New Probe Launched Into David Hess' Asphyxiation Death at Philadelphia Wordsworth Academy

Following abuse allegations at a Philly reform school, renewed attention is being given to the 2016 death of David Hess at Wordworth Academy

What to Know

  • David Hess died in October 2016 after a struggle with Wordsworth Academy staff.
  • The school was closed and his death was ruled a homicide, but no one was ever charged.
  • State officials have launched a new investigation into what happened.

Nearly three years after her little brother’s death at Philadelphia’s Wordsworth Academy, Elizabeth Hess still sees him everywhere.

Instead of closure, she has questions:

Why did David Hess die? Why has no one been charged or arrested even though officials ruled his death a homicide? Why did facility staff change their story twice about how David died?

Now, Elizabeth Hess could get some answers. In the wake of abuse allegations at another Philadelphia-area residential care facility, Glen Mills Schools, the Pennsylvania Office of the Inspector General has launched an investigation into what happened at Wordsworth, OIG spokesman Clarke Madden confirmed.

Madden could not comment on the open investigation but called it "a priority" for the office.

For Elizabeth and her family, it’s too little much too late.

“We’ve accepted that nothing is going to bring him back,” she said. “That’s the pill we’ve had to swallow — people walk around and get away with it. It’s a government agency and the government doesn’t seem to care.”

What happened to David Hess?

David was killed in October 2016 during an altercation with Wordsworth staffers. He was 17 years old. The deadly skirmish started when several employees accused him of stealing another student’s iPod.

“If you knew David, you knew that walking into his room, touching his stuff, was an automatic trigger,” Elizabeth said. “You had to learn him.”

According to his death report by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, David became agitated when staffers searched his room. He yelled and threw things. Wordsworth employees used force to subdue him. They punched him in the ribs and put him in a headlock. A witness heard David cry out that he couldn’t breathe.

This was not the first time David was restrained at Wordsworth. In his death report — which included interviews with nine youths plus counselors, nurses and emergency responders — a student said that an employee who “did not like David" had “punched him in the chest” two weeks earlier. Another youth reported that, a month before his death, an employee hit David in the face.

In the days following his death, David’s family was given different versions of what happened. First, they were told the teen died after falling out of bed and hitting his head. Wordsworth officials then said he hit his head during a fight with staffers and died as a result of his injuries.

The Philadelphia Medical Examiner Office, however, said he died from lack of oxygen.

"Everyone should have been arrested that night," Elizabeth said. "There was a murder."

Who was David Hess?

David was only a few years old when he came to live with his foster family in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, according to his sister. He suffered from schizophrenia and other mental health disorders that grew over time and proved too difficult for their parents to handle. As a result, David cycled in and out of residential care facilities for much of his 17 years.

Wordsworth was the last place he lived. He was sent there by Lebanon County. Elizabeth still questions whether the facility was fully equipped to meet his particular needs.

“Every single kid is troubled,” she said. “We just have to take away that label.”

If he hadn’t died on that October night in 2016, David would have been released a week later, Elizabeth said. They had been planning for that day. He wanted to be a firefighter.

“He was my baby,” she said. “He knew he was loved.”

Elizabeth cringes when she thinks about her brother’s time at Wordsworth. He wasn’t happy there, she said, and complained during phone calls about witnessing abuse. In many ways, the 17-year-old was just a big kid, she said. Tall and lanky with a baby face, he had severe mental health problems that not even his adopted parents could manage.

“My mother blames herself,” Elizabeth said. “She thought David would be safe there.”

What happened to Wordsworth Academy?

Wordsworth closed shortly after David’s death. According to an investigation by The Philadelphia Inquirer, police were summoned to Wordsworth more than 800 times for incidents ranging from minor disturbances and tripped fire alarms to rape in the span of a decade.

Police records showed reports of 12 rapes, two cases of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, seven reports of indecent exposure, four cases of corruption of the morals of a minor, and one case of child endangerment, according to the Inquirer. Police were called to investigate more than a dozen reports of sexual abuse and physical abuse against children.

Despite Wordsworth’s record, the state renewed the facility’s license repeatedly and children from across the country continued to be sent there, including David.

“The training, and the lack of training, of the people assigned to oversee these children is what struck me as outrageous,” attorney Steven Marino, who represented the Hess family in a civil suit against Wordsworth, said.

David’s death was a “tragedy” born out of “outrageous gross incompetence,” Marino added.

“There are rules that protect against that,” Marino said. “The juvenile justice centers are supposed to be governed by rules and procedures presented in the Pennsylvania code. It’s just a complete tragedy.”

Marino’s office settled in 2017 with Wordsworth for an undisclosed amount. This happened around the same time as the academy declared bankruptcy and the facility closed.

The nonprofit organization Public Health Management Corporation acquired what remained of Wordsworth in 2018 and continues to operate facilities in Philadelphia. It does not, however, operate a residential care facility similar to where David died, a spokesperson said.

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