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Philadelphia officials threaten to sue Gov. Wolf over ‘nightmare’ conditions inside juvenile facility

Dozens of youth who have already been sentenced to serve in state facilities have not yet been moved out of the city-run center, according to members of City Council.

Philadelphia Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who represents parts of West Philadelphia, is pushing for the city to sue the Wolf administration over what he says are dangerous conditions inside the city's Juvenile Justice Services Center.
Philadelphia Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., who represents parts of West Philadelphia, is pushing for the city to sue the Wolf administration over what he says are dangerous conditions inside the city's Juvenile Justice Services Center.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / MCT

Philadelphia officials are threatening to sue the Wolf administration over conditions inside the city’s overcrowded juvenile detention facility that range from children sleeping on the floor to a recent melee that left 20 employees injured.

A months-long feud between the city and the state burst into public view Thursday when City Council members introduced a resolution urging the city to sue the Wolf administration. The city says the state has failed to take custody of dozens of children already sentenced to state facilities, pushing the population inside the city-run Juvenile Justice Services Center to unmanageable levels.

The public shaming over the West Philadelphia facility, said Councilmember Curtis Jones Jr., was intended to be a “shot across the bow” — a message to Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration to take action this week.

“The next step is a lawsuit,” Jones said.

Asked if it’s considering filing such a suit, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney’s office said Thursday that officials are “looking at all options.” The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

It would be unusual for a Democratic mayor, supported by a majority Democratic City Council, to sue an administration led by a member of their own party. But lawmakers who support the step said they’ve tried to resolve the issue privately — to no avail.

Instead, they say, the overcrowding has reached a crisis point.

“Young people are screaming out of their rooms calling our names,” said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who recently visited the facility. “It is literally the saddest thing I have ever seen since I’ve been on City Council.”

Workers and advocates told Council that the 184-bed facility — meant to hold children for a few weeks as they wait for their court cases to be heard — is currently housing more than 220 kids, who could be as young as 10 years old. More than 70 have already been sentenced to state facilities but have not yet been moved out by the state Department of Human Services.

State officials say they’re dealing with staffing shortages at their own detention centers. The state Department of Human Services announced over the summer it would temporarily close dozens of beds due to short-staffing, and department officials have said they are actively working to reduce the backlog.

Ali Fogarty, a spokesperson for state DHS, said Wednesday that its own treatment facilities are at capacity. She said counties are responsible for contracting with private providers “to support their local needs,” and it’s the responsibility of the courts to approve and facilitate transfers.

“There is not refusal to serve,” she said. “The issue at hand is the need to maintain safe operations at our facilities as well.”

But in the meantime, kids are stuck in limbo at the JJSC, and their time spent waiting to be transferred doesn’t count toward their overall sentence.

Nicole El, assistant chief of the Children and Youth Justice Unit at the Defender Association, said children are supposed to be moved to a state facility within a couple of weeks of being sentenced. The rehabilitative programs at the state facilities often take about six to nine months to complete.

These days, some young people are waiting at the JJSC for six months or more to be transported out, she said. It means that what may have been intended to be a six-month sentence could turn into a yearlong one.

The conditions inside, she said, are “a nightmare.”

“We can’t allow them to languish in a facility that’s dangerous,” El said. “A lot of these kids are trauma victims. To expect that they’re going to come out of this and be better people? We are setting the children up for failure.”

» READ MORE: Young people housed at JJSC this year endured trauma, advocates say

Officials with AFSCME District Council 33, the union that represents workers at the JJSC, said that at times, there are fewer than a dozen staff members working. They’re responsible for more than 200 youths.

“We are working in violent conditions, and it’s unacceptable, and it’s outrageous at this point,” said Ebony Richards, a worker at the center. “We need help. We need it immediately. Someone is going to end up dying in that facility.”

Corinne Stokes, a counselor at the detention center, told Council that some children are sleeping on mattresses on the floor or being housed in an admissions office. Some have been living at the facility for more than a year.

“We signed onto this job because we want to do this job, and we want to be able to do it properly,” she said. “We need help, and we need help now.”

It all came to a head on Oct. 4, workers said, when a large fight broke out and left 20 employees injured. According to Jones, who is leading the effort in Council, several staff members and at least one resident were transported to the hospital for medical treatment.

Councilmember Helen Gym called the situation “unconscionable” and said the conditions described by workers “have been well-known to the state for weeks on end.”

“It is an unusual and bold step,” she said of the potential for a lawsuit, “and it could not be more important or more urgent or more overdue.”

Staff writer Samantha Melamed contributed to this article.