A safe haven has emerged in Delaware County — the Delaware County Emergency Youth Academy Shelter (DCEYA), located in Chester, PA. The address will not be made public to ensure the safety of the youth. This carefully designed space is a welcoming haven for youth involved in the foster care system and concurrently with the juvenile justice system, offering temporary housing with a touch of compassion. From the secure entrance to the thoughtful room arrangements and supportive staff, every detail reflects a commitment to creating a nurturing environment where youth can find comfort, support, and encouragement.

Upon stepping through the entrance, the front desk, akin to an apartment building’s or college dormitory’s security system, sets the tone for a secure yet comforting atmosphere. While youth are permitted to leave DCEYA, curfew rules and court orders still guide their movements, ensuring their safety and wellbeing.

Managed by the Refuse to Quit program (RTQ), DCEYA provides housing for youth aged 12-18, offering 24 beds in separate wings by gender. Each room, designed for two occupants, provides private bathrooms, a television, and lockable closets, with the added personal touch of allowing youth to decorate their space as they please. Notably, the shelter includes single rooms designed for youth who identify as nonbinary or transgender, emphasizing inclusivity. The commitment to the rights and inclusivity of the youth in their care is also visually evident through the display of the Children’s Rights statement and statements of LGBTQ+ acceptance.

Comprehensive care is at the forefront, with a youth-to-staff ratio of 6:1. The staff, trained in trauma-informed care, ensures that every youth feels seen and heard. Services include case management, on-site or virtual medical assessments, and transportation support for court visits and medical appointments.

The shelter’s spaces are designed with the well-being of the youth in mind. The Zen room, with abundant natural light, serves as a library and a venue for yoga sessions and relaxation. For communal activities, a well-equipped room with a large table, books and a big screen TV with a gaming system creates a space for community and connection. DCEYA staff mention during VFC’s recent tour that they take pride in their constant engagement with youth and it is what makes DCEYA feel like a community. Additionally, daily community meetings, game nights, and outings to the local Boys and Girls Club contribute to a sense of normalcy. The shelter employs a strength-based environment, introducing a point system that encourages positive behavior, with rewards ranging from raffle tickets to prizes.

The tour also revealed that DCEYA is more than just a haven; it’s a place where youth can rebuild their lives with dignity, respect, and support. As one of the first restorative placements in Delaware County not based on punitive principles, every detail has been considered to ensure that youth not only find shelter but also receive the encouragement and resources needed to move forward in life, including life skills. Currently, a youth has maintained her job at Target and another youth was recently hired.

The DCEYA staff, composed of trauma-informed professionals, including clinical social workers, demonstrates a commitment to understanding and addressing the unique needs of the youth under their care. However, during discussions with VFC’s Policy and Advocacy Coalition Director, they expressed a desire to enhance transitional services for youth entering and leaving DCEYA. The 30-day expected stay, while providing immediate support, poses a challenge in delivering the comprehensive services essential for long-term success.

Recognizing the limitations, it has become evident that the well-being of Delaware County youth involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems could be significantly improved with additional support structures like the Crisis Access Link Model (CALM) and Clinical Transition and Stabilization Services (CTSS), currently operational in Philadelphia.

CALM addresses immediate and underlying factors contributing to behavioral issues, incorporating the youth’s community in their progress. CTSS provides targeted therapeutic interventions, equipping youth with coping mechanisms and social skills to improve their mental health and well-being. The integration of both CALM and CTSS have the potential to bridge the gap for dependent youth, providing the necessary support to help them thrive in their homes, schools, and communities. As we envision a brighter future, the integration of these service models could be a transformative step towards ensuring that Delaware County’s youth receive the holistic care they truly need, minimizing the likelihood of re-referral to places like DCEYA or more restrictive and punitive facilities.