7 Philly teens missing after escaping from Western Pa. juvenile facility

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Seven Philadelphia teenagers remained unaccounted for Thursday after escaping last week from a residential facility for troubled youths in rural Western Pennsylvania, authorities said.

Mark Houldin, policy director for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents five of the teens, said association officials were “deeply troubled” that so many escaped within days of each other — and that all remain at large more than a week later.

“This is highly unusual,” Houldin said. “We’re deeply concerned for their safety and well-being.”

The teens, all male, escaped from VisionQuest’s Lee Prep campus near Franklin, Venango County, about halfway between Erie and Pittsburgh, according to State Police. Three escaped sometime during the night April 16-17, police said, and authorities believe the other four fled April 20, stole a car, and were last seen on Interstate 80 in Clearfield County, about an hour’s drive from the campus.

The search for the teens comes as city and state officials, prompted by an Inquirer and Daily News investigation into Wordsworth, a now-shuttered residential treatment center in Philadelphia, have called for hearings to discuss potential reforms to the child welfare system.

State Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown (D., Philadelphia), one of the legislators pushing for those hearings, said Thursday that the escapes only furthered her resolve on the issue.

“We immediately [need] to get a hold of what’s happening with our children,” she said.

It was not immediately clear why the escapees had been placed at VisionQuest. Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services declined to say whether any of them was under the agency’s care, but a spokeswoman said 24 young people at the facility are served by the citys juvenile probation department.

Martin O’Rourke, spokesman for the First Judicial District, declined to say whether the teens had been ordered to VisionQuest by the courts. But he said that officials were “extremely concerned” by their escape, and that “the special warrant unit and others are taking all necessary steps” to find them.

A spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services said the agency was aware of the situation and was investigating, but did not elaborate.

Beth Rosica, VisionQuest’s vice president for administration, said the company was cooperating with DHS and police investigations. She also said the company was conducting its own probe of the situation and was helping in the search for the teens.

“Certainly any time kids abscond … that’s concerning,” she said.

Rosica said the Lee Prep campus, near the Allegheny River in a wooded area outside Franklin, typically houses about 35 children. Many have behavioral health challenges and juvenile criminal histories, she said, although the facility does not provide the same level of psychiatric treatment as so-called residential treatment facilities like Wordsworth.

Because Lee Prep is not a “locked facility,” Rosica said, residents occasionally run away. Still, she acknowledged that seven escapes in a week “is definitely an unusual situation.” The facility, she said, sometimes doesn’t have that many escapes in an entire year.

In the first escape, police records say, Alexander DeJesus, 18, Alexander Kentrell, 19, and Wilfredo Ramos, 18, “walked away from [the] facility without authorization.” The records did not indicate where any of the teens might have gone or how they fled undetected.

About three days later, four youths were discovered missing during a head count at 9 p.m., according to police records. The documents only name one of them, 18-year-old Zahmir Parker. The other three are described only as juvenile males in their late teens possibly wearing blue shirts and blue pants.

According to the records, the teens stole a white 2015 Jeep Patriot from a man’s driveway about three miles from VisionQuest after their escape. A few hours later, around 2 a.m., the records say, the SUV was seen on I-80, and police believe the teens were inside.

ORourke, the courts spokesman, said bench warrants had been issued and the search was ongoing.

State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Philadelphia), another legislator who earlier this week called for hearings about child welfare, said the escapes demonstrated the need to examine the entire system.

“Any facility where they’re taking children and putting them in the system … we want to know what’s happening,” he said.

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