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How Pa. failed to protect children from abuse in residential programs

The Investigator
Your exclusive guide to the best journalism in Pa.
October 10, 2019 | spotlightpa.org

This week's must-read comes from the Morning Call's Emily Opilo on the Allentown Diocese's moves to protect its $300M in real estate holdings. Plus, an exclusive Q&A with the Inquirer reporter who's been taking the state to task over its failed oversight of residential facilities for troubled youth.


“They’re attempting to elude any judgments that might impact their assets by transferring property.”

— Richard Serbin, an attorney who specializes in legal actions involving priest sex abuse, on moves by the Allentown Diocese to shield its real estate holdings

Behind the story: How Pa. failed for years to protect children from abuse in juvenile facilities

A Q&A with Lisa Gartner, an investigative reporter for The Inquirer

Q: What was the primary takeaway from your investigation?
A: The Glen Mills Schools is a privately run juvenile program that is licensed and monitored by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS). But the state agency faltered in virtually every way possible, allowing violence to go unchecked at Glen Mills and other programs like it throughout the state. What’s worse, many people tried to alert the government over the years to the abuses at Glen Mills, but their pleas went nowhere.
Q: How was the state failing to oversee these programs?
A: Complaints were coming in, but the state was failing to act. It dismissed all but a few child abuse complaints, in some cases ignoring evidence that abuse was occurring. Even when counselors were found to have abused kids, they had their cases overturned on appeal by claiming their actions weren’t “reckless.”
Q: Why was this failure in oversight able to continue for so many years?
A: The state conducted annual, announced inspections and only came to Glen Mills’ campus when an incident had already happened or a complaint had already been made. DHS allowed Glen Mills’ buildings to be separately licensed, so that six complaints of abuse within six months looked like one instance of abuse at each of the six different facilities.
Q: What’s being done to make sure this doesn’t happen again?
A: In response to our reporting, Pennsylvania has committed to overhauling DHS and the way it licenses and investigates private residential programs. The governor has created an ombudsman who will act as an independent authority outside DHS to help families file complaints and navigate the system.
Q: Why should taxpayers care about this issue?
A: DHS is a $39 billion agency funded by state and federal tax dollars. Private facilities receive millions to educate, house and reform youth so they don’t go on to commit more serious crimes as adults. Abusing these children and teenagers further criminalizes them and makes our communities less safe.

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Rebecca Moss
Investigative Reporter

What she covers: Environment, community and natural resources, labor and industry, Public Utility Commission

There is a small stone plaque in the grass along the Susquehanna River Trail in Harrisburg that reads, “We came here to work, not to die.” The right to live and work in a safe environment is a basic human right. But these protections are not always assured in Pennsylvania.
For Spotlight PA, I'll be examining the relationship between powerful industries and their influence on lawmakers and state agencies. How have policies and regulatory forces been reshaped by these relationships, and who is benefiting? Industry should not merely be measured by economic investments and jobs created, but also by the residual impacts on workers and the environment.
Whether industries are holding up their end of the bargain with communities — and whether the state is willing and able to oversee their environmental impact — are areas I intend to explore. If you are unsafe or disenfranchised at work, feel that your air or water is being compromised, or are concerned by how the government has responded to problems, I want to hear from you.

— Rebecca

» Email Rebecca at rmoss@spotlightpa.org, call her at 505-603-1143 or send a secure tip at spotlightpa.org/tips.
Only the best


Allentown Diocese taps little of its $300M real estate portfolio for abuse victims' compensation fund

The diocese has also moved key properties into trusts, which could limit exposure in a potential bankruptcy.


Anti-gerrymandering group in Pa. employs lobbyists with a history of gerrymandering

Pennsylvanians Against Gerrymandering says it's an advocate for fair, nonpartisan redistricting, but it has some unusual ties.

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