Nine members of Philadelphia City Council on Tuesday called for sweeping reforms in oversight of the city's child welfare system, saying it had failed to protect scores of vulnerable children.

In a letter to the heads of two city agencies charged with helping children in need, the Council members said they were "horrified" and "sickened" by an Inquirer and Daily News investigation over the weekend detailing years of violence and abuse at Wordsworth, the only residential treatment center for troubled young people in the city.

"It is clear that for far too long, residential treatment facilities for children have operated without adequate oversight, public accountability, and transparency," said the letter, signed by Helen Gym, chair of the Council Committee on Children and Youth, and eight colleagues.

They called for the cancellation of Wordsworth's remaining $55 million in city contracts to provide foster care, education, and social services for Philadelphia children who have been abused or neglected or are at risk of delinquency.

"My colleagues and I are appalled by what was endured by some of the city's most vulnerable children," Gym said in an interview. Others who signed the letter included Cindy Bass, chair of the Committee on Public Health and Human Services, and Curtis Jones Jr., who heads the Committee on Public Safety.

The Inquirer and Daily News reported that Wordsworth's now-shuttered facility in West Philadelphia had a hidden history of abuse. Over the last decade, more than four dozen sex crimes, including 12 rapes, were reported at the center, which served mentally ill and behaviorally challenged children. Other children suffered broken bones and assaults there. And in October, David Hess, 17, was killed in a clash with staffers who suspected he had stolen an iPod. He died of suffocation, prompting state officials to close the facility on Ford Road.

The Medical Examiner's Office later ruled the death a homicide. Police continue to investigate.

Since Wordsworth's opening in 2006, police were summoned there more than 800 times, records show, for incidents ranging from minor disturbances and tripped fire alarms to sexual assaults.

Council members in their Tuesday letter -- sent to Cynthia Figueroa, commissioner of the city Department of Human Services, and Joan Erney, CEO of Community Behavioral Health, a nonprofit that oversees mental-health services for the city -- decried Wordsworth's stewardship of children in its care.

In a statement Wednesday, Wordsworth interim CEO Diana Ramsay said:  "We understand and share the concerns raised by members of Philadelphia's City Council." She pledged to work with Council and city and state social-service agencies to find solutions "in the best interest of the children, families and communities we serve."

Gym and her colleagues also said the city needed a "complete overhaul" of the way residential treatment facilities are monitored, and they faulted city agencies charged with overseeing Wordsworth and other residential centers for "a profound failure of oversight."

The Council members said their concerns extended beyond Wordsworth.  "If this can happen at one facility under our watch," they said, "it can happen anywhere."

They said the overlapping roles of several agencies had allowed them to "disclaim responsibility and point fingers elsewhere."

Gym and her colleagues called on each agency to assign one staffer to oversee and publicly report on the safety and conditions of residential facilities within 60 days.

Other suggested reforms include:

  • Requiring DHS and CBH staffers to visit all residential treatment facilities that hold contracts with the city within 60 days. With the closure of Wordsworth, Philadelphia children who live there have been sent to treatment centers elsewhere.
  • Requiring those city agencies to make public quarterly reports on the safety and conditions inside.
  • Requiring all residential treatment facilities to provide the city with safety training plans.

Heather Keafer, DHS spokeswoman, said the agency shared Council's concerns and was "open to considering the recommendations presented to us" in the letter. She also said Wordsworth was exploring the possibility of being acquired by another company. If the deal went through, she said, that company, Public Health Management Corp., would take over Wordsworth's remaining city contracts.

In a statement Tuesday evening, CBH officials said they were committed to working with the city and DHS as well as the court system to improve treatment programs for children.

Gym said Council plans to hold hearings on the issue of safety in such facilities. She and her colleagues said victims and families needed a forum to discuss their experiences with residential treatment and to air concerns. They called on city agencies to create a so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission for that purpose.

 An earlier version of this article misstated a potential deal between two companies, Wordsworth and Public Health Management Corp. Wordsworth is exploring being acquired by the company, not merging with it.