Another child under the supervision of a Philadelphia Department of Human Services contractor has died under highly suspicious circumstances. How many more must die before city and state officials realize that continuing to tinker with the symptoms of what plagues this vital agency doesn't work? It needs to be restructured from top to bottom and take a different philosophical approach to caring for vulnerable children.
A 17-year-old boy died in a struggle with staff at the residential campus of Wordsworth Academy, one of 10 agencies contracted by the city's DHS to serve as a community umbrella agency. The CUAs handle child welfare cases under DHS oversight, but too often that oversight has been lacking.
The teenager was declared dead after police arrived around 9 p.m. on Oct. 13 at the Wordsworth facility just outside Fairmount Park. State Department of Human Services reports said the boy had gotten into a fight with staff members who entered his room to search for a stolen iPod, which they apparently found after overturning a bed and throwing furniture.
The boy became violent, the reports said, and during attempts to restrain him one staff member held his legs while another began "throwing punches" at the teenager's ribs. At some point, the boy began gasping for air. Children in the hallway said they heard him yelling, "Get off me, I can't breathe."
It took the state 11 days to complete an investigation and order Wordsworth to shut down its residential treatment program, citing it with "gross incompetence, negligence, and misconduct" in operating the facility. Specific accusations included abuse and mistreatment of a child and violating a child's right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure.
Almost as disturbing was a catalog of unrelated deficiencies, including broken heating and air-conditioning; unsanitary flooring; bathrooms with standing water; inoperable hallway lights; heaters with sharp edges, exposed electrical wires; and holes in the walls. Prisons are kept in better condition; but this was a residence mostly for children with developmental problems.
An earlier state report said a Wordsworth staff member had sexual contact with three children last year. Where was the oversight the city DHS is supposed to provide? More than 40 children under its umbrella have died since the city began its CUA system four years ago. Its license was downgraded by the state in May, which said the city had violated 71 child welfare regulations.