Youth center license is downgraded

Posted: August 22, 2007

One staff member bashed a youth in the face with handcuffs, splitting the child's forehead so wide it took nine stitches to close. Another staffer dragged a teenager down a hallway, breaking her arm. In a third case, a worker threw a walkie-talkie at a child's head, leaving a gash that required three stitches.

All three incidents took place over two weeks in November at the Youth Study Center, an overcrowded and run-down juvenile detention center so filthy it smelled strongly of urine, according to a licensing report the state released this week. The 105-bed facility on the Parkway is run by Philadelphia's troubled Department of Human Services.

This week, because of the abuse cases and a host of other failings, state public welfare officials downgraded the center's operating license until improvements are made. That allows the state to exert more control over the center's day-to-day operations.

"This gives us a chance to get inside and say what they need to do," said Estelle Richman, state secretary of public welfare.

Acting DHS commissioner Arthur C. Evans Jr. said his department would "take all necessary corrective actions to protect the Philadelphia youth at the center." He said many of the problems could be attributed to the stresses of overcrowding and would be solved by a planned new center.

The state's action comes as Philadelphia Family Court judges are yanking 43 youths in DHS custody out of a Tennessee treatment center where 17-year-old Philadelphian Omega Leach died in June after being restrained by a counselor.

This month, Kevin Dougherty, administrative judge of Philadelphia Family Court, called the Tennessee center "too aggressive."

Tennessee investigators are awaiting an autopsy report and no charges have been filed in Leach's case.

Among the shortcomings at the Philadelphia center noted in this week's state report:

Staff members failed to immediately report the three cases of abuse and failed to submit incident reports to the state about them, as required by law.

Center staff failed to ensure that youths were in school; only half were attending afternoon classes.

The center tested the youths for sexually transmitted disease without their consent and failed to collect emergency contact information for any of them.

The five-story brick Youth Study Center, on the Parkway near the Art Museum, is outdated and overcrowded, DHS officials said.

The center is typically overcrowded. On some days, it exceeds its 105-person capacity by as many as 60 youths.

They range in age from 13 to 20. Youths 17 and younger are considered juveniles under the law, but the city is required to detain those over that age if they committed their offenses while juveniles.

The facility holds a transient and volatile mix of young people. Some have been convicted of serious crimes and are awaiting placement at other juvenile treatment centers; others have court cases still pending.

Anne Marie Ambrose, who oversaw the center for four years and who now works for Richman at the state agency, acknowledged the building's shortcomings, but said the conditions were unacceptable.

"It's not an ideal site, but it can be clean and kept up in a way kids deserve," she said. Ambrose is to visit the center weekly to ensure that progress is made.

In February, Youth Study Center director Marq Temple promised to train staff better in how to defuse confrontations before resorting to force.

Temple said all three incidents were unusual and involved children who were out of control. In two cases, he said, the employees were veterans who chose to retire. In the third case, the staffer accused of abuse still works there but has been reassigned to a "non-child-care role" pending the outcome of an appeal.

In an interview last month, Temple conceded that the incidents were not handled properly.

In the case of the girl who was dragged, he said that it could not determined whether the injury to her wrist was self-inflicted from pounding the walls or from being restrained.

In the case of the walkie-talkie, he said the child attacked a staffer and was injured accidentally during the melee.

"We get many, many situations where the staff get things under control without any problems," Temple said. "Our intent is not to harm a resident; it's to get them under control."

Temple said many of the 5,400 youths and young adults who pass through the center each year have mental-health issues.

"They handle their anger through physical aggression," he said.

The city plans to move the center to make way for a new Barnes Foundation gallery. The new youth center is slated to go up on a five-acre site between Market Street and Haverford Avenue in West Philadelphia, but the move has been blocked for three years by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell.

She has said residents there have concerns about traffic, parking, and the potential for young inmates to escape.

Read previous coverage of child welfare in Philadelphia at

Contact staff writer John Sullivan at 215-854-2473 or

Inquirer staff writer Nancy Phillips contributed to this article.

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