Ten years ago, we woke up to heart-wrenching headlines exposing something almost too hard to believe. Judges in Luzerne County Pennsylvania were trading children’s lives for bribes and kickbacks to enrich themselves and their families. Months of press coverage and years of lawsuits made their extortion scheme, dubbed “Kids for Cash,” a national scandal.
Blue ribbon panels assembled and prepared recommendations for how the courts, the state, and county oversight had to be changed so that vulnerable children would never again be bartered in the Pennsylvania judicial system.
But, just weeks ago, the horrors at Glen Mills Schools for delinquent boys as described in The Inquirer read like passages from a Dickensian novel.
The Inquirer’s meticulous expose found that children had been sent by the courts to Glen Mills even though evidence of criminal behavior there was known by the State Department of Human Services. Thankfully the lawsuit filed by the Juvenile and Education Law Centers may mean that state officials who are responsible for protecting children are forced to see their failings. It’s a strong move to compel the Commonwealth to reform a system it has long neglected.
The Glen Mills scandal is exhibit A for the need to stop sending so many children to institutions where research shows they become more despondent and antisocial. Further, it’s now clear that all parties must come to the table and update the 20-year-old state regulations for child residential facilities and dramatically improve how the state enforces these regulations.
After David Hess tragically died while in custody at Wordsworth, Councilwoman Helen Gym persuaded her Council colleagues to pass an ordinance to accelerate needed reforms at the city level. Fortunately, Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services and Community Behavioral Health are now working on revising contracts so that our children are better protected from physical and mental harm and to ensure that practices known to help children heal are part and parcel of any institution’s operations.
Our courts need to examine how they can improve their decision-making so that children are not put at risk when sentenced to institutions. In Philadelphia, Family Court judges send children to facilities without any knowledge or review of public reports of regulatory violations or notifications from other states or counties that have removed children from institutions because the facilities or programs are deemed unfit.
Perhaps even worse, judges determine where the most vulnerable children are sent to be reformed or stabilized without any valid, verifiable proof that any of these institutions have a track record of success or failure for either of these outcomes, despite the fact that much of this information is readily available.
Let’s hope that the grotesque practices at Glen Mills will spur the courts to affirmatively ask for this data and use it to inform and track its decisions.
We all have a role to play in this reform. As Philadelphians go to the polls once again to cast their votes for candidates for Common Pleas Court judges, we should ask ourselves if we know enough to vote for any of the candidates. The answer is most likely a resounding “no.”
So, here’s a challenge to any one of those candidates: Help every voter get informed and engaged in the efforts to protect these children. Send Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) your thoughts on the ways that you, as a newly elected Family Court judge, can improve the lives of children who stand before you in your courtroom.
Tell the voters what you think judges must know to inform their decisions about which children must be sent to an institution and which children should not. Tell them what data or reports you think are necessary for all Family Court judges to have ready access to when determining an institutional placement. And tell them what you think judges should do if forced to make these decisions without this data. Post that information on your campaign websites and send it to PCCY. We will post that information and share it with voters, too.
Let’s use this election to elect a new crop of judges who will work to ensure that children are not imperiled by the state, justice is served, and everyone does their job.