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 likelythan 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.
To read the full article by Karen Lindell and Leola Hardy, click here.