The union representing counselors who work at a city juvenile custody facility say its members are at risk of serious injury from the inmates and are calling for a shake-up in the system.
Included in the changes the union is demanding are the resignations of the acting commissioner and deputy commissioner of the city's Department of Human Services (DHS).
"We are going to file a safety grievance," said Lorenzo North, president of Local 159, which represents prison guards and counselors at the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Service Center's Youth Study Center in West Philly. "Everyone at this table believes these kids shouldn't fall under DHS, they should fall under the Department of Corrections."
Five counselors at the Youth Study Center told Metro they are not allowed to use physical force to defend themselves when attacked, and the inmates, some of whom are as old as 21, aren't disciplined.
The counselors said some of the prisoners at the youth detention center are adults, charged in shootings, assaults and even murder, who served time in prisons and city jails, yet are housed with minors accused of minor offenses such as truancy -- sometimes even in the same cell.
"They are bringing the natures of their adult crimes to the Youth Study Center," one counselor said. "That's not a juvenile."
"Not only do they not have any respect for adults, there's no consequences for his actions," another said. "You're putting me in danger."
A third added, "Try to counsel somebody that's driving a better car than you and selling drugs."
An attack in March on one counselor, Anthony Table, left the man with a concussion and his nose broken. His co-workers, who all declined to be identified due to fear of retaliation, said the youth responsible was never punished and was able to use a center phone shortly after the attack. Another attack occurred within days.
Last Friday, North said, a new counselor was punched in the face through his glasses, sustaining a black eye.
"This s--- is happening so frequently that the kids are spreading the word that nothing's going to happen to them," one counselor said.
About 25 counselors per shift guard a population of approximately 140 youths, ranging in age from 13 to 21, North said. Some counselors can be assigned "mandatory overtime" -- working up to eight days in a row, which can include three double-shifts in a row, he added. The counselors all said newly hired, less experienced counselors face the highest risk of violence from youths.
North said he met with DHS acting commissioner Jessica Shapiro, as well as deputy commissioner Timene Farlow, who directly oversees the Youth Justice Center, to air his grievances.
"Her position was they're only sweet innocent children. She thinks that they're foster kids. She doesn't have no concern about the staff," he said of Shapiro. "The mayor needs to take a long hard look at whether we should be under DHS."
DHS spokeswoman Alicia Taylor acknowledged there was a meeting between union leadership and the commissioners recently, but said "no one voiced any concerns about Farlow's leadership at that time."
"We never want to have our workers injured while on duty, however when these unfortunate incidents have occurred Deputy Commissioner Farlow has handled each case appropriately including looking at any steps we can take to prevent another such incident," Taylor said. "It is unfortunate that the union has chosen to air these concerns first with a newspaper rather than with the appropriate leadership at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS). We have an open door policy with the union and will gladly meet with them again upon request."