Monday, May 21, 2018

Caring Causes: Youth in Placement Facilities

On May 17, City Council held a hearing on the safety and well-being of the approximately 1,000 Philadelphia youth who are currently confined in over 70 placement facilities across the country, some as far as Utah. More than 7 in 10 youth in placement are black.

Currently the City of Philadelphia spends approximately $119,000 per child per year on these youth placements, and the School District of Philadelphia spends more than $70 million annually to educate students in institutional placements. A number of these young people are sent away as early as four years old, and many have no criminal involvement—at least a third are put in placements due to failure to find appropriate foster care or provide mental health supports.

“I’m so proud of the young people who have spoken their truth today. We must listen to the experiences of youth who have been in these placement facilities and commit to doing better by the children of our city,” said Councilmember Helen Gym (At Large). “These placements are designed to protect and treat our young people, and if they are not accomplishing that goal, they must be reevaluated.”

“One young person was locked in a juvenile detention center—a place designed for youth to stay an average of 10 to 15 days—for nine months, waiting for appropriate placement and services for mental health issues,” said Gabe Labella, staff attorney at Disability Rights Pennsylvania. “Another youth spent two months in jail on charges of assaulting staff, until security footage was produced revealing that the youth himself was physically and brutally assaulted by multiple staff members.”

According to advocates and national research, youth in placement facilities are frequently subject to solitary confinement, strip searches, illegal restraints, and threats to their safety—all in facilities far from home with little to no family contact. A 2011 report by the Annie E. Casey foundationdescribes youth placements as “dangerous” with “widespread physical abuse,” an “epidemic of sexual abuse,” and “rampant over reliance on isolation and restraint.”

“Institutional settings offer a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and too often expose youth to harmful conditions like solitary confinement, physical restraints, abuse, and bullying,” said Karen Lindell, staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center. “Instead of isolating youth in harmful institutional settings, we need to customize services to meet the child’s specific needs here in the community.”

“These children are often denied a free, appropriate, public education to which they are legally entitled. It is well documented that these system-involved youth are among the most educationally at risk of all student populations,” said Maura McInerney, Legal Director of the Education Law Center.

Youth who have been in placements testified about being abused, put in solitary confinement, and receiving a subpar education. “My mom thought going to a juvenile holding facility would be good for me. She thought I would be safe,” said Lilly. “She did not realize that I would be abused, strip searched, mistreated, or that I wouldn’t be able continue my education. I hope that by me sharing my story today, parents and leaders will realize that youth are better off staying in their own homes. I am sharing some really hard things that happened to me because I don’t want them to happen to other youth.”

Another young person testified that they were placed in solitary confinement for one week in a placement facility. “They only checked on me when it was time for meals and they brought my class work to me, otherwise there was nothing for me to do and no one for me to interact with. I slept, looked at the wall, worked out in the room, and I ate—that’s it, for a whole week. At first, I didn’t think it would impact me, but after being in the room with nothing to do for a few minutes it started to bother me, it made it feel weak because there was nothing I could do to get out,” said Hid.

Attorneys from the Defender Association, the Juvenile Law Center, and the Education Law Center called for Philadelphia to join California, New York, and Missouri in reinvesting in local, community-based and trauma-informed therapeutic intervention programs close to home.

“Too many of our youth have died in placements. After the deaths of Omega Leach and David Hess, there was a collaborative effort to get kids out of the placement to make sure they were safe, but now more children are again placed out of state due a lack of local options. We need to do more than react: we need to do better,” said Keir Bradford-Grey, Chief Defender at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. “As Philadelphia fights against the culture of mass incarceration, we are encouraged that our juvenile stakeholders are willing to come together and work collaboratively to develop safe, quality, trauma-informed, community-based resources and residential placements which are closer to home.”

“The neglect and abuse of our City’s children in youth placement facilities is yet another instance of how the systemic issues of mass incarceration and racism are stunting the potential and future success of our black and brown kids,” said Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown (At Large). “It is imperative that we advocate and be an agent for these children and youth unapologetically.”

“I want to thank my colleague Councilmember Gym for her efforts to bring attention to our youth and the difficult circumstances they’ve faced in placement facilities across Philadelphia and our country,” said Councilman Kenyatta Johnson. “I commend the youth who’ve done a tremendous job testifying today. Their stories are moving and bottom line, they deserved better treatment in the system’s care.”

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