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Re-think placing children in a facility like Wordsworth

Education Law Center urges an in-depth assessment and monitoring of “on-grounds schools,” which are typically licensed as private academic schools and thus often escape any public scrutiny.

Last week, nine members of City Council called on the city and School District to take immediate action to dissolve their contracts with Wordsworth Philadelphia in the wake of reports of horrific abuse at the facility that led to the death of one child and the sexual assault of at least 49 others. City Council members have also urged the adoption of measures to establish greater accountability and transparency for all residential placements.

Education Law Center joins in this much-needed call to action and specifically urges an in-depth assessment and monitoring of "on-grounds schools," which are typically licensed as private academic schools and thus often escape any public scrutiny. It is widely acknowledged that such schools in residential facilities are so inferior to public standards that most youth will fall far behind their peers and ultimately drop out. We set our most vulnerable children up for failure and tragically, set them on a path to homelessness due in part to these educational programs.

We urge our courts, child welfare system, and school districts to protect our children from these known harms.

When Wordsworth shut down last fall, the 82 children served by the program were simply "relocated" to other residential programs, failing to address the underlying problem. Nationally, there have been documented deaths, cases of abuse and neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and a documented common use of restraints on children already devastated by trauma.

Yet "residential treatment facilities" (RTFs) have grown exponentially with little evidence that placing children in such centers has a positive impact on mental health.

Disproportionately, children of color are funneled into these residential programs for extended periods of time by child welfare agencies, juvenile courts, and school districts. The programs exist largely in the shadows, unchecked by state social service or education agencies with insufficient monitoring of policies and staff. Often, youth are placed far away from family and friends, and left with little opportunity — or perceived credibility — to challenge conditions that are unhealthy, unsafe, and undermine development and learning. It is highly unusual for these placements to lose their licensure as occurred in the Wordsworth case.

Our experience demonstrates that youth in RTFs are commonly forced to languish in inferior on-grounds schools where they receive "work" or worksheets far below-grade, are taught in multi-grade classrooms by uncertified teachers, and fail to receive the special education services they need. Because these one-size-fits-all programs are licensed as "private schools" they are not required to follow state curriculum requirements or academic standards. Consequently, when youth return from these facilities, they find themselves — through no fault of their own — far below grade level, having earned few credits, and with little hope of graduating. This occurs routinely despite the fact that children in Pennsylvania have a clear legal right to attend the local public schools where the residential facility is located. Families and youth, and even some caseworkers are unaware of this important option and its benefits and many courts require youth to attend the limited residential program in order to ensure their attendance in "some" school.

The bottom line is that residential facilities are highly restrictive mental-health placements that should be used only when necessary, on a short-term basis, and only to the extent that state agencies are able to provide oversight to ensure that children are safe, healthy, and receiving all proper services — including access to education.

We need to stop ignoring this ongoing, devastating harm. We must stop isolating these students and focus our attention on building community-based mental-health services that keep all our children close to home, with the educational opportunities and stability they desperately need to thrive and succeed in life.

Maura McInerney is a senior attorney at Education Law Center-Pennsylvania.