It was big news in 2013 when the city opened a dedicated Special Victims Unit where adult and child victims of sexual assault could finally receive all their care under one roof. Previously, services were scattered throughout the city, making it difficult for victims to deal with the medical, emotional, and legal aftermath of assault.
But two weeks ago, with barely a whisper, the city shuttered the 50,000-square-foot building at 300 E. Hunting Park Ave. after three police officers were sickened with symptoms related to mold exposure.
In July, a pipe leaked, creating mold in a section of the building occupied by the Philadelphia Children's Alliance, which interviews, supports, and counsels the youngest victims of sexual brutalization. Back then, nobody needed to be displaced as Watchtower replaced drywall and carpeting.
While the remediation was wrapping up, though, new mold was found elsewhere in the building. This time, it was caused by a faulty HVAC unit.
Until the police officers fell sick, says City Hall spokesperson Mike Dunn, "We didn't know that the landlord had been working with the Children's Alliance on a mold issue. We were never informed."
Which sure seems weird, given that the city holds the building's lease.
The city has shut the place down during remediation out of health concerns for employees and the thousands of victims seen at the SVU every year.
I visited the site this week, which usually bustles 24/7 with hundreds of officers, social workers, advocates, and clients. It was so deserted, I thought I saw tumbleweeds blowing across the two-story parking lot (which was practically empty except for a van from a disaster-restoration business). Signs posted on the locked doors read, "Until further notice, no staff is to enter the building."
The sudden shut-down has sent the city back to the Dumb Ages, and now the victims and the angels who work so hard to handle cases with efficiency and sensitivity are scrambling.
The SVU's 75 police personnel have been relocated to three different districts. Staffers of the Philadelphia Children's Alliance are now operating out of temporary space at LaSalle University in Olney. Advocates in the Department of Human Services are back to working with young victims at various sites around Philly. And volunteers with Women Organized Against Rape, who for a year have manned an office at the SVU, have returned to WOAR's downtown headquarters.
"We're still getting the job done," Philly Police spokesperson Capt. Sekou Kinebrew was quick to say when I asked how the PPD is handling the disruption. "We're working our normal hours and continuing all investigations as usual. No one's case is getting left behind. This is temporary."
But so frustrating. And so wrong.
What has made the SVU a godsend is the co-location of all services. Interviews and exams are coordinated in such a way that victims – especially children – don't have to repeatedly relive the trauma of their assault to investigators from multiple agencies or travel to off-site medical sites for forensic testing or to support centers for counseling.
In other words, the SVU helps traumatized victims get through the hell of a sexual assault with as much efficiency, dignity, and humanity as possible.
That's why the mold disruption has WOAR executive director Monique Howard more worried than usual about victims. At the SVU, her staff and volunteers had easy physical access to victims. The shutdown has brought unavoidable delays in connecting.
"Every study shows that the best outcomes for victims happen when they're supported as quickly as possible after an assault," Howard says.
WOAR workers provide trauma-informed crisis intervention and advocacy to victims while they receive medical attention. They explain the rape-kit and police-reporting process, inform victims about legal options, help them make important post-assault health decisions (about STD and pregnancy testing, for example), and accompany them to legal proceedings.
"Generally," she says, "we establish a rapport that makes for better witnesses if a victim decides to proceed to court with charges."
Watchtower Properties, which manages the SVU site, appears to be taking the mold situation seriously.
Company manager Walker Gilmore says Watchtower has already spent $125,000 to fix the mess and that the total will probably top $150,000. Remediation has included everything from surface cleaning, moisture testing, and cleaning or replacement of HVAC units, to installation of ceiling dehumidifiers and humidity-monitoring devices, video-inspection of storm-water piping, and placement of ultraviolet light bulbs in the building's duct work (it keeps mold from spreading – who knew?).
As for when the building will reopen, SVU employees are bringing in their own inspectors to ensure the remediation has been adequate. But no one could say when that process would be completed.
"We're concerned for our officers," one of whom had to be hospitalized following the mold exposure, says frustrated FOP president John McNesby; just last month, the city had to seal off a room at the 39th District that also reeked of mold and mildew. "It could be 30 days, 60 days, or 90 days. We just want it done right."