What to Know
- David Hess' death was ruled a homicide by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office in 2017.
- He was suffocated by staffers at Wordsworth who accused the teen of stealing an iPod.
- The teen died on Oct. 13, 2016.
More than two years after 17-year-old David Hess asphyxiated during a struggle with staffers at a Philadelphia residential care facility, no charges have been filed, police said.
His death was ruled a homicide by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office in February 2017.
But on Monday, law enforcement sources told NBC10 a suspect has not been arrested.
When NBC10 asked the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS) to confirm that no charges were filed, an official was stunned to learn the case had stagnated. A spokesperson from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
The circumstances surrounding Hess’ final moments are well documented in a state report issued shortly after his death. He suffocated after a violent clash with Wordsworth Academy employees, who accused the teen of stealing an iPod, the report said.
A confrontation ensued when employees at the facility entered his room in search of the missing gadget. Hess’ legs were restrained while a staff member punched the teen in the ribs, according to the report.
Hess pleaded with them to stop. He couldn’t breathe, the report said.
Hess died on Oct. 13, 2016, about 80 miles away from his family in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.
Change, Too Late for Some
Stories like these have prompted a shift within Philadelphia’s child-serving agencies.
On Monday, the police department secured a $1 million grant to implement a new program aimed at keeping more children out of the criminal justice system by providing faster connections to diversion programs and referrals for at-risk juveniles to intervention services for housing, food, mental health counseling and other areas of need.
Meanwhile, city council, the district attorney, Mayor Jim Kenney, DHS and the police department are now working together on solutions to keep more of Philadelphia’s vulnerable youth closer to home.
This renewed contract to work together comes at a time when many members of Philadelphia's law enforcement community, including District Attorney Larry Krasner, are relative newcomers. It is an opportunity to start fresh, DHS commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said.
But for teens like Hess, the movement came too late.
His death, inside a residential facility for youth with behavioral health needs, sparked immediate action that has not necessarily extended to adolescents in similar facilities.
After Hess died, officials from both the state and local DHS launched their own investigations. Wordsworth was shut down and youth advocates were left to wonder what would come next for a system overburdened with children in need.
Oversight of these facilities ultimately rests with the state DHS. But with dozens of centers throughout the commonwealth and a tentacular system involving courts, social workers, advocates, lawyers and families, sometimes kids fall through the cracks.
Last month, two former employees of Glen Mills Schools were charged with choking a student.
In a separate incident at a Loysville, Pennsylvania, facility, a teen was beaten, arrested and then put into an adult jail. He remained there for nearly two months before a public defender was able to secure his release based on surveillance video.
The footage, later made public by the Defender’s Association of Philadelphia, showed employees hitting a teen while he sat in a chair.
Two youth sitting nearby stood up and found new seats as the attack continued.
“This is normal to them,” Philadelphia’s chief public defender Kier Bradford-Grey said after showing the video during a May city council hearing. “This is what happens in these placements.”
The teen was then taken to another room where employees pinned him against a wall before dragging him to the ground and repeatedly striking him. After, he was taken to a third room. The attack continued with several adult men jumping on top of the teen, the video showed.
'We Failed Them'
For teens like that one, what was meant to be a rehabilitative experience turned into trauma.
“In fact, it exacerbated his issues,” Bradford-Grey said. “Sometimes, we are sending kids to these facilities because they have dependent needs and they are coming out with criminal convictions.”
In 2017, the defender’s association represented 1,743 youth charged with criminal offenses and handled 3,827 cases involving child neglect or abuse in Philadelphia.
Those cases were initially reported through a hotline operated by the city’s Department of Human Services. Last year, the agency received 35,706 such reports. More than 17,700 were deemed serious enough to warrant an investigation by a social worker, DHS said.
As of June 30, nearly 6,000 youth were placed in DHS care and more than 900 had been sent to residential facilities throughout the state. These include minors who are delinquent, such as those who have committed crimes, and minors who are dependent on the state to care for them.
The defender’s association and Philadelphia DHS work in tandem to visit facilities throughout the state and ensure the well being of adolscents living there. Like many teens, the residents are hesitant to speak openly with adults about their experiences. But unlike many of their peers, these kids fear retaliation from abusive staffers.
“We failed them,” Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym said.
Gym, a vocal advocate for local youth, has helped launch a task force that will examine Philadelphia's child-serving facilities in hopes of improving the overall juvenile justice system.
“They become extremely vulnerable so that when they don’t have family members advocating for them, they can be perceived as being … throwaway children.”
Lilly Jimenez knows that feeling all too well. The 16-year-old first went into placement shortly after turning 13 years old. She spent time in two different facilities. In one, staff let students fight off campus where they couldn’t be seen, she said. Sometimes, residents were pepper-sprayed. Worms writhed in her food, Jimenez said.
On at least one occasion, Jimenez was body-slammed by an employee. She was strip-searched and her neck burned with a hair iron. When Jimenez had a seizure, it took 10 minutes before a staffer, not a nurse, came in to offer water.
Nearly three years later, Jimenez is now a youth advocate with Juveniles for Justice, which is operated out of Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center. She still has trouble at school and is taking remedial level classes, Jimenez said. She doesn’t trust adults.
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” she said. “I didn’t think anything would be done if I did speak up.”
This is the first in a continuing series. Follow along as NBC10 continues to investigate solutions being undertaken to protect Philadelphia’s most vulnerable youth.