State DHS shares blame for teen’s death

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David Hess, 17, struggled with mental illness and was sent for treatment at Wordsworth Academy, a residential facility in West Philadelphia, where he was killed in a clash with ill-trained staffers.

Wordsworth Academy, the treatment center for children with behavioral problems where at least 12 rapes and an alleged murder occurred, has been closed since October, but questions concerning its operation and other facilities regulated by the state of Pennsylvania remain.

The death of David Hess, 17, was ruled a homicide. Hess reportedly got into a fight with Wordsworth staffers who entered his room to search for a stolen iPod. Hess began gasping for air, witnesses said, as one staff member held him down and another repeatedly hit him.

A subsequent investigation by the state Department of Human Resources led it to close Wordsworth 11 days later, citing it for “gross incompetence, negligence, and misconduct.” But as more information about the condition of Wordsworth was revealed to the public it became apparent that it should not have taken the death of a teenager for the state to step in.

In fact, an investigation by staff writers Nancy Phillips and Chris Palmer revealed at least 49 sex crimes had been reported at Wordsworth in the last decade, including a dozen rapes and 23 accounts of sexual abuse. In 2015, three underage girls were sexually assaulted by a counselor who promised them money and gifts.

Police were summoned to Wordsworth more than 800 times in the past 10 years, for incidents ranging from tripped fire alarms to the 12 rape cases, two cases of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, seven reports of indecent exposure, and four of corruption of the morals of a minor. “Nobody believes you,” said one former Wordsworth resident.

As if living on edge in fear of being assaulted were not enough, Wordsworth residents had to endure unsafe, unsanitary conditions that made the environment a living hell. The heating and air-conditioning often didn’t work, bathrooms had standing water, hallway lights were broken, electrical wires were exposed, and walls were filled with holes.

The state has never adequately explained how it could license Wordsworth year after year while knowing such conditions existed. Only about 20 of its 82 residents came from Philadelphia, most of them sent to Wordsworth by the courts because of behavioral problems so severe they could not stay home. But what happened at Wordsworth suggests institutions like it are not the right answer.

The city medical examiner’s office report ruled Hess died from suffocation. But that wasn’t the only cause of his death. The teenager died at Wordsworth because his parents felt they had no other option than to send him there after a residential treatment center in Pittsburgh said it couldn’t handle him. Hess died because Wordsworth staffers were not properly trained to restrain residents who became agitated. And he died because the state didn’t step in earlier to shut down a facility that had no business being open.