Why #SafelyHomePhilly?

Katherine Burdick, Esq.,
Four youth advocates holding a sign reading "youth are like birds, we need support to fly."

Yesterday, Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym convened a hearing on institutional placements for Philadelphia youth. Juvenile Law Center staff and youth advocates Lilly, Jihid and Qilah joined with youth activists, advocates, and our partners at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) to offer testimony on why and how we should stop sending our youth away to harmful facilities. Juveniles for Justice Youth Advocate Lilly testified yesterday: “My mother thought going to a juvenile holding facility would be good for me. She thought I would be safe. She didn’t realize I would be abused, strip-searched, mistreated, or that I wouldn’t be able to continue my education.”

The most recent DHS data shows 1,313 Philadelphia youth are in institutions and group homes - most, but not all, are placed across Pennsylvania. Twenty-two are out of state—even as far away as Utah according to Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey. On the whole, these institutional placements are dangerous, ineffective, overused, and expensive. They create a host of problems for youth when they re-enter the community—for example, youth often don’t receive credit for the school work they complete while in the institution. They especially hurt youth of color (Ms. Bradford-Grey noted that more than 7 out of 10 youth in the Philadelphia juvenile justice system are Black), youth with disabilities, LGBTQ youth, and youth with multiple marginalized identities.

For too long, this problem has escaped public attention and outrage.

Because of this, a newly formed coalition has launched the #SafelyHomePhilly campaign.  #SafelyHomePhilly represents a commitment to providing every young person in Philadelphia the services to meet their individual needs in their community, in Philadelphia, rather than sending youth across the state to one-size-fits-all institutions that too often do more harm than good.

Common sense alternatives to institutional placements are out there. They’re cost effective, and they work. The #SafelyHomePhilly campaign embraces the tenets of the Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.’s national Safely Home Campaign, with the goal of replacing harmful institutions with strengths-based, trauma informed programs that keep youth in their homes, schools, and communities. Jurisdictions from Lucas County, Ohio to New York City to California are already forging this path to improve outcomes for young people. Philadelphia is well positioned to build off and perfect these reforms to become a national model.

What is #SafelyHomePhilly asking for? Yesterday, we asked City Council to help us with the following:

  • Work together to solve this problem. With fellow advocates and the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, we announce a citywide taskforce dedicated to this issue. We asked City Council to help ensure all relevant stakeholders—including city agencies, family court judges, prosecutors, defenders and other advocates, health care professionals, and community members—are at the table and actively engaged.  In particular, the taskforce must center the voices of youth and families in all aspects of the reforms. The taskforce must set ambitious, measurable goals. We asked City Council to provide needed oversight by requiring the taskforce to report on its progress within one year.
  • Reinvest funds currently spent on institutional placement into community based, trauma-informed alternatives. Almost any service offered in an institution can be offered more cheaply in the community. We asked Council to approve city agencies’ future budget requests that invest in our communities, using taxpayer dollars to build up the programs and resources that can meet our kids’ needs right here, rather than spending them to send youth across the state.
  • Reassess existing contracts with placement providers. As long as any children remain in institutional settings, we need mechanisms to ensure that they are safe and their needs are being met. We asked Council to support our city agencies in reviewing contracts with providers to ensure placements and programs are meeting the health, safety, developmental, and educational needs of youth.
  • Be a voice for Philadelphia youth at the state level. We need to change the way our state agencies license and monitor facilities and the schools inside them. We asked Council to advocate for those changes with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and Pennsylvania Department of Education.

In positive news, momentum is building in Philadelphia. Agency leaders have spoken out against working in silos, instead taking a “village” approach to reform. Dramatic, lasting change is within our grasp. We applaud the leadership of Councilmember Helen Gym in convening this hearing, and we look forward to working together with all relevant stakeholders to bring our youth safely home.

There’s much more coming from the #SafelyHomePhilly movement – stay tuned.

About the Expert

Kate Burdick is a Senior Attorney at Juvenile Law Center with over a decade of experience advocating for youth in the justice and child welfare systems. She first started at Juvenile in 2009 as the eighth Sol and Helen Zubrow Fellow in Children's Law, then later served as an Equal Justice Works Fellow (sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP) and Staff Attorney. Between fellowships, she served as a law clerk to the Honorable Michael M. Baylson of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. 

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