Judge orders Pa. DHS to take juveniles from overcrowded detention center

The order did not attempt to address crowding going forward, as the city and state continue to scramble for alternatives


By Samantha Melamed and Anna Orso
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — A Commonwealth Court judge has ordered Pennsylvania state officials to take custody of 15 children currently living at a juvenile detention facility in Philadelphia that the city says is dangerously overcrowded and understaffed. They're among 135 statewide on a waiting list to receive court-ordered treatment at state placements called Youth Development Centers.

The order, issued Thursday by Judge Ellen Ceisler, requires the state Department of Human Services to transfer the children within 10 days to either a new state-run facility that is set to open in Pittston or a private facility in Texas.

"From what I heard earlier they are not getting any services, education, anything," Ceisler said during a Wednesday hearing, describing current conditions at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Services Center (PJJSC). "From what I heard, there is nothing happening for the young folks at the PJJSC."

Ceisler called the hearing after the city sued the state in October, alleging its failure to accept youth in a timely fashion had caused "devastating" conditions inside the 184-bed city facility at 48th Street and Haverford Avenue in West Philadelphia, where 202 children are now housed.

The order did not attempt to address crowding going forward, as the city and state continue to scramble for alternatives that could include a new juvenile detention center within one of the city's adult jails.

A state DHS spokesperson declined to comment on the order.

Vanessa Garret Harley, deputy mayor for the Office of Children and Families, said in a statement the city is "grateful" and will still pursue its lawsuit, which seeks to require the state to take custody of any sentenced juveniles who might be housed at the facility in the future in excess of its capacity.

But critics noted that the city could abate the problem by removing 11 children who remain there only because they are awaiting child-welfare placements, and urged officials to focus on a holistic, community-based solution.

"We need to focus on closer-to-home models and alternatives to detention for our youth," Philadelphia's chief public defender, Keisha Hudson, said. "It's research-based best practice, and [sending kids to Texas] as a solution is only going to cause further harm to our youth and our communities."

City officials who testified Wednesday described a facility in chaos, with dozens of children sleeping on mattresses in an admissions office or sitting on the floor to eat. They detailed frequent brawls and poor supervision — one testified that employees recently found 10 makeshift weapons in a room holding 20 children.

The crowding culminated on Oct. 4 in a large brawl that left one resident hospitalized and dozens of youth and staff hurt.

The facility houses youth ages 10 through 20 who have been accused or adjudicated guilty of a wide range of offenses from retail theft to homicide.

Pennsylvania DHS is mandated to accept sentenced youth, but has been running a wait list for years, officials said. The situation reached a boiling point in October, when the state closed intake at all three state Youth Development Centers, saying they were past capacity.

Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services Director Charles Neff said the emergency contract with the Texas facility, Rite of Passage, fulfilled the state's obligation. The company was the only one to respond to what he described as a nationwide call for emergency placement alternatives. Headquartered in Nevada, Rite of Passage had revenues of $22 million in 2020, according to public filings.

Philadelphia officials expressed serious reservations about sending children to the facility because of its disciplinary tactics, Department of Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Ali said. She said Rite of Passage isolates children for days on end, uses mechanical restraints, and performs strip searches.

Neff said that the facility would adhere to Pennsylvania law.

At the hearing, city and state officials revealed that other options under consideration include opening a new, 28-bed juvenile detention facility within an adult jail, Riverside Correctional Facility, on State Road in Northeast Philadelphia.

But Ali said opening such a facility could take at least two months. She said the city needs to renovate the plumbing and lock systems, and needs to obtain a license from the state to house children in the facility.

City officials at the hearing made clear they do not believe the state is acting with sufficient urgency, questioning DHS officials about the empty beds at the state centers. Though the three centers contain 224 beds, the state lists their current capacity collectively at 116 teens. The state said it couldn't take more because of staffing shortages.

"We're already unsafe, and anything we do [to admit more youth] is going to make it exponentially more unsafe," Neff said.

Neff testified that the ratio inside the state centers is one staffer to three children. The city is currently running at a ratio of one to 12.

Missing kids, illicit activity: Staff warn of chaos at Philly DHS office that houses stranded kids

Gary Williams, a deputy commissioner at the city's Department of Human Services, testified Wednesday that 60 children at PJJSC have been sentenced to rehabilitation in state facilities but have not yet been transferred. Of those, 18 have been waiting for more than three months, he said.

Without space to hold the swelling population, the city this fall resorted to housing three children in units meant for two. And it converted an admissions office into a bunk space where more than 20 children are sleeping on mattresses on the floor, some for weeks on end.

"We ran out of space," Williams said. "There's tension throughout the entire facility."

Youth advocates said they're alarmed by conditions at PJJSC — but said that the proposed alternatives are also unacceptable.

"The solution for young people experiencing harmful conditions is not to send them to a state halfway across the country, far from their families and support networks where they would be isolated, and the solution is not to put them in adult jails," said Sarah Morris, director of the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, which runs workshops with youth at PJJSC. "We think there are lots of young people who could be released safely to families, communities and diversion programs."

Maura McInerney, of the Education Law Center, pointed to recommendations by a task force convened by the city on the issue, which argued for smaller, community-based placement facilities.

Ceisler acknowledged that her order was only a first step.

"We've reached a crisis point," Ceisler said. "Whatever happens here is a tiny little Band-Aid."

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