In the downtown office of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS), workers say they expect any given night could turn into chaos. Source: DHS Daycare, which is not designed for overnight stays but has become a hotel of last resort for children with no other options. It’s little more than a conference room equipped with air mattresses and rollaway beds (the supply of which DHS has roughly doubled recently, to match the growing population).
The number of children spending at least one night in the room has tripled in the past year, compared to the previous four years. Guests have included teenagers, toddlers and young mothers with their babies, staff said. And where overnight stays were once the exception, staff say children are now returning for weeks or even months. They warn that children there are not safe, citing incidents of children showing up high, assaulting staff, leaving late at night to engage in illicit activities or attempting to recruit others into sex trafficking.
Child care, however, is only one manifestation of a system grappling with far greater challenges. Here is what happens:
The scene at the DHS office is unexpected, in part because the city and state are actually succeeding in an effort that all parties agree is worthwhile: removing far fewer children from their homes in the systems of child protection and juvenile justice. Thanks to prosecution and juvenile justice reforms, Philly is sending about 80 percent fewer justice-involved teens to institutions than just five years ago. The city also halved the rate of children placed in foster homes, family care or other placements. That said, Philadelphia is still an outlier, removing children from their homes at a rate 48% higher than the national average.
Falling demand for beds led providers to withdraw beds or, as in the case of St. Gabriel’s Hall, to close altogether. This complicates the situation for an industry already faltering after numerous abuse scandals, such as physical assaults at Glen Mills schools and abuse at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health. Philadelphia has removed the children from both of these facilities. There is also no residential psychiatric treatment facility for children after its only facility closed following the death of a boy – then was replaced by a facility which also lost its license due to allegations of abuse. Now, the city and state are looking to bring more facilities online, seeking contractors to run psychiatric and juvenile justice facilities. But some providers say it won’t be easy, citing a tough job market and skyrocketing insurance premiums due to numerous civil rights lawsuits.
Although fewer children are in the system overall, those removed from their homes represent some of the most complex cases, providers say. This means they may need therapy and other professional supports beyond what a typical adoptive parent may be able to provide. The abandonment of institutional care for these children has left counties scrambling to find environments that can house them, sometimes calling for dozens of placements in search of a bed. Providers warn that some children are placed in foster homes without enough supports in place, causing ‘ripple effects’ when placement fails.
Bottlenecks in the child welfare system leave children stranded in various settings: the DHS office child care room, hospital emergency rooms and the Philadelphia juvenile detention center . A hospital administrator said she and other hospitals are “all competing for the same beds” — but no psychiatric facility wants to admit children if they can’t get them out because of DHS backlogs. And in the city’s overcrowded juvenile detention center, children awaiting DHS placement are stuck alongside those awaiting court-ordered sentences. The latter can wait five or six months for a bed in a public institution, one of the only options left after the closure of reform schools and psychiatric treatment centers. Nicole El, from the Defender Association, said the long delays weigh on her young clients: “We are supposed to provide children with treatment, rehabilitation and supervision. For now, we don’t give them anything.
The problem here is, in part, a surly bureaucracy and, in part, the transitory nervousness of a system in flux. Proponents say what is needed now is to address short-term issues while pursuing the long-term vision of supporting more families at home – without going back to the days when communal beds were numerous and eagerly filled by a system that viewed the removal and institutionalization of children as an easy solution. At the city level, insiders and advocates say DHS and its contracted social workers need better coordination as the daycare population shows cases are falling through the cracks. At the state level, they are asking the Pennsylvania Department of Social Services to take more leadership and the legislature to impose strict limits on when children can be sentenced to institutions. Overall, they say, there is a need to double down on prevention: providing services and supports to families at home so that children are not removed in the first place.
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