Broke in Philly

A powerful new City Hall position to combat child welfare scandals is up for debate

The youth ombudsperson proposal pits young Philadelphians against the very office tasked with protecting them.

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Dylan B. Caleho / Resolve Philly
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Over the last few years, abuse and assault has been committed against young people in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania custody on a shockingly regular basis. But it doesn’t take a major scandal to change the course of a child’s life.

When Philly native Qilah was a teen in a Ambler treatment center, she felt depressed and had trouble sleeping. The facility’s psychiatrist gave her a prescription, but it only made matters worse. “I was lightheaded and dizzy,” Qilah recalled, “and it made me throw up.”

She told the psychiatrist, who upped the prescription, triggering worse side effects. She then mentioned the situation to her case worker, who informed the facility’s managers — and suddenly her medical information was spread among the staff, from whom she felt increased tension because she’d complained at all.

The experience had lasting effects. “Today … I’m afraid of medicine,” said Qilah, now 22.

Along with more than a dozen other young people at Philly’s Juvenile Law Center nonprofit, Qilah is working on an open letter to City Council in support of a bill creating an official youth ombudsperson.

The new position, which is the subject of a scheduled Thursday virtual hearing, would have broad powers to investigate complaints on behalf of children and families in group and congregate care facilities.

Advocates, however, are girding themselves for a fight.

Efforts to create a new overseer for the child welfare system are decades old, and officials in Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration have taken a stance against the current proposal. As a result, the city’s most vulnerable youth are essentially squaring off against the very office created to protect them.

A torrent of lawsuits and a series of Inquirer stories have uncovered dozens of examples of recent malpractice, including the asphyxiation death of 17-year old David Hess at Wordsworth, a youth residential treatment facility in the city.

In response, a city task force was created, which listed the ombudsperson position in its recommendations. The problems, though, haven’t slowed.

A new lawsuit was filed in March in Philadelphia federal court against the Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in Lima, Pa., on behalf of two plaintiffs who made startling allegations. One said that at 16, she was taken to private parties by facility guards and sexually assaulted. Another, also 16 at the time, said a staff member raped him, then threatened to murder him and his whole family if he told anyone. Pa.’s Department of Human Services is one of the defendants in the case. 

The steady procession of scandals suggests that the measures in place right now at both the the state and local level — which include Pa.’s Childline Hotline for abuse and neglect complaints, and the Philadelphia DHS Commissioner’s Action Response Office (CARO) — are not working.

“I’ve only been in City Council since 2016, but I have been actively involved in the closure of [multiple] residential homes,” said Councilmember Helen Gym, who is authoring the ombudsperson bill.

Advocates agree that an independent office with meaningful authority to investigate and offer assistance would be a vital new addition.

“We’re not dreaming this problem up,” said Frank Cervone, executive director of the nonprofit Support Center for Child Advocates, citing the lawsuits and stories exposing wrongdoing by staff at Wordsworth, Glen Mills, Devereux and VisionQuest.

In precisely “none of those cases,” he said, did anyone place a call to any existing office to bring the abuse of children and youth to an end.

Despite existing programs, a feeling that ‘no one is listening’

At 16, Anthony was bounced from a foster home because the family was going on a trip and never made arrangements to continue taking care of him when they returned. He was temporarily placed in a group living facility geared primarily toward people in the juvenile justice system.

When other teens living there found out he hadn’t come through the criminal justice system, they regarded him as a target, he said. “They were like, ‘You don’t belong here.'”

Facing harassment, he asked staff if he could be moved someplace else, advocating for himself before a series of adult strangers — who all told him there was nothing that could be done.

Anthony remained in the facility, frightened for his safety, for three and a half months. Later, he said, he discovered biological family members had been available  to take him into their homes. But no one responsible for his care was willing to take the time to process the change and move him.

Cervone, of the Support Center for Child Advocates, has testified on the needs for youth ombuds-services before government committees three times, in 2003, 2007, and 2018.

“This is way overdue from our point of view,” said Cervone, who said he and his staff frequently hear from people affected by child welfare services.  “One of the messages we get most consistently is, ‘No one is listening.’ They say, “I’ve talked to so and so and called this number and I’m getting no traction.'”

In 2007 Cervone pressed Harrisburg lawmakers to create a statewide youth ombudsperson to field complaints covering all child welfare services. The current ask for a city ombudsperson focused on group homes is more modest.

Yet the city’s office responsible for the welfare of youth in the juvenile justice and foster care systems is against the proposal.

“The Philadelphia Department of Human Services supports the need for a centralized, confidential resource for youth and their families to report concerns across systems and providers statewide,” DHS director of communications Heather Keafer said in an email. She cited three methods where youth and families can currently file complaints, and called the ombuds program a “state function.”

“We can’t wait” for the possibility of a statewide office, countered Councilmember Gym, adding, “The city’s youth need a solution now.”

Key to the position: anonymity and subpoena power

There is a sense among child advocates that Philadelphia is simply behind the times.

During his 2007 testimony, Cervone noted that 13 states or localities already had a youth ombudsperson or similar services. A decade and a half later, that number has grown to include at least 22 states, said Christina Sorenson, an attorney doing a fellowship at the Juvenile Law Center.

“This new proposal coming before [City Council’s] Children and Youth Committee brings forward many of the best practices found around the country,” said Sorenson, who has studied programs around the country. It’s an approach supported by the American Bar Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The current proposal doesn’t hold everything advocates wanted. As outlined in the bill, the ombudsperson would likely be created under the Inspector General’s office. That position is appointed by the mayor, Sorenson said, so the existence of the new position could be dependent on election cycles.

The hope is that once such a position has been created, it will be both too valuable and too politically sensitive for any new mayor to eliminate.

As currently envisioned, the Philadelphia Youth Ombudsperson would oversee a small staff of investigators with the power to issue subpoenas demanding testimony and records. The office would also hold the power to conduct investigations in the absence of an identified accuser — meaning anonymous complaints could trigger full blown inquiries.

“That’s a very important piece,” Sorenson added, “to help youth be heard without fear of retaliation.”

Qilah and Anthony, who asked that their last names be withheld over privacy concerns, both agreed anonymity would make a huge difference.

In one instance, Qilah recalled, she reported to a supervisor that she felt threatened by a particular facility staff member. Over the ensuing weeks, she found herself on the receiving end of long, hostile glares from the staffer, who had clearly been advised of her complaint. “It can’t be like that,” said Qilah, “where you have a problem with somebody and then you still have to be afraid.”

Anthony’s entire predicament might have been resolved if he had an independent office to call, he said, forcing the agencies involved to move him to a more appropriate home where he didn’t feel threatened.

“I think if I was speaking before Council on this I would just break down and start crying,” said Qilah, “Because this is just so, so necessary that youth have some place to call for help.”

Anthony hopes the public gains understanding of just how deep the problems in the system run. “The big stories get a lot of attention,” he said, “and they are high impact, but I think people would be surprised at the pervasiveness with which youth are being abused, in different ways, every day.”

There’s an everyday disregard that drags down youth in the foster care and juvenile justice system and creates the conditions for larger horrors to occur, he explained.

“The current system requires youth, when someone has their boot on their neck, to ask that same person to ‘Please get off,'” Anthony said. “We’ve seen that, and it just doesn’t work.”

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