May 19-25, 2005
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Our juvenile justice system is among the best in the nation. So why are kids ending up hurt? Or, in one case, dead?
Walter Brown's face is being rammed into the floor. A grown man's weight rests on his adolescent frame; other men secure his extremities. He has been in this "assist" for more than two hours, and though he spits, swears, pinches and bites, he cannot seem to escape. Now he feels a pain in his chest. He's having trouble breathing.
In a place like this, you can forget the outside world exists. But just a few months ago, Walter, 17, was sitting in his mother's living room, listening to Michael Jackson and fixing up a bike, when his younger brother Raymond came to get him. Often, this meant Raymond had pissed off some bigger boy and needed protection. That day, he just wanted to go for a bike ride. They grabbed their wheels and took off with two other boys from their West Philadelphia neighborhood. Somewhere along the way, they met another group of boys and mugged them.
Raymond said that he was the instigator, that Walt was just there, but they both ended up at Northwestern Academy, a private, secure juvenile delinquent facility near Shamokin. At Northwestern, the slightest infraction could land you "on the bus" seated in a hard chair, staring straight ahead for hours at a time and if you so much as scratched your ear, Raymond says, the staff "assisted" you. An assist, also known as a restraint, is a method of controlling an out-of-control child that usually involves taking him to the ground and pinning him. Walter was assisted three times in his first four months at Northwestern: once for throwing books on the floor; once for "quickly moving his arms toward staff;" and once for crushing his glasses during math class. He was also placed on two psychiatric medications.
But, there was good news, too. Walter had progressed to the second of Northwestern's five-tier system, and had phoned home that he wanted to become a firefighter.
Walter was fine when he woke up on Jan. 26, and seemed happy that evening when a staff member delivered him a photograph of his family. It was a little after 9 p.m. when something snapped. Accounts of what transpired are fuzzy, but this much is clear: Walter punched out the window to his room, and over the next 24 hours, was assisted numerous times.
Now he's in the grips of this marathon assist.
According to Northwestern, he is struggling manically; according to Robert Cogdell, a friend of Walter's who witnessed the event, he's crying out for air. Someone may be saying, "If you can talk, you can breathe." Walter coughs three times. He's released from the assist and becomes unresponsive.
At 7:47 p.m. on Jan. 27, at the age of 18, he dies.
Shortly after Walter's death, the Philadelphia Juvenile Court removed the nine other local youths from Northwestern Academy. Prior to that, it had pulled children out of South Mountain Secure Treatment Unit in 2003 and Cresson Secure Treatment Unit in 2004 because of abuse by staff. In February, the court pulled 45 students out of Stillmeadow, Inc. when a surprise Department of Human Services (DHS) inspection revealed decrepit conditions. There have been other recent instances of trouble in delinquent placements. In 2002, New Morgan Academy was closed when it was rocked by an "unheard of" number of allegations of physical and sexual abuse by staff.
Here's the strange part: Experts say that Philadelphia has one of the most sophisticated juvenile justice systems in the country. Along with the state, the city invests considerable resources into juvenile corrections, paying placements like Northwestern between $150 and $300 a day per child, and monitoring them diligently. But problematic facilities continue to slip through the cracks.
Child advocates are pushing for more oversight. Staffers at delinquent facilities resist the suggestion, saying that they're already handcuffed by unrealistically rigid rules and regulations. It's a stalemate that needs to end. Not only because, every once in a while, a child like Walter Brown dies in placement, but because the rest of the kids come back home.
Residential placement is a last resort for Philly's juvenile system, and in the past few years, the number of children the city sends away has decreased significantly. Still, at any given time, Philadelphia has about 1,500 delinquent children in approximately 30 residential facilities. Some of these facilities are run by the state, some by private companies; many have specialties, such as anger management or substance abuse. But all of the placements have the same basic responsibility: to rehabilitate. American society decided long ago that it was better, both morally and practically, to be more patient and more merciful with youthful offenders than adult ones. There is even an invented nomenclature for the juvenile justice system: Children are "adjudicated" rather than "convicted," sent to "placement" rather than "prison." It's a Sisyphean process. Institutional abuse throws it into reverse.
When children are abused, "it adds to their helplessness and their powerlessness," says Dr. Paul Fink, a Philadelphia psychiatrist. "They see no recourse except to act worse."
This phenomenon is difficult to quantify, because recidivism among juvenile delinquents is high across the board. But of the 16 kids Philadelphia pulled out of South Mountain and Cresson, at least 11 are now facing adult charges. Kids go into abusive situations thinking they're tough. They come out knowing it.
Pennsylvania recognizes this, and has safeguards in place to prevent abuse. The first line of defense is the Department of Public Welfare (DPW), which inspects and licenses facilities. The inspections are extensive, lasting four or five days, and may or may not be announced. If DPW finds a problem, it can revoke a facility's license or downgrade it to a provisional status, in which case the placement gets inspected every three or six months.
After DPW licenses a site, individual counties decide whether they want to contract with it. In Philadelphia, this responsibility falls to DHS, which visits sites and interviews other localities that already work with them.
"More often than not," DHS spokesman Ted Qualli writes in an e-mail, "when an issue arises, the organization is extremely cooperative with DHS and shares our desire to provide children with the best possible service and make improvements as necessary."
Once children are placed in a facility, they receive visits from probation officers (and sometimes attorneys or family members) who have an opportunity to monitor conditions. And if a child alleges abuse, a facility is required to call the state's child abuse hotline known as "Child Line" which sends representatives out within 24 to 48 hours to speak with the child, staff and any witnesses before making a determination about the incident. The oversight is so omnipresent that some delinquent facility staffers say they feel distrusted. And yet, at certain facilities, things have continued to go terribly wrong.
Michael Holtzman lives by a code: He will steal from you, but he won't threaten or hurt you in the process.
Holtzman was raised by the juvenile justice system. He was 9 years old when his mother first placed him in a group home, claiming that she couldn't control him. While there, he collected his first criminal charges aggravated and simple assault, for attacking a staff member and moved in and out of delinquent placements for his entire childhood.
At 18, he has the detached intelligence of someone entertained but not entirely engaged by life. He is medium-sized and handsome, with a slight beard and a single pimple on his forehead; he sits now with one leg propped in a cast in the basement of the House of Detention on State Road. The last time he was "out there" in the world, he is alleged to have stolen a car and engaged the police in a high-speed chase. He got in the way of a tree.
Two of the facilities Holtzman lived in have had children removed after allegations of abuse: New Morgan Academy, when he was 14, and Cresson, when he was 15. He describes the experiences so coolly that it's tempting to doubt his motivations until you recall that many other children have corroborated his story.
New Morgan Academy was located in Berks County and was run by the private prison outfit Cornell Companies (the company still runs a number of juvenile facilities in Pennsylvania). Holtzman laughs when recalling his time there.
"It was fun," he says. "You got a lot of good shit. They had girls there, and they let us have sex. Female staff had sex with you, too. And they brought in drugs and cigarettes. Half the staff were dirty." But, he concedes, "they were beating kids up, too."
As Holtzman remembers it, there was no pretense of "assisting" kids at New Morgan. "You and staff would just fight," he says. "It was like a jungle."
He was discharged after he tricked staff into believing he was farther along in the facility's rehab program than he actually was. In October 2002, the terrible conditions of the facility became public knowledge: In two years of operation, state officials said, there were 31 separate substantiated cases of abuse at New Morgan, 16 of them sexual. The facility was closed and several staff members convicted of criminal charges. (At the time, Cornell officials admitted there had been too many incidents there. They declined to comment for this story.)
It quickly became evident that Holtzman's rehabilitation was incomplete. He committed 15 robberies in less than a year, and the Juvenile Court committed him to Cresson. Cresson is a state facility, an option for incorrigible children that Philadelphia uses as infrequently as possible. It was nothing like New Morgan.
The dangers of incautious restraints have been acknowledged by the federal government, which passed guidelines for the procedure in 1999. The state of Pennsylvania followed suit the same year, and the resulting regulations are extremely rigorous. For starters, physical restraints may only be used when a child presents an immediate physical threat to himself or others, never if he is, for instance, stealing something. A restraint may not put pressure on a child's respiratory system, and no mechanical or chemical restraints may be used (some states, including New Jersey, allow the use of "restraint chairs"). Staff may not use "pressure points," intended to induce pain, except to force release of a bite. All restraints, no matter how brief, must be observed by a second staffer and discontinued as soon as the child stops resisting. The circumstances of each restraint must be meticulously recorded. All staffers are trained in these techniques, as well as in strategies for "de-escalating" without resorting to physical means.
At Cresson, Holtzman remembers children being restrained for 10 to 15 minutes for infractions like failing to turn off the lights in a room. The restraints involved a staff member many of whom, he says, were burly, football types tackling or slamming them to the ground and delivering an assortment of elbows and forearm shivers to the back and neck. When describing a restraint, both Holtzman and Walter Brown's brother Raymond use the sound effect, "Boom!" How long the restraints went on, Holtzman says, "depends on you. If you could take pain and just lie there, in five minutes it'd be over. If you said "ow,' it'd be longer."
Filing complaints didn't accomplish much. Often, Holtzman says, grievance forms were submitted and never heard about again. Occasionally, a kid would ask about one and a staffer would say, "This incident is unfounded."
Meetings with visitors were frequently attended by staff members, Holtzman says, and it was understood that snitches would suffer retribution, either physically or in the form of a bad report. For many children, this is a more dire threat than a beatdown: Juvenile sentences are indefinite and go on until a child is said to be ready for release a determination that is heavily contingent on staff recommendations. If you complained about abuse at Cresson, your reward could be a longer stay.
Once the doors to a facility like Cresson close, it becomes very hard to find out what's going on inside.
Stories of abuse finally seeped out in private meetings between children and their attorneys from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which has a $60,000 grant from DHS to visit its clients. Sandra Simkins, who oversees the monitoring program, says that she listened to and verified the stories of nine children before deciding, in spring 2004, to report a pattern of abuse to the Juvenile Court.
"It is accepted that the correct form of restraint is used [in view of other residents]," reads a Defender report. But "once the restraint ends the child is taken to his room" and beaten. "The beatings only occur in rooms, because there are no cameras." The report documents numerous instances of staff using restraints inappropriately, and also cites incidents of racism, religious intolerance, sexual inappropriateness and deprivation of medical treatment.
The prior year, a similar report was written about South Mountain, a state facility in Franklin County administered by Cornell Abraxas, which was once home to Quintez Talley. Talley, 20, went into foster care when he was 6, and has spent time in nine or 10 placements. He, like Holtzman, is in prison now, facing several drug charges. A couple of weeks ago he was stabbed in a rumble. But he says nothing compares to the treatment he experienced at South Mountain.
"They used to tell you, "When that door closes, who cares about you?'" He recalls not just the use of restraints as a substitute for corporal punishment, but the pure contempt some staff felt toward the children.
"We got something in here we call "on sight.' You see someone in the street, you supposed to fight him right away. One [staffer at South Mountain], he almost treated me like we was on sight."
The Juvenile Court summoned the complainants from both facilities to testify (it also called representatives of the institutions). One of the children called was Holtzman. As Holtzman was escorted out of the facility, he recalls a staffer pulling him aside. "Watch what you say down there," he said.
Still, the children told their stories, and in both cases, Juvenile Court judges found them compelling.
"We weren't looking for a burden of proof, but the ring of truth," says Judge Frank Reynolds, who ran the hearings on South Mountain. "There were a lot of occasions where this happened. There was no question in our mind."
Reynolds removed all Philadelphia youths from South Mountain, and Judge Kevin Dougherty saw fit to pull half of Philadelphia's kids from Cresson, in order to send the facility a message. But the experience sticks with the children.
"You remember them days," says Talley. He's a powerful man now, with a thick, triangular torso and a steady stare, who seems prepared to accept whatever comes his way "it don't matter," he says of almost everything in his life. But he's still angry about the way he was treated as a child.
"This is jail," he says conclusively. "This is what they do to adult men. But South Mountain I ain't never seen nothing like it."
Why treat incarcerated children this way? "Let's be real," says Talley. "We're talking about criminals."
A lot of the youths in these facilities are tough. They can be up to 21 years old, and they curse at staffers, spit at them, swing at them and much more frequently, swing at each other. It's a difficult and dangerous environment for the staff.
"A lot of times a [staffer] would come to you [after a beatdown] and tell you, "I know that they wrong, but what can we do?'" Talley says. "Staff there had to stick together."
Even when they did, they may not have had the resources to do the job. Juvenile facility staffers aren't paid very much. Standards vary, but beginning pay for a new staffer in a private facility is usually in the ballpark of $10 an hour, according to one administrator. And in case it isn't tough enough to get qualified people to work a difficult job at mediocre pay, most of Pennsylvania's delinquent placements are located in remote, rural regions, where few people especially African-Americans want to live and work.
"Racism wasn't too far-fetched," says Talley, who, like many of the delinquents Philly sends away, is black. "Most of them was Caucasian males, they was into hunting, and they would say, "I should come down to Philly and teach you how to shoot each other.'"
Recruiting of minorities in particular is "one of the biggest challenges we face," says an administrator at one Pennsylvania facility.
If finding staff is hard, keeping them is even harder. Juvenile delinquent placements are plagued by high turnover. People leave after realizing just how unpleasant the jobs can be. The average turnover rate for staffers not psych counselors or teachers in the delinquent facilities that Philly used from 1994-2004, was 42 percent, according to Philip Harris of the Crime and Justice Research Institute.
As a result, the necessary qualifications for a position working with delinquent children are not very high. At some placements, the minimum educational requirement is a high school diploma or GED. Experience working with children is not required. And high turnover means that staff have less on-the-job experience and benefit from fewer refresher courses in restraint training.
"If you have a lot of inexperienced staff, you're more likely to have a situation where staff handle things badly," says Harris.
New Morgan had particular difficulty with recruiting. After opening with great promise in 2000, the facility was unable to find an adequate number of qualified staff. Finding black staff was an issue at several of the five facilities Philly found inadequate. In 2002-2003, Cresson had one black staff member out of 65, and Northwestern had zero out of 48. And turnover was an affliction at Cresson, which changed 65 percent of its staff over the course of 2002-2003.
Still, the four facilities where abuse was alleged don't appear to be exceptional in any regard. The only thing they all shared in common is that they were all secure (many juvenile facilities are not) so that the children couldn't run away. But if identifying the cause of the problem is difficult, advocates believe that a solution is obvious: more oversight.
Representatives of several child advocacy groups say that, while Philadelphia has been responsive in removing children from problematic facilities, there are more of those places out there.
"The good news is that judges have been willing to respond to information about abuses in these facilities The bad news is kids get harmed, psychologically or physically, by staff or other residents," says Marsha Levick of the Juvenile Law Center, a nonprofit legal service agency.
"We know from experience that this is a widespread problem," says Simkins of the Defender's office.
Robert Listenbee, the Chief of the Juvenile Unit at the Defender Association, would like DPW to review its policies on restraints. This includes positions, duration and whether there are particular medical conditions or medications that can be aggravated by restraints essentially, any and all of the things that may have contributed to Brown's death. Cathy Utz, the state's Director of Operations Projects within the Office of Children, Youth and Families, says that the state is commencing such a review. "We do want to make some changes," she says.
Simkins emphasizes the importance of monitoring. "We want all children in placements to have private and confidential meetings with visitors," she says. She recalls that several child witnesses of Walter Brown's death told a different story upon returning to Philadelphia than they told DPW investigators at Northwestern. "The children were scared," she says. Currently, children are guaranteed private meetings with attorneys, but Philadelphia is the only county that funds Public Defender visits. Private meetings with families and probation officers are not necessarily guaranteed.
Finally, advocates would like to see changes made to the way DPW responds to abuse allegations. "For whatever reason, [DPW investigators] rarely find problems where there are extensive problems unless there is a serious abuse, the report is going to go unfounded," Listenbee says. Warren Lewis, DPW's Director for the Division of State Services, says that due to state law, investigators cannot affirm an allegation unless the injury to the child rises to the level of a "serious injury." But, he says, "it's a fallacy to think that the agency isn't held accountable if it's a non-serious injury." If a staffer is found to have body-slammed a child into a restraint, DPW can't label the staffer as abusive, but it can still sanction the facility.
Upon hearing the advocates' recommendations, an administrator at a respected Pennsylvania juvenile delinquent facility sighs.
"Have you read the [restraint guidelines]?" he asks. "You can have as many regulations as you want. They didn't remove the problem."
Existing regulations, he believes, are already unrealistic. "It's a tough business. I'm a former counselor, and we're taught to intervene incrementally step A, step B, step C. But if you've got a kid MF'ing you and spitting at you, you may have to get to it a lot quicker."
This man, who asked that his name not be used, speaks for numerous other people in his field when he says that he and his colleagues aren't getting a fair shake. Abuse, he says, is flat-out wrong, and if there are indications of a trend, such as at New Morgan, there is probably a problem at that facility. But there is a feeling among juvenile corrections workers that they're the ones getting mistreated.
Restraints are a necessary part of their business, he says. In many cases, physicality violence is the only currency their charges are accustomed to trading in.
"Children from North Philadelphia are not fragrant little flowers," says Judge Reynolds, who appreciates the staffers' gripes. "We give them the children to control, with no physical means to control them, and then come down on them when they try not to injure them."
Staffers say they don't want to use force on kids "the last thing staff want to do is restrain," says another delinquent facility employee, "it's not a pleasant experience for them" but it's a frequent reality of the job.
"We do like to get athletic types," says the first administrator. "We certainly confront kids."
People who fail to be physical with aggressive kids, he says, do so "not because of philosophical reasons but because they're scared." And child advocates should be glad his staff members don't hesitate.
"The greatest threat in these institutions is kid-to-kid. These [athletic guards] prevent a lot of student-on-student violence."
Society repays them, he says, by suspecting them of the worst.
"The kids take advantage of our middle-class naiveness," he says. "These are highly manipulative youngsters. They know how to transfer the focus off their behavior, from them getting arrested to police brutality."
Other staffers echo this claim. "Staff are susceptible to accusations of abuse. Kids know how to do that especially kids who've been in the system," says Jeff Morris, vice president at George Jr. Republic, a delinquent placement in Grove City.
"Sometimes the rules and regulations favor the client. When youngsters make abuse accusations, the staff has to defend himself, and there has to be an investigation," continues the first administrator. If an allegation turns out to be false, there are no repercussions for the accuser. "What a great way to get yourself removed from a situation you don't like.
"You can't work with children while the investigation is going on. Is there no implication [of guilt] there? There's no due process for the accused."
Every worker City Paper contacted said that his institution followed procedures for abuse complaints. But is it so hard to imagine a staffer failing to act on a complaint from some kid who, after punching a smaller kid in the face and spitting on a guard, didn't like the way his arm was twisted?
"One percent of these cases have some merit," says the administrator. And the fact that staffers have to be so careful, and so fearful, is as big a factor in the recruiting problem as anything else. "You get to a point where you're not going to get anyone to be educators, police, criminal justice workers. There's a feeling of disempowerment out there."
Walter Brown lies in his coffin, wearing a crisp, dark suit with no necktie. Bruises mark his flesh like lesions, lending it the appearance of rotting fruit; swelling has squeezed his cheeks, chin, nose and lips closer together.
The District Attorney for Northumberland County, where Northwestern is located, has said that the facility appears to have followed procedures. But Walter's mother, Caroline Brown, is suing the placement's parent company, Northwestern Human Services. She says Walter was a warm and peaceful boy; she is suspicious about the medications he was given and convinced that he was beaten to death.
"Walter was murdered," she says.
Former state Sen. Joseph Rocks, who runs the parent company, says that regardless of the outcome of this case, he is launching an extensive review of restraint procedures within his company. And system-wide reforms are in the works as well: In addition to DPW's review, Philly's Juvenile Court recently created a feedback form for probation officers to fill out after visiting a placement; this way, the court can begin to systematically quantify officers' impressions of facility quality and place children accordingly.
"We have the power of the purse," says Judge Myrna Field, the Administrative Judge for Philadelphia Family Court, which initiated the program and would like to see it expanded to a statewide level. With additional feedback, she believes, Philadelphia can use the market to hold problematic facilities accountable.
At the same time, Cresson and South Mountain remain open and, as of press time, host 14 local children.
Field explains that the city does not choose which state institutions it places children in it simply commits the children to state care. The state declined to comment on allegations of abuse at those two facilities.
The big question how can monitors catch institutions that do wrong without making life harder for the ones that don't? remains.
Listenbee says he's "not extremely sympathetic" to staffers who feel defensive about using restraints, because he's seen placements (he cites George Jr. Republic) where staff control the population effectively with very little physicality. "I would send my own sons to George Jr.," he says.
Edward Loughran, the former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services and current member of the Council of Juvenile Corrections Administrators, agrees, but he says it's not reasonable to expect those sorts of results with poorly paid, undereducated, resentful staff.
"The magic bullet is to pay staff a competitive wage," Loughran says.
Calls for more funding are as old as bureaucracy itself, but one thing society might be able to offer is a degree of prestige. The teachers who oversee juvenile delinquents in school can be forgotten and underappreciated, but they are always acknowledged as public servants; the cops who arrest them can be vilified, but are also frequently regarded as heroes. The people who raise them in placement? May 1-7 was National Correctional Officers and Employees Week, and the Philadelphia prison system held several events to mark the occasion. Though the press attended similar events for police and firefighters, not a single local outfit including City Paper -- covered them.
There's no guarantee that Michael Holtzman or Quintez Talley would be in a better spot today if they had gone through different placements; in fact, there's a good chance they wouldn't be. But the state has made a commitment to provide its juvenile delinquents with an environment fit to grow up in. Instead, monitors feel frustrated, staff feel disempowered, children feel abused, and Walter Brown is dead.
"How can I say this?" asks Holtzman, looking down at the prison floor and searching for the words to describe the effect placement had on him. "Each time you come out of a placement, it takes some of your heart away. Things like caring about what other people think, helping people, caring about what happens to people just holding doors. It takes some of that away. When I was little, I used to do that shit. I'm not like that anymore."