Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney signed an executive order today establishing an office to investigate the safety concerns of young people in the city who are sent to group homes, juvenile detention or other residential institutions.
The Office of the Youth Ombudsperson will be housed in the Inspector General’s office, where staff will investigate complaints from young people in such placements who are experiencing abuse or maltreatment. The Youth Ombudsperson position is now posted on the City of Philadelphia’s job board.
“Every young person deserves the best opportunities and care, and the new Office of the Youth Ombudsperson will create valuable new avenues for oversight, quality assurance, and individual support for youth in residential placement,” Kenney said in a press release. “We hold ourselves to the highest standard when it comes to the wellbeing of children in the City’s care, and look forward to the OYO’s contributions to this ongoing work.”
The ombuds office is the product of years of youth-led advocacy. Several young people testified before the Philadelphia City Council last year urging for the creation of an ombuds office to ensure accountability.
“Having a local Ombudsman office can provide a source of protection for youth by having someone to express their issues and needs when they are in placements in the child welfare system,” Duane Price said in a press release. “It is imperative for youth to have someone follow up on their safety and concerns. This is an enormous step in the right direction. Now is the time for this office.”
Price testified at a city council hearing about the violence he experienced at 12 years old in a group home last year.
“While in a group home, there were times when I did speak up about the violence and
mistreatment, and nothing changed,” he told councilmembers. “The mistreatment and violence continued to happen. I wanted someone who would always defend me. When I realized that no one was listening to me, I lost hope and was silent.”
Former councilmember Helen Gym held hearings and secured funding for the office following its recommendation by the city’s Youth Residential Placement Task Force. The task force was established in 2018 through legislation she introduced after several media investigations found that staff routinely abused young people in Philadelphia’s residential facilities, including Glen Mills Schools and Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.
In 2016, staff members at Wordsworth Academy, a residential treatment center for young people, killed 17-year-old David Hess after punching him repeatedly and placing him in a headlock.
The task force submitted a report in 2019 with 19 recommendations, including the urgent need for an ombuds office to improve the safety and quality of placement and investigate concerns from youth and families.
“This office will be a good, safe space for the youth to talk to somebody about what is going on and to see what they can do to help them,” said Bree Hood, who participated in a program at the Juvenile Law Center for young people who have been involved in the juvenile justice system to develop and implement advocacy projects to improve the system.
Roughly two dozen states have similar offices, providing a space for children and teens to safely report abusive foster parents, concerns about a caseworker’s handling of their care or housing struggles.
“All children and youth deserve to be safe and well treated while in residential placement,” Deputy Mayor for the Office of Children and Families Vanessa Garrett Harley said in a press release.
Correction: This article originally attributed a quote to Bryanna Harkin. The correct name for this person is Bree Hood. A previous version also incorrectly stated that former councilmember Helen Gym introduced legislation to create the Office for the Youth Ombudsperson. Gym held hearings and secured funding for the office.
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