How California Teens Wound Up at Pennsylvania School Accused of Battering Students

02:21
Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 3 years old.
An aerial view of the central campus area at the Glen Mills Schools outside Philadelphia. (Google Earth)

F

or years, counties throughout the Bay Area and California have been sending teenage boys in trouble with the law to a Philadelphia-area institution that is now the target of allegations of widespread physical abuse.

Those placements continued in some cases despite the findings of an unannounced June 2016 inspection by California officials that staff at the Glen Mills Schools routinely punished boys for behavior such as biting their lips, flinching or shifting their eyes while talking to counselors.

The punishment sometimes took the form of physically restraining students or forcing them to sit for long periods in violation of regulations that limit such techniques to situations where the teens are "assaultive" or endangering themselves or others.

Those findings were summarized in a brief report on the inspection visit to Glen Mills, considered the nation's oldest "reform school" for male youth.

"Under no circumstances shall physical restraints be used as disciplinary action," MaryJo Tobola, a California Department of Social Services official, wrote in the June 17, 2016, summary.

By the department's definition, permissible restraints for an assaultive juvenile or one posing a danger could range from staff members positioning themselves to limit a teen's movement to use of "mechanical devices" to placing a juvenile in a seclusion room.

But "physical restraints" at Glen Mills reportedly went far beyond such methods.

In February, a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation reported allegations of beatings and other extreme physical abuse by some Glen Mills staff members and efforts by the school's officials to cover them up.

"We have repeatedly heard from numerous youth that Glen Mills staff would use the term 'physical restraint' to include punching, choking, body slamming, head butting and painfully limiting the movement of youth from 'violations,' including not 'shutting up' and not tying shoes," said Nadia Mozaffar, a staff attorney at the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, among several groups that have filed lawsuits against the institution. "At Glen Mills, 'physical restraint' was a euphemism for physical assault."

Pennsylvania regulators have revoked the school's permits, and juveniles housed at the institution have been pulled out and sent elsewhere.

"That's the horrific point of all of this — that everyone anecdotally heard these stories. It was so prevalent," said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, which also represents Glen Mills plaintiffs. "There should have been alarm bells going off for everyone."

Marsha Levick, Juvenile Law Center chief legal officer, speaks at a press conference along with Maura McInerney, Education Law Center legal director (center) on April 11.
Marsha Levick, Juvenile Law Center chief legal officer, speaks at a press conference along with Maura McInerney, Education Law Center legal director (center) on April 11. (Courtesy Juvenile Law Center)

California Used Glen Mills For Decades

More than a dozen counties in California, including several in the Bay Area, have sent scores of boys to the school, according to interviews with local probation officials and a review of publicly available California Department of Social Services records.

A state report that identified "deficiencies" at Glen Mills in 2016 said that supervisors there told inspectors they would make it clear to their staff that the abusive behavior needed to stop.

"If not corrected, these violations will have direct and immediate risk to the health, safety or personal rights of youth in care," Tobola of the CDSS wrote.

But weeks after the inspection, the agency extended its certification of Glen Mills for another year. The Department of Social Services went on to extend the certification over the next several years as well.

Michael Weston, a CDSS spokesman, said Glen Mills eventually completed a plan of correction by training its staff on the appropriate use of restraints.

Daniel Macallair, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, says California regulators may have been reluctant to hold Glen Mills accountable.

In part, he said, that's because of the limited number of placement options the state has. But it's also because abuses are not uncommon.

"There's some reluctance to push too hard, to open too many doors or look under too many rugs," Macallair said. "If we were to pull the curtain back all the way, we'd have to shut the entire system down, because these are the kinds of things that happen in these places."

In February, the Inquirer's story pulled the curtain back on numerous incidents in which teens sent to Glen Mills were battered and brutalized by the school's staff.

The episodes included cases in which staff injured two boys at the school so severely they needed staples to close scalp wounds. In another case, the Inquirer said, a teen required stitches in his back after a staff member pushed him through a plate glass window. Another reported episode involved a counselor stepping on a boy's face, breaking his jaw.

The Inquirer story led to calls for the school to close and raised questions over whether Pennsylvania regulators had ignored abuse at the school.

In March 16 juveniles from California were among the hundreds pulled out of the school after it lost its Pennsylvania licenses, according to Ali Fogarty, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

Last Friday, Weston told KQED that state social services officials have launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Glen Mills.

The outcome of that probe could lead California regulators to revoke the school's license to take in kids from the state.

Santa Cruz Abuse Case

One of the boys profiled in the Philadelphia Inquirer series was Nathan Thomas, who was 16 when he was sent to Glen Mills from Santa Cruz in 2011.

Thomas told the paper that counselors liked to bash students' heads into the door of a refrigerator.

He said one day a counselor overhead him talking with another boy about abuse at the facility. The staff member took him to the refrigerator, which was dented by the heads of his fellow students. Thomas said the staff member slammed his head into the door, choked him and spit in his face. A second counselor slapped him, Thomas said.

Jason Hoppin, a Santa Cruz County spokesman, said he could not comment on specific abuse allegations. But he added that probation staff occasionally hear complaints of abuse during state-mandated monthly visits to facilities outside California.

In those cases, Santa Cruz officials refer the complaints to child protective agencies in the jurisdictions where the facilities are located, Hoppin said.

"We have given a client a code word to use to relay any concerns he may have had about his situation," Hoppin said. "We hate to hear about this kind of stuff, and we act quickly and thoroughly when we do hear complaints like that."

The county has sent eight juvenile offenders to Glen Mills in the last decade, Hoppin said. He added that the county has a limited number of beds in its own jurisdiction and few options statewide.

"We use out-of-state group homes as a last resort. Santa Cruz County would prefer to keep kids locally," Hoppin said.

Bay Area Counties 

San Francisco officials have sent at least 30 boys to Glen Mills over the last decade, according to the city's top juvenile probation official, who said he hasn't heard of problems from any of them.

"We actually were very fond of Glen Mills," said Allen Nance, San Francisco's chief probation officer. "In fact, among our juvenile justice practitioners, Glen Mills was one of the more popular placement sites for some of our most difficult-to-place youth."

The city placed juveniles in the Pennsylvania school because in-state facilities failed to meet their needs, Nance said. Some of the kids in the system who have dealt with extreme trauma or have been diagnosed with "conduct disorder" were sent to Glen Mills, he said.

When San Francisco probation staff made their required monthly visits to Glen Mills, Nance said, there were never any complaints of abuse or neglect.

Like Santa Cruz County, San Francisco stopped using Glen Mills in 2016.

"The incidents of concern came up long after we had discontinued our utilization of Glen Mills," Nance said.

Sponsored

Nance said his department wanted to keep kids closer to home, reduce the number of out-of-state facilities it uses and choose others that offer more clinical services.

Santa Clara County sent around 45 boys to Glen Mills between 2002 and 2018, according to Michael Simms, deputy chief of the county probation department's juvenile service division.

Simms did not answer specific questions about how many complaints the county got from youth sent to Glen Mills.

"We always follow up immediately on any credible accusations, which is consistent with our current response," Simms said in an emailed statement. "We expect our youth to be treated with exemplary care and will not allow them to remain in any environment that does not provide such care."

In 2014 Alameda County had eight boys at Glen Mills and in 2015 the county had 13 teens at the facility, according to state reports. Officials there did not reply to a series of emailed questions about the boys' placements.

Teens From Southern California, Central Valley

Officials in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Imperial, Kern, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties have all sent children to Glen Mills.

L.A. County officials did not respond to requests for comment, but a county official disclosed two investigations into abuse complaints at Glen Mills during a Commission for Institutional Inspections meeting in 2017.

That was the same year that, according to the Inquirer, a 17-year-old Los Angeles boy tried to run away from the 800-acre facility.

The newspaper reported that staff found the boy in the woods and took him to a school stairwell, where four counselors took turns sitting on his chest. The staff choked and punched him, the Inquirer said. He told the paper he could barely leave his bed for weeks.

"We have sent male youth to this facility for well over a decade," said TR Merickel, Kern County's chief probation officer, who estimated that around 40 boys from the county have stayed at Glen Mills during that time.

"We have never received any reports or allegations of staff abuse from the youth placed there," Merickel said.

San Joaquin County has averaged between five and seven youths per year at Glen Mills since 1999, according to Steve Jackson, a county chief probation officer.

"San Joaquin County takes all allegations of abuse very seriously," Jackson said. "At the time of this news article our county had one youth in the program who was getting ready to graduate."

Jackson said his agency was not aware of any complaints from young people it sent to Glen Mills.

Jeff Kettering, Merced County's chief probation officer, said the county sent several juveniles to Glen Mills and heard only positive feedback about the facility.

Officials at the other county probation offices did not respond to requests for comment.

How Out-of-State Placement Works

A 1998 California law requires state regulators to certify out-of-state facilities where juveniles are placed and directs the Department of Social Services to investigate allegations of abuse at those locations.

The next year the department first certified Glen Mills.

Currently, there are more than two dozen certified group homes in 10 states where county social services and probation departments can place foster children and juvenile wards "whose needs cannot be met" in California facilities.

"Every time a kid from California is placed out of state by the juvenile court, the court has to make a finding on the record that there is no place in California that can meet their kids' needs," said Jim Salio, chief probation officer in San Luis Obispo County and the former president of the Chief Probation Officers of California.

Some youth advocates say California probation officials use facilities like Glen Mills to send tough-to-treat teens as far away as possible.

"They want to get them out of town," said Macallair with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. "Sending them to the East Coast is one way. It takes the problem off your hands."

Counties pay most out-of-California facilities between $6,000 and $9,000 a month per placement, according to state regulators and county officials. That money is made up of federal, state and county funds.

"You would think that in California we would have programs that could meet the needs of children in California and we wouldn't have to send them out of state. But that's not true," said Salio.

"It's kind of mind-blowing. How come California can't meet the needs of their own children? What are we missing in our system?" he asked.

Salio said county probation officials and the state should invest in keeping kids closer to their own communities and move away from the group-home model to short-term residential treatment programs.

Juvenile Advocates 

Advocates who are pressing for juvenile justice reform agree. They say local probation officials should not be sending juveniles all the way across the country.

"In the juvenile justice context, it is much better to serve students within their communities, within smaller local facilities," said Mozaffar, of the Juvenile Law Center.

McInerney, of the Education Law Center, said long-distance transfers of young people go against efforts to make juvenile justice rehabilitative.

"What we should be doing is ensuring that there are options within the community, smaller settings where there can be better oversight," McInerney said.

Mozaffar and McInerney say Californians who stayed at Glen Mills have not reported abuses to them yet.

"We heard of extreme fear from everyone that if they told someone, that things would be worse for them," Mozaffar said.

A representative for Glen Mills did not respond to a request for comment.

The school disputes the allegations of wrongdoing and has appealed the decision by Pennsylvania regulators to revoke its permits.

Clarification: This story originally reported that several dozen juveniles from California were pulled from Glen Mills in March. That's because a California Department of Social Service spokesman said there were 36 juveniles at the school in 2018. But after the story published, a representative of the Pennsylvania Department of Department of Human Services said there were 14 juveniles from California at Glen Mills before the school was ordered to remove them.

You can find more on the Philadelphia Inquirer's investigation into Glen Mills and its aftermath by visiting the author page of the reporter who broke the story, Lisa Gartner.