class.
The School District of Philadelphia is required to pay for the education of youth in placement, even if it is poor quality and if credits earned are not accepted toward a diploma. For kids, testing positive for marijuana could mean getting sent to placement. Yet, in adult court, prosecutors are declining to prosecute marijuana purchases and are using discretion to withhold positive marijuana screens in violation of probation hearings.
This month marks a new milestone: the first meeting of the citywide Youth Residential Placement Task Force, charged with identifying ways to safely reduce the number of Philadelphia youth in institutional placements. Philadelphia City Council established the task force after a May hearing featuring powerful testimony from youth about their experiences in placement, which included beatings, strip searches, mistreatment, and substandard education. The task force includes major city stakeholders: the Department of Human Services, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the Office of the District Attorney, Community Behavioral Health, the School District of Philadelphia, the Managing Director's Office of Philadelphia, as well as child and family advocates and — most importantly — young people and family members who have experienced the effects of institutional placements.
We are hopeful that, through the work of the task force, Philadelphia will become a model for ending dehumanizing conditions of confinement by investing in community-based alternatives to institutional placements. Providing treatment and services to young people in their homes and neighborhoods will foster safer and stronger communities, produce better outcomes for youth, and help ensure that atrocities like those that occurred at Wordsworth and Glen Mills never happen again.