This guest post is part of our ASC blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco, CA, November 13-16.
By Michaela Soyer, author of Lost Childhoods: Poverty, Trauma, and Violent Crime in the Post-Welfare Era
In February 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article about abuse of juvenile offenders at Glenn Mills Schools in Pennsylvania. The young recalled a pattern of abuse that sounded familiar to me. They talked about being led behind closed doors where they were beaten up, thrown against walls and intimidated to keep quiet. Five years earlier when I interviewed incarcerated young men for my second book project Lost Childhoods, I had heard the same stories. Six out of the thirty youths that enrolled in my study had passed through Glenn Mills and they either experienced or witnessed extreme physical violence there.
The cornerstone of the Glen Mills philosophy is a confrontational form of pedagogy. The school had established a buddy system in which each student is assigned a “buddy” to accompany him as he moves between different parts of the campus. The youths were supposed to hold each other accountable (1). While the young men I interviewed were at Glen Mills, staff protocol adhered to the “seven levels of confrontation.” Level seven, the final form of confrontation, allowed staff to physically restrain youths (Foerstner and Weidner 2005). Being allowed to cross physical boundaries seemed to have enabled staff members to resort to regular physical violence discipline the children in their care. The young men were easy victims. As Conner, who spent approximately two years at Glenn Mills explained to me, the attitude among students is: “Don’t complain like no little girl […] you go back there behind those doors [and] when you come out, everybody bet been telling you ‘alright. I got my ass whipped. I am going to be a grown man about it”
I called “childLine”, the telephone hotline set up to report child abuse in Pennsylvania but I did not expect anything to happen. There had been multiple prior allegations of abuse at Glenn Mills. The institution remained open even when the state of Connecticut stopped sending youths there because of the physical violence a Connecticut youths had been subjected while he was housed at Glenn Mills (2).
As a result of Lisa Gartner’s reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer the facility has been shut down and I am filled with a sense of relief. It is important that an institution that has physically abused children will remain closed forever. Resonating the theme of this years’ ASC, closing the facility may confront the immediate injustice. However, dismantling Glenn Mills does nothing to address the systemic inequalities that shape young men’s pathways into criminal behavior. As I describe at length in “Lost Childhoods”, the youths I interviewed were traumatized by abject poverty, parental neglect and neighborhood violence. When they arrived at Glenn Mills the abuse they experienced there, seemed almost negligible given what they already had to endure.
It is scandalous that children were abused at Glenn Mills and that authorities neglected to follow up on apparent leads. Yet, even more shocking is the fact that many of the young men who passed through this institution were grateful to be there. Mismanaged juvenile justice institutions like Glenn Mills are only a symptom of a society that has cut the social safety net to minimum and leaves struggling family with little else but food stamps to survive on. If we take this years’ ASC theme seriously and truly want to confront “Injustice and Inequalities”, we not only have to reform or close dysfunctional criminal justice institutions, we also have to address the disadvantage and neglect many juvenile offenders experience from early childhood on.
- See Glen Mills brochure, 2015, at www.glenmillsschool.org/pdfs/GMSBrochure_2015.pdf (accessed November 11th, 2019). It is notable that the 2015 brochure does not mention any of the confrontational strategies.
- https://ctmirror.org/2012/10/22/sending-children-live-out-state-whose-decision-it/, accessed Nov 11th 2019.