State-run youth facility in Poconos fails to report breach of running water for 2 weeks

Pat Loeb
August 13, 2019 - 5:15 pm

BTRmc/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Plumbing problems at a state-run youth detention facility in the Poconos left 49 young residents with no running water for two weeks — a condition the state failed to report to the counties responsible for the residents.

The state brought in portable toilets and bottled water to the Youth Forestry Camp #2 in White Haven, from July 25 to Aug. 8. It informed the counties about what had occurred in a letter dated Aug. 9. 

"I was distressed by the utter lack of communication given the amount of time in which they first began to have a problem with the water pressure, and that notification hadn't occurred really to anybody, to any of the counties or the children's families," said Philadelphia Human Services Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa. Sixteen of the residents were from Philadelphia.

Figueroa said the city became aware of the situation late last Wednesday, when a lawyer for one of the residents told the city his client had mentioned, in passing, that he hadn't been able to take a shower in a while.

"We immediately contacted the state," Figueroa said. "There were some inconsistencies in the information we were getting about the water, so we actually sent staff physically out to White Haven because we wanted to talk to the kids directly and hear from them."

By the time the staff arrived on Thursday, she said repairs had been made and there were flushable toilets, but the water in the pipes was not yet safe to drink.

The next day, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services sent a letter to local youth agencies saying, "a series of issues related to its onsite well and water storage tank ... resulted in periods of time when the water flow was interrupted and/or the pressure was low."

The letter said the youth were able to use the showers and toilets except for two days, when a pump was removed so a new one could be installed. 

"At present, full function has been restored and the water is undergoing testing to ensure potability," the letter assured.

DHS added in a statement to KYW Newsradio on Tuesday that the storage tank leak interrupted water flow and created low water pressure, but the department says water access was not totally disrupted. "The facility’s toilets and showers were functional other than during the repair times," which occurred in the evenings, according to DHS.

"The water storage tank was repaired on July 29," continued the statement, "however, it was identified that the well pump needed to be replaced, which occurred on August 6, 2019. Bottled water continued to be used during this time and until the water was confirmed potable."

The conditions would have been a violation of state regulations for a private provider. The Pennsylvania Code Chapter 3800.88 requires running water in facilities that serve youth. 

In the midst of the water issue, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order on July 31 to overhaul the residential placement system for youth. 

“We’ve heard and seen the horror stories," he said in a statement at the time. "Many stem from a government too eager to serve the needs of institutions and too reluctant to serve the needs of people. I am taking executive action to make changes that will stop the system from failing Pennsylvanians most in need of our protection and care."

The order created an Office of Advocacy and Reform and a new child advocate position. The Council on Reform was to report back to the governor with recommendations for improvements by the end of the year.

Figueroa hopes one of its recommendations will be that state-run facilities are subject to the same regulations as facilities licensed by the state.

"At a minimum, state-secured facilities — even though they're not licensed under those regulations — they should operate with the same expectations," she said.