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The Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Center
City Council testimonies from counselors at Philly's Juvenile Justice Center painted a desperate, bleak picture of a facility in need of serious change. Photo: City of Philadelphia.

Philly Juvenile Detention Center workers report overcrowding, chaos to City Council

Counselors report understaffing, overcrowding, and the state DHS said it cannot afford to take in more youth.

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The Philadelphia Juvenile Detention Center in West Philly opened 10 years ago in an effort to replace the Youth Study Center on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, as a new facility that would stand as a model for how to safely and effectively house juveniles as they await their trials. 

However, counselors and workers are reporting to city officials that it is anything but that. 

On Thursday, Oct. 20, counselors from the center went to City Council to report some of the ongoing problems that currently plague the center, which include understaffing, overcrowding, insufficient beds, and violence. 

JSC employee Ebony Richards described to the council the current conditions as being “vile,” and added it is “outrageous and dangerous” to continue to allow the center to operate with the overcrowding, before concluding that she worries that not addressing the issues could lead to someone's death. 

The 184-bed facility is currently housing over 220 city youth with some as young as 10 years old. According to workers, 70 have already been sentenced to state facilities, but have not been transported. Counselor Karen Stokes told City Council that at times, there are only 17 people working at the facility when it should really be around 53. 

“We signed up to do this job, we want to do it, but we want to do it properly,” she said. 

The worker’s union representative David Robinson was also present on  Thursday to further speak on the issues plaguing the center. He offered an even more bleak instance of understaffing. 

“On certain days, there’s only four staff members that can report to work to watch over 240 individuals. 

Those testifying went on to put the blame on the Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration for neglecting to take custody of some of the youth who are already sentenced to state facilitie,s but still reside in the Philadelphia center. 

Additionally, the workers and counselors want to push for a resolution, which according to Councilmember Curtis Jones, would include suing the Wolf Administration over their neglect to address the conditions inside the center after months of trying to privately handle the matter. 

“There is no situation where it is acceptable for a facility built to house no more than 180 young people on a given day to have a regular census of 220 to 280 young people,” added Councilmember Jamie Gauthier. 

The State Department of Human Services released a statement regarding the matter, but said they too are dealing with overcrowding at their facilities, which is where the juveniles once sentenced are sent, and reiterated in their statement that they are not refusing to serve the juvenile youths. 

The department also said they would need more funding to help solve the issue as well as create a new plan for community-based temporary placements. 

“We must provide preventive services that address the many and complex needs of these youth and their families, including mental health services, housing and educational equity, poverty, and much more. Effective services within counties can greatly reduce the number of youths sent to congregate care each year,” the statement reads. 

The city has said that private negotiations to resolve the problem are currently underway.

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