Troubled by reports of a death, sexual assaults, and other abuses at the Wordsworth center for troubled young people, three Pennsylvania legislators on Wednesday called for hearings to examine a trail of injuries to children and seek to hold accountable those who failed to keep them safe.
State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, a Democrat whose district includes the West Philadelphia facility, said the call for a legislative inquiry came in response to an Inquirer and Daily News investigation that found a hidden history of abuse there.
“I had no idea of the depth or the severity of the allegations,” she said. “It made me hold my breath.”
Brown was joined by State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.) and State Rep. Scott Conklin (D., Centre) in calling for hearings to be held in Philadelphia.
“You cannot sit by and let children be victimized and hurt and murdered,” said Brown. “You cannot just let this go unaccounted for.”
In a statement Wednesday, Wordsworth interim CEO Diana Ramsay said, “We understand and share the concerns” raised by the officials.
She pledged to work with city and state officials to find solutions “in the best interest of the children, families, and communities we serve.”
Cruz said he contacted the state Attorney General’s Office and asked for an investigation into abuses at Wordsworth.
“The people who did this need to be punished for their acts,” said Cruz, who leads the Democrats on the Human Services Committee in the GOP-controlled House.
He also asked the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office to examine Wordsworth's residential treatment facility, which received $14 million a year in state, federal, city, and other money to care for children with mental illness and behavioral problems.
“These are children who are troubled,” said Cruz. “We’re supposed to be guaranteeing their safety, not adding trouble to their lives.”
Cruz and Brown said they were confident that their Republican colleagues would join their call for legislative hearings.
The lawmakers' actions came one day after nine members of City Council — a majority — called for Council hearings on what happened at Wordsworth, saying they were “horrified” to learn of the harm that had befallen children there. The members also called for the cancellation of $55 million in city contracts Wordsworth holds to provide foster care, education, and social services for Philadelphia children who have been abused or neglected or have committed crimes.
Over the last decade, more than four dozen sex crimes, including 12 rapes, were reported at the now-shuttered residential treatment center on Ford Road. Other children suffered broken bones and other injuries.
And in October, David Hess, 17, was killed in a clash with staffers at Wordsworth who came to his room in search of a stolen iPod. They punched him repeatedly as he struggled with them, and he died of suffocation.
The Medical Examiner’s Office has ruled the death a homicide. No one has been charged, and police continue to investigate.
In December, Wordsworth staffer Isaac Outten was charged with repeatedly sexually assaulting three girls at the center. The girls, ages 15 to 17, said he took them to the basement for sex and made them take naked selfies with his iPhone. One girl, 15, said he promised her money for diapers for her 1-year-old child.
Outten has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Brown said she found the girls’ accounts appalling. She questioned how they could have been harmed in a program entrusted with their care.
“These are children who have overcome so many issues and problems and you prey on them?” she asked. She and Cruz said the hearings would seek to hold staffers and administrators at Wordsworth to account, along with the agencies responsible for oversight and licensing of the program.
She said the legislative hearings would complement Council hearings, which in addition to examining Wordsworth will focus on other residential programs for troubled children.
“This is so crucial to look at the oversight on both levels that it might warrant two separate hearings,” she said. “The more light on this the better.”