It wasn’t the repeated rapes that finally forced the state of Pennsylvania to shut down the Wordsworth “residential treatment center” in Philadelphia. It wasn’t the assaults by staff against children and children against each other. It wasn’t the fact that over ten years, police were summoned to the place more than 800 times.
It wasn’t even the enormous cost to taxpayers - $119,000 per year per child for all this tender loving care – that prompted the state finally to act.
No, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News report, a 17-year-old, David Hess, had to die first, during a struggle with staff. Authorities ruled the death a homicide.
Through all of this, year after year after year, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services kept warehousing children at Wordsworth – children as young as age 10. Some were delinquent, others were said to have been abused or neglected.
It’s not as if nobody knew what was going on. As the newspapers report:
“Interviews, court records, state inspection reports, and police records reveal a trail of injuries to children, from broken bones to assaults to the suffocation death of Hess. Along the way, lawyers, licensing inspectors, and others found conditions there appalling and sounded the alarm with little success.”
Why wouldn’t the City or the State do more? They didn’t dare. In Philadelphia substitute “care,” in all its forms, is a sellers’ market. As Joan Erney, director of Community Behavioral Health, the agency that oversees publicly funded mental-health services for Philadelphia told the newspaper:
“Our approach to agencies generally is that we need them, and if there are opportunities to improve, we work with them. … We did rely on Wordsworth extensively. Places outside of Philadelphia don’t want to take our kids. They tell us our kids are too complicated. They tell us our kids are too hard. We have kids with some really difficult problems.”
In other words, they were begging for beds, and beggars can’t be choosers.
But that tells only part of the story. The real reason Philadelphia turned a blind eye to the horrors at Wordsworth is because of Philadelphia’s long, ugly history of embracing worst practice in child welfare.
● Among America’s ten largest cities and their surrounding counties, Philadelphia tears apart families at the second highest rate when rates of child poverty are factored in. (When you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia is #1.) The rate of removal in Philadelphia is 60 percent above the big-city average, more than triple the rate in New York City and more than quadruple the rate in Chicago.
Were Philadelphia taking children at the rate of New York or Chicago it would have plenty of room in good therapeutic foster homes for children who really needed them – and no need to warehouse children in places like Wordsworth.
● Philadelphia needs something else, too: The guts and imagination to embrace safe, proven alternatives to residential treatment. One of the striking revelations in the Inquirer / Daily News story is the fact that the RTC at Wordsworth wasn’t some hundred-year-old orphanage that rebranded itself to stay in business and then deteriorated. This facility was brand new in 2006 – and apparently it was abusive almost from day one.
In other words, at a time when most of the rest of the country was trying to shut down institutions, city officials in Philadelphia and their state counterparts in Harrisburg thought it would be a great idea to send children to a brand new one.
● And no, the almost universal cry of those who institutionalize children and their apologists – the claim that the children are just too difficult to handle in families – is not true. There is nothing a “residential treatment center” can do that can’t be done better (and at lower cost) through Wraparound programs.
As they name implies, such programs do whatever it takes – bringing the help a child needs into her or his own home or a foster home. In this video, Wraparound pioneer Karl Dennis describes how it worked on the kind of case that usually lands a child in a place like Wordsworth.
Not only does Philadelphia overuse institutionalization; it institutionalizes children for whom the harm is greatest: younger children. This is such horrific practice that in his original version of the proposed Family First Act, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) proposed to simply eliminate all federal aid for any placement in any institution for any child under age 13.
That never passed, of course. So all American taxpayers continue to subsidize places like Wordsworth.
● Worst of all, there’s no guarantee that the children are any better off now that Wordsworth is closed. Because the children were simply shipped to other institutions, often out-of-state – so it will be even harder to keep track of what happens to them.
Even when institutions don’t become hellholes, rife with physical and sexual abuse, a mountain of research shows that they are inherently bad for children, and there are better alternatives. And there is nothing unusual about the kind of abuse that was rife at Wordsworth. The Wordsworth story is repeated in America over and over, year after year. When the topic is institutionalization, we’re not talking rotten apples. We’re talking rotten barrels.