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Council scrutinizes residential placements

The District spends millions on these facilities and their attached schools, but does not oversee them.

Darryl Murphy

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A new City Council task force is examining the residential facilities for children who have been removed from their homes by the court system, including the quality of the education they provide. The task force is searching for ways to reduce the number of children sent to these facilities and to improve their experience if they are sent there.

City Council members Helen Gym and Kenyatta Johnson established the task force after a Council hearing in May where students testified about abuse and neglect in such facilities. That hearing was the culmination of a years-long push from advocates and activists. Children reported living in an environment of fear and frequent strip-searches. Staff sometimes sexually abused them, they said, and encouraged fighting among the young residents.

Gym first became aware of the problems in these facilities during her work as a parent activist before being elected to Council in 2016.

“I had a lot of concerns about this even before I came in,” Gym said. “But following the death of David Hess at Wordsworth [residential treatment center in Philadelphia], the multiple sexual assaults, the ongoing problems with these facilities makes this even more incumbent — that this is not just an issue for a small subset of young people, but a very serious issue for our entire city, the school system and our state.”

Hess, 17, from Lebanon, Pa., died of suffocation in October 2016 after staffers pinned him to his bed and punched his ribs repeatedly. They had gone to his room in search of what they said was a stolen iPod, and they struggled with Hess after he talked back about the search. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. That facility has since changed hands.

A questionable investment

But residential facilities operating across the state have a problem less likely to make such dramatic headlines: Many have schools attached that often teach students very little, even as local school districts pay them dearly.

Last fiscal year, according to its comprehensive budget book, the District said it spent $73,950,867 on the education of students in institutional placements. What they are getting for that investment is questionable.

Last year, a girl told the Notebook that she attended one such school for her first three years of high school. She said she sat in a large room with children as young as 8 years old. For math class, she said, she learned addition and subtraction for three years straight. Upon returning to Philadelphia, she was bumped back to 9th grade for never taking algebra, though she had expected to enter her senior year.

She dropped out.

Gym said: “The mission of the task force is to reduce the number of kids in placement, and find better alternatives closer to home, if not in their home, and improve the options here locally. This will not happen overnight.” The most important thing, she said, is for these schools not to function “akin to prisons.”

“Education is a significant component of what the task force will be looking at,” she said. “At the same time, I think my bigger concern is to not take a patchwork approach towards addressing the multitude of problems with these facilities, but instead recognize that these may not be the best options for young people.”

Making the District an equal partner

The task force is made up of two dozen representatives from various city agencies and nonprofits that work with system-involved youth, as well as professionals, students, parents, and caregivers who have experience in the system. It’s mandated to look at the residential facilities, but not necessarily the attached schools.

Nonetheless, Estelle Richman, who chairs the task force, said it would take a look at the schools and the role they play in interacting with the students’ home district – in this case Philadelphia. “At a residential placement determination, the School District often isn’t at the table,” said Richman, a former chair of the School Reform Commission. “They’re picking up the financial costs without anyone asking them if that’s the appropriate setting.

“I would hope that one of the things that the task force would do is make sure the School District is an equal partner and has a say in what kind of educational program is provided at a residential setting.”

The task force has met twice so far this year. It will also tour residential facilities and hold two public hearings.

Charles Gleich, a volunteer with the nonprofit Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Philadelphia, is an educational decision maker (EDM) for students going through the process of residential placement. A judge will appoint an EDM if a student has no parent or guardian or after deciding, for any number of reasons, that it is in the child’s best interest to have one.

As a former school psychologist, Gleich brings a wealth of knowledge to this work, and he has dealt with the various state and local agencies involved in placing and housing students through his other work in local clinics.

In his new volunteer position as an EDM, he sees the need for a system overhaul.

Gleich advocates that his students be placed in the “least restrictive setting.” This is required for students in special education and should be the guiding principle for all children, he said.

But what he sees is more like an assembly line. “I’m concerned about the speed at which they’re being placed. … They’re not supposed to say ‘we kept them there because there’s no other place to put them,’” Gleich said. “Sometimes it’s a simple matter to resolve. But without [EDMs] bringing this up, there’s less impetus to look for the least restrictive setting.”

Student rights overlooked

Maura McInerney, legal director for the Education Law Center (ELC) of Philadelphia, has represented many of these students herself. She said that a student’s rights are often overlooked without the outside intervention of a lawyer or educational decision maker. For example, students have the right to attend the local public schools run by the “host school district” in which their residential facility is located.

“Students in residential placements are often shut out of public school and less-restrictive environments. They are not considered as options for these students,” McInerney said. “This occurs for different reasons. Often, the private provider urges that the child be placed at their on-site school — for which they may receive tuition reimbursement.”

In addition, she said, the team meeting to discuss a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) often does not include “an active, involved decision maker for the child. Or the local public school district refuses to enroll the child,” even though it is the child’s right to attend.

Gleich said most IEPs written by these schools “look like institutional documents” and provide the bare minimum without a close look at the specific needs of the child, outside of the behavior that triggered the institutional placement. Although Gleich, as a former school psychologist, understands the requirements of special education law, most parents do not know enough to advocate for their child’s rights.

EDMs, Gleich said, use their court-sanctioned role as stand-in parents to “require a youngster’s IEP to go above and beyond what would normally be the case if we weren’t involved.”

Other factors are at play. The guidelines for these residential facilities and their schools, issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, prohibit a practice called “bundling.” This occurs when the facility licensed by the state Department of Human Services requires the placed students to attend the school on the premises even though they have the right to attend a local public school. McInerney pointed out that facilities often collect additional tax dollars for the students who also attend their schools.

Although the guidelines forbid this practice, Gleich said he’s had to intervene to prevent it from happening.

McInerney said bundling was “common.”

“Despite the legal entitlement to attend public school, the vast majority of students in residential placements continue to be educated at on-ground schools, and placing the child in public school is not even considered as an option,” McInerney said.

The Education Law Center of Philadelphia has had to handle dozens of cases where a student was turned away from the local public school near their residential facility, she said.

Gleich said the demand for EDMs greatly exceeds their supply, to the extent that his supervisor’s guidelines are to take on only “the most extreme” cases, or the students in the most need.

Happi Grillon, executive director of CASA of Philadelphia, said the need for EDMs is “far beyond our capacity,” even though the team has grown to more than 100 volunteers since the program started in 2016. But neither she nor Gleich sound optimistic that it will ever be enough to cover every child in need.

The logistics of monitoring and evaluating each student placement are daunting. Pennsylvania DHS licenses the residential facilities, the state Department of Education (PDE) oversees the attached schools, and students have social workers assigned by an outside provider contracted by the city’s Department of Human Services called a Community Umbrella Organization.

Gleich said getting everyone involved to communicate about the needs of a child can be difficult. His job is “impossible” without access to mental health and academic records, he said, but getting complete records on time is not guaranteed.

That can lead to delays in discharging students. “They’ve met their goals, but they still have to find a place to live,” Gleich said. “One youngster was ready for discharge in June. With a lot of meetings, he was discharged in November.”

Many students have incomplete IEPs or academic records, and Gleich said he has a hard time getting timely and complete student records from Philadelphia in particular, and urban districts in general.

“I rarely have access to all of the records that I need,” Gleich said. “When I have that access, it’s enormously helpful.”

A lack of oversight

Although PDE oversees the schools, its monitoring only occurs once every six years, focusing on checking paperwork for compliance with special education laws.

A spokesperson for PDE said that until recently, the state has not even collected graduation rates at these schools. They have since begun, but that data will not be available until next year. And there is no legal requirement to use these graduation rates to hold schools accountable.

PDE did not answer a question about how frequently its staff visited these schools or a question about whether PDE had imposed sanctions on any schools at residential facilities within the last three years.

McInerney said that PDE has issued some “corrective actions” for failure to adequately provide special education services against school districts in which on-ground schools operate. But she was not aware of PDE ever sanctioning any of these on-ground schools for failing to provide a quality education — despite the Pennsylvania constitution mandating that the state provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

In the past, the Philadelphia School District has suggested that it would seek to pay closer attention to the quality of the facilities and schools to which it sends nearly $74 million a year.

School District spokesman Lee Whack stressed that the District has no oversight role, reiterating that these schools are the legal responsibility of the state Department of Human Services and Department of Education.

But when pressed, Whack said the District was in the “early stages of discussions with the city’s DHS” about the possibility of more closely monitoring the schools in the future. Currently, the District’s only role, he said, is what it is legally required to do: help students transition back into the Philadelphia School District when they are released from the facilities.

A spokesperson for the city’s DHS denied a request for an interview about its discussions with the District. Pennsylvania’s DHS did not provide a comment for this story.

Councilwoman Gym is hopeful that the task force can establish a better role for the District in this process.

“The School District should be doing its fiduciary and moral responsibility, which is making sure these children are actually cared for and giving appropriate feedback to entities that don’t do what they promise,” Gym said. “They have a seat at the table on this task force. We’re going to be working very closely with them to ensure they have a voice.”

The Notebook’s coverage of juvenile justice and the foster care systems is made possible by a grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund.

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