After abuses at residential facilities, Philly to create new youth ombudsperson office

Philadelphia City Councilmember and Chair of the Children and Youth Committee Helen Gym. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Councilmember and Chair of the Children and Youth Committee Helen Gym. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia will create a new youth ombudsperson office designed to advocate for vulnerable children and teens in group homes and other residential facilities.

Councilmember Helen Gym introduced legislation to create the office earlier this year in reaction to reports of abuse at youth facilities and victims saying allegations brought by minors were often ignored.

The new office, housed within the Inspector General’s office, will have subpoena powers and a small staff able to independently investigate anonymous complaints on behalf of youths and families.

The Juvenile Law Center, an advocacy group that backed the legislation, issued a statement hailing the move as “a monumental win for youths.”

The region has been rocked by allegations of staff abuse at residential youth facilities, including providers linked to the city’s Department of Behavioral Health, in recent years.

The Inquirer reported on a string of abuses at the Glen Mills reform school, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, and the Wordsworth residential treatment center. The latter saw the death of a 17-year-old, who was asphyxiated during a struggle with staff, ruled a homicide.

Still, some city officials opposed the bill. The Philadelphia Department of Human Services, which manages juvenile justice, welfare and foster care systems, argued against the position, saying there were already several methods for filing complaints and called investigation a state matter.

But Gym said the incidents proved that state oversight was not sufficient.

“The stories we’ve heard from young people about abuse in residential facilities are tragic and unacceptable,” Gym said. “If the state won’t take action, our city must protect these young people from further trauma and abuse.”

Some youth advocates also took issue with elements of the legislation, including the ombudsperson being housed within an office that is appointed by the mayor — leaving its functions potentially linked to the outcome of election cycles.

Ultimately, City Council and the Mayor reached an agreement during budget negotiations to pass the bill unchanged late Thursday.

Gym hailed the passage of the legislation.

“Our city has been working to transform how this system treats young people, and it is essential that they know they can speak out safely, and have their concerns investigated by an independent entity,” she said.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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