Why Are So Many Children on Antipsychotic Drugs?

Illustration by Oliver Munday

Illustration by Oliver Munday

I had my first hallucination at 17, when I was studying Spanish in the Dominican Republic. I was walking down the street, about a half-block behind an old lady with a cart, when I saw someone attack her with a piece of wood, cracking her skull open so her brains leaked onto the pavement. I can still remember the way it looked — the bone and blood and wet gray matter. The hallucination couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. Days later, I started seeing bugs — roaches. A colony of them seemed to be living in my mattress, moving around inside it, making so much noise they kept me awake. One night, I even saw a roach the size of a rabbit skitter past the dinner table. I didn’t say a word.

The hallucinations came and went for the next few years, as I finished college and my first year of graduate school. At the same time, my daily life got increasingly distorted, as though I was watching TV through mottled glass. By my second year of grad school, the distortion was continuous, and a chaotic battle raged inside my head; the noise and confusion were almost unbearable. I went through the motions, but my connection to reality was tenuous: I pictured myself as a helium balloon tied to a fence by a frayed piece of string. A strong breeze, and I’d float away for good.

For many of those years, I didn’t know what the word “psychotic” meant, or that it applied to me. I thought it described a person who wore foil hats and believed the CIA was following him, like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. My psychosis had rougher contours, and no cinematic through-line. The only constant was the pain. I was finally admitted to a psychiatric facility after one particularly bad night in an emergency room where I cut curtains into ribbons and slashed a mattress with a knife I’d brought for protection — from what, I wasn’t sure. They quickly gave me Thorazine to ameliorate my agony, which I learned was psychosis, and the pills worked almost immediately, as though the burning knife of my pain had been dipped into cool water. The medication also sedated me so I was pliant and cow-like, which was just fine with me. I finally understood how the world might look without a frying pan clanging against my skull.

That was more than 20 years ago. Thorazine isn’t used as frequently today because of its side effects, most notably tardive dyskinesia (TD), which involves involuntary movements of the tongue, limbs, jaw or torso, like the incessant lip-smacking of the homeless woman I’d see on the bus as a kid. The drug had its heyday in the 1950s and early ’60s and since then has been unflatteringly memorialized in the phrase “Thorazine shuffle,” which became shorthand to describe the sedated, tremor-y walk of overmedicated psychiatric patients.

So though it worked in the moment, I couldn’t stay on Thorazine. And I didn’t have to: By the time I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed antipsychotics for what I was told would be the rest of my life, there were alternatives — the so-called “atypical” or second-generation antipsychotics (SGAs). These were said to have a lesser incidence of TD as well as fewer other side effects — though you couldn’t prove it by me. Yes, Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel quieted the noise inside my head, but the side effects were many and brutal. The weight gain was incredibly fast — I was 20 pounds heavier in a month. I was perennially congested and got addicted to nasal spray, which damaged my sinuses. I had to use fake saliva to manage my dry mouth. I suffered from constipation, headaches and mouth sores. I think the worst was when my bladder would freeze and I’d have to go to the ER to be catheterized. And did I mention I was tired? I was so, so, so tired. I took naps under my desk at work, curled on the floor with my coat as a blanket. It was like having the world’s longest hangover.

Such side effects from SGAs, I’d learn, weren’t unusual. When I worked in social services with people deemed “severely mentally ill,” I met many folks with these problems and a host of others, like diabetes and related metabolic issues. One woman needed a liver transplant. One guy, a Vietnam vet, wore loose clothing to disguise the fact that the drugs made him grow breasts.

At the same time, I saw remarkable transformations in people who were tortured by voices and delusions and then got clarity when they took the meds. Theirs was a compromised reality, yes, but for them — and for me — the decision to take the drugs seemed sort of like voting: picking the lesser of two evils. It’s a bit like getting chemo — miserable and toxic, but better than cancer.

The problem with the cancer analogy is this: Doctors don’t prescribe chemo for people who are cancer-free. So why are children without any hint of psychosis — in Philadelphia and around the country — being prescribed powerful antipsychotics at an alarming rate?

CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL OF PHILADELPHIA pediatrician David Rubin first began to wonder about the over-prescription of antipsychotic drugs in kids a few years ago when a four-year-old boy was brought to his office by a foster parent.

“He was really bright and loquacious,” remembers Rubin, the boyish and animated co-director of CHOP’s PolicyLab, an interdisciplinary research center that aims to shape child health-care policy. “If he didn’t like daycare, he would throw a Tonka truck at the teacher’s head. He knew that would get him put in the director’s office. He knew that violence and aggression would get a response.”

The little boy had recently been moved from a different foster home due to mysterious burns on his scalp. Now, the new foster parent was trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that the boy had been kicked out of multiple daycares. “A DHS health provider made the recommendation that the child needed to be on medication,” says Rubin. “We’re not just talking about a stimulant — the doctor was also initiating antipsychotics. And as a pediatrician, that just opened a Pandora’s box for me, because, like, are you kidding me? A four-year-old on antipsychotics?”

Rubin wondered if the recommendation for medication was less about treating an illness and more about forcing an unruly child into line. “Is this just a chemical restraint we’re trying to do on this child to keep him quiet in daycare?” he wondered. “And what’s the impact on the developing brain?”

The use of antipsychotics in children isn’t new. There are children who experience psychosis — whose attachment to an imaginary friend, say, indicates something more troubling than creative play. The drugs are generally approved for children and adolescents diagnosed with schizophrenia, some types of bipolar disorder, and irritability related to autism.

Despite increased sensitivity in the past 10 years or so to prescribing psychiatric medications to very young children, the use of antipsychotics among children and youth continues to rise. The New York Times recently reported that in 2014, almost 20,000 antipsychotic prescriptions were written for children two and younger — a 50 percent increase from 2013. Much of the time, children and adolescents get the drugs “off-label” — not for psychosis, but for more common problems like ADHD, for which the drugs are not approved. In fact, despite overheated media coverage of the dangers of drugging kids with stimulants like Ritalin, antipsychotic prescriptions for children and youths have grown at a greater rate than those for all other psych drugs, including stimulants. The most recently available numbers suggest that about 750,000 kids in the U.S. are on antipsychotics.

The phenomenon is particularly acute among society’s most vulnerable kids — those in foster care. As of 2009, Rutgers researchers discovered, 12.4 percent of foster kids were taking these sedating medications, compared with 1.4 percent of children who were on Medicaid but not in foster care and only one percent of kids with private insurance.

The problem, of course, is that while the drugs may be effective at controlling kids’ behavior, they potentially do so at a high cost to the kids. First are the side effects that I experienced and could barely manage as an adult — as well as the increased risk of major hormonal and metabolic changes like diabetes and obesity. Then there’s the fact that no one really knows the long-term effects of the drugs on the brain.

“Do they make people less aggressive? Yes, sometimes they do. Will they sedate people? Absolutely. Will they make kids easier to manage? They will,” says journalist Robert Whitaker, author of three books examining the history and practice of psychiatry. “But I know of no study that shows that medicating these kids long-term will help them grow up and thrive. The developing brain is a very delicate thing. The narrative is that these side effects are mild, and that’s just not true, and that the benefits are well-established, and so often they’re not.”

Though I knew children took psychotropic medication, I assumed they’d only get antipsychotics in dire circumstances. But in the past couple years, major news outlets have increasingly highlighted the surging use of antipsychotics in children without psychotic illness. Each headline I saw, each TV segment, stunned me. How could kids manage such harsh side effects? What would the drugs do to them as they grew up? The widespread use of the drugs among troubled children seemed both tragic and transparent, posing the obvious question: Are we helping these kids or just trying to get them to behave?

AS IT HAPPENS, Philadelphia is ground zero for much of the controversy around prescribing antipsychotics to children. For one thing, the groundbreaking research that has catalyzed media coverage and policy change has come out of CHOP’s PolicyLab. Additionally, Philadelphia is the center of a very high-profile legal battle against Johnson & Johnson, the maker of the SGA Risperdal. Hundreds of lawsuits are being brought by a Philadelphia lawyer in Philadelphia courtrooms on behalf of children who took Risperdal and then developed gynecomastia, or enlarged breast tissue in males. Last February, a Philadelphia jury awarded $2.5 million in damages to Austin Pledger, an autistic young man from Alabama who after years of treatment with Risperdal for his behavior problems developed size 46DD breasts. The cause of such breast growth, which is often irreversible, is the increase in the hormone prolactin.

I know something about elevated prolactin. When I was taking Risperdal, I missed several periods, and my body gave every indication I was pregnant — not welcome news at the time. When I saw my family doctor to confirm my suspicions, she first reviewed the meds I was taking. “Risperdal!” she said. “That’s it! Your body is mimicking pregnancy.”

I stopped taking the drug, and I stopped feeling pregnant. But young men like Austin Pledger aren’t so lucky; now in his 20s, he still hasn’t gotten a mastectomy. Pledger’s lawyer is Philadelphia-based Stephen Sheller, who’s been doing fierce battle with Johnson & Johnson on this issue for a decade. The 77-year-old Brooklyn native, who came to Philadelphia to go to Penn, is a legal Forrest Gump. He has represented Philadelphia’s Black Panthers during the Rizzo era, women who got cancer from the anti-miscarriage drug DES, patient families during deinstitutionalization, women who got faulty silicone breast implants, military victims of a defective Lyme disease vaccine, and workers with asbestos-related illness. He handled one of the first cases of equal pay for women. As if that isn’t enough, Sheller wound up filing the first lawsuit regarding the infamous Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election.

But all his high-profile experience couldn’t prepare him for what he witnessed with children and psychiatric drugs. The first time he saw gynecomastia for himself, he was shocked: “A mom comes into my office with a boy with these big breasts. What the hell is that?” Sheller has even had a couple cases, he says, in which boys grew third breasts.

Sheller’s pursuit of J&J was recently chronicled in Steven Brill’s 15-part series for Huffington Post Highline called “America’s Most Admired Lawbreaker.” The title refers to J&J’s current CEO, Alex Gorsky, who has come under increasing fire for his role in the company’s underhanded yet aggressive marketing of Risperdal for children. The series reads like a John Grisham novel, studded with damning emails and deeply cynical sales training manuals.

Johnson & Johnson has spent almost $3 billion to settle thousands of cases — both civil and criminal — involving promotion of Risperdal by Janssen, J&J’s pharmaceutical entity. But the company stands behind the drug: “The efficacy and safety of Risperdal for use in children and adolescents have been proven in multiple clinical trials,” says Janssen spokesperson Robyn Reed Frenze. “As recently as November 2014, the FDA stated that Risperdal is an important and beneficial therapeutic option for children and adolescents facing very challenging mental illnesses and neurodevelopmental disorders.” As for the Risperdal-related lawsuits, Frenze says, “Janssen will continue to defend itself in the ongoing litigation and will try cases where appropriate.”

At the moment, Steve Sheller estimates there are about 1,200 Risperdal lawsuits winding their way through Philadelphia courtrooms. In October, I went to City Hall to listen to some of the testimony, on a day when two Risperdal cases were being tried at the same time.

In one of the courtrooms, a 20-something man seated behind me was making a rhythmic kind of humming sound — not unpleasant, but noticeable. It turned out he was a plaintiff, and he has Tourette’s. Now a college senior, he’s already had a double mastectomy.

Sheller, his lawyer, isn’t opposed to using psychiatric medications in children, even antipsychotics. “There are times when you have kids who are very difficult,” he says. “You may have to calm them down, and I think there are plenty of medications that can do that, for a week, two weeks, that’s it. But never put them on Risperdal.” Sheller says he’s in the litigation against Janssen for the long haul: “I’m telling you, I will chew that bone forever. And then my daughters will chew it when I’m gone.”

SHELLER DOESN’T work much with kids in foster care, but if they had the financial wherewithal, he’d certainly have his hands full. According to CHOP’s David Rubin, “Fifty percent of the time that a clinician makes the decision to put a child who’s in foster care on a medication for a behavioral health issue, they include an antipsychotic.” Rubin isn’t saying such drugs never have a place in treatment. “But 50 percent of the time? That’s a ridiculous number.”

Various studies in the past five years offer more eye-popping numbers. Kids between the ages of 10 and 18 taking antipsychotics are 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes; the duration of antipsychotic use in foster kids is longer than it is for those not in foster care; white youths are 27 percent less likely than black youths to receive an antipsychotic in conjunction with another drug.

Given their disproportionate experiences of poverty, neglect and childhood trauma and years of bouncing from home to home, many foster children do have behavioral problems, and nuanced solutions for dealing with those issues can be limited. “Most of the clinicians I’ve talked to are really well-meaning, and they recognize that these medications work and are very powerful,” says Rubin. “They also recognize when they see a family in their office and the choice is the kid’s going to be thrown onto the street, go back to DHS or be thrown out of school.”

Doctors who work with foster kids may not have much time to generate more creative solutions. One Philadelphia-area social worker I spoke with, who didn’t want to be named, says, “These kids have a 15-minute [doctor’s] appointment every three months” — that’s it. She regularly sees children on antipsychotics who are overweight, blunted in affect and fatigued. She has even seen kids — both boys and girls — who lactate due to elevated prolactin. “They suffer from serious side effects, and no one is monitoring them.”

In Philadelphia, there are approximately 5,800 youths — infants to age 21 — in foster care, a number that skyrocketed in the wake of child-protection legislation that was passed following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The average age of a foster child in Philadelphia is nine. DHS director of communications Alicia Taylor says the agency doesn’t have data on how many foster children receive behavioral health-care services. “However, it is safe to say that many of the children have experienced some level of trauma and are receiving behavioral health-care services,” she says.

The instability of a life in foster care — one that may lack a consistent foundational relationship with a relative — compounds kids’ problems. “When you have a child who is 12 or 13 years old who has been in 17 placements,” says David Rubin, “it gets very hard to reverse that cycle of trauma and separation and failed attachment.” If antipsychotics aren’t the answer, though, what might be?

MICHAEL PLACE IS a prominent foster-care advocate and graduate student who specializes in the issue of psychotropic medication in foster kids. Place grew up in foster care and started to take medication in his teens, including antipsychotics. They did nothing to help him. “I do believe kids in foster care sometimes suffer from mental illness,” he says. “But a lot of times when a kid is acting up, it’s just a reaction to trauma.”

Using pills to sedate a child with disruptive behavior often obscures the actual cause of the child’s distress, Place says. He gives the example of a foster kid who acts out after visits with his biological parents. That’s not about psychosis or mental illness — that’s an emotional reaction to deep hurt. Medication may interrupt the immediate behavior, but it doesn’t begin to address the pain the kids are in.

“What really helped was therapy,” Place says of his own experience. “I can see using medication initially in a really out-of-control situation. But then therapy should be available automatically.”

In Philadelphia, foster children do have access to psychotherapy, and there are organizations that provide it. But it’s not always easy to engage children and caregivers in such programs. What if, for example, a parent or caregiver has mental health issues herself? A lack of faith in the system may make parents wary, or they may not be able to take their children out of school and to therapy appointments during the day. “We’re talking about constraints that are so deep,” says PolicyLab’s Kathleen Noonan. “Is Au Bon Pain going to go to an hourly worker and say, ‘Yeah, you can go to your analyst every morning, that’s fine — we’ll pay you while you do that’? It’s really hard. Psychotherapy is considered a luxury.”

AS RESEARCH AND reports on antipsychotic overuse in children and the elderly accumulate, the issue is starting to be addressed. California is one state with pending legislation to curb antipsychotic overuse — action that was spurred in part by a deeply disturbing series, “Drugging Our Kids,” in the San Jose Mercury News. In Nevada, legislation has been passed to empower foster children’s right to refuse medication. Other states and welfare systems now mandate that doctors get authorization before prescribing an antipsychotic.

In 2014, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania partnered with PolicyLab to analyze data on the use of psychotropic medication among Medicaid-enrolled kids ages three to 18, with a particular focus on those in foster care. The results followed national trends: Antipsychotic use was four times higher among foster children than among other Medicaid-enrolled kids. More than half the Medicaid-enrolled kids who took antipsychotics were diagnosed with ADHD.

In the wake of the study results, says PolicyLab’s Meredith Matone, the lead researcher on that study, Pennsylvania is at long last moving in the right direction, making significant changes in the way these drugs are approved and prescribed. But these are recent shifts, and progress is slow. Says Rubin, “If I were to tell you we brought the number of kids in foster care who get an antipsychotic from 50 percent to 40 percent, are you happy? Forty doesn’t feel good. Yeah, it’s progress, but are the kids any better?”

Rubin’s colleague Kathleen Noonan worries about the perception that there’s been progress on the issue. While states like California are going so far as to blacklist doctors who aren’t prescribing correctly, there’s a shortage of investment in other strategies. “What’s blacklisting going to do if there’s no alternative?” Noonan asks. Antipsychotic prescriptions go down overall, but individual kids are still troubled.

PolicyLab is working with the Children’s Bureau in Washington, D.C., among other entities, to figure out how to increase the availability of alternative treatments. One approach targets neighborhoods that deal with a lot of trauma. In Philadelphia, PolicyLab has piloted various programs in conjunction with Behavioral Health Rehabilitation Services and DHS. Even small changes can have big impacts. In one program, families spent just six hours in a classroom, learning about the causes and effects of trauma. Afterward, reports of behavioral problems for the children in the program were greatly reduced.

Sometimes, the solution is even simpler. David Rubin recalls a foster child about six years old who came to his pediatric practice and was totally out of control in the waiting room. His case manager was in tears. When Rubin examined the child, “He looked every bit the part of ADHD. He was running around, throwing things, turning on the water — it looked like this kid had really significant illness.”

But after the boy’s grandmother got custody and he’d been living with her for a few months, Rubin saw him again: “He was a completely different child. He wasn’t running around the room. You could see the attachment.” What this child needed wasn’t medication: “The treatment was reuniting him with his paternal grandmother.” Had this child been prescribed antipsychotics to control behavior that seemed pathological, he would have grappled with all the side effects and long-term implications — and for what?

I WAS ALWAYS a dutiful patient — what doctors call “compliant.” I took my medications because I wanted to get better, to get off of disability, to discover my better self. But then, about eight years ago, after almost two decades on antipsychotics, what wasn’t supposed to happen did happen: I started to have symptoms of a movement disorder.

I didn’t know what it was at first. I just noticed that about an hour after taking my pill at night, I’d start to feel the telltale nausea, then an indescribable sensation in my limbs. It wasn’t pain — it was more like my muscles were unhappy. I imagined my body as a child in formalwear, squirming in a seat at the orchestra. The only relief I got was from kicking my legs or walking around or bending over or shrugging or stretching.

When I finally told my doctor — who’s generally very Zen — I saw what looked like alarm on his face. “That’s akathisia. It’s from the antipsychotics,” he said. It appeared the pharmacological chickens had come home to roost. Time to let the SGAs go.

I’ve often asked myself if I took antipsychotics for the right reasons, and I think that for many years, I did. But I was also afraid not to take them. When my doctor told me to discontinue Seroquel, I went home and sobbed. I was sure I’d go completely mad again, that I’d lose my job, my home. But I tapered off the antipsychotic according to his instructions, and my world didn’t collapse. I was not, as I’d imagined, on the razor’s edge between sanity and madness, with just the Seroquel keeping me from falling. In fact, life without antipsychotics is better for me, which makes me think it could be better for these vulnerable children as well. That’s assuming, however, that they get the care they actually need and not the medication they don’t.

Published as “Mind Control” in the January 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

One of Us: Herb Lusk

Illustration by Andy Friedman

Illustration by Andy Friedman

My full name is … Reverend Doctor Herbert Hoover Lusk II. But since I met the Pope in September, my friends are jokingly calling me the Archbishop of North Broad.

I am … the proud pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church at 700 North Broad Street.

My childhood was spent in … Memphis, and I left when I was 13, the year Dr. King was assassinated. Mother sent me to Monterey, California, to keep me out of mischief.

When I was 12 years old … I wanted to grow up to be a pro football player and a preacher of the Gospel, and because of God’s favor, I was able to do both.

I came to Philadelphia … in 1976, drafted by Dick Vermeil to be on the Eagles.

The most memorable game I ever played … was 1977, against the Giants. I registered over 100 yards and two touchdowns, and I became the first NFL player to score and then kneel in the end zone and pray.

I met my wife … in my father’s church, 38 years ago. The best place to find a wonderful lady is in church.

If you’re having me for dinner, please make … some oxtails and rice. If you’re gonna do fish, let it be salmon, poached. Just don’t make eggs. I’m allergic. I mean, you can use a little to hold a crabcake together.

If the TV is on, I’m probably watching … news. I usually take a 30-minute dose of CNN and another 30-minute dose of Fox News. I like hearing both sides of the argument.

The best movie ever made about church … has got to be Sister Act.

When I look at the kids of Philadelphia today … I see a serious crisis in education. Without proper education, the children will be stuck in poverty, crime and aimlessness.

I decided to be a preacher … because it was the best way for me to effect change in the lives of people, particularly those who are easily forgotten. In the African-American community, a pastor is more than just a guy who preaches. He’s a psychologist, sociologist, counselor.

The next presidential election is … confusing.

When I met the Pope in Philadelphia … I was extremely impressed with his humanity. And his willingness to admit that he’s a man. A great man, a holy man — but in the end, he’s still a man.

I didn’t walk in October’s Million Man March … because of the man at the top of it, Louis Farrakhan. He is a well-intended man who has the potential to help but an even greater potential to mislead. As my daddy always told me, a fish stinks from the head.

The first concert I ever went to was … James Brown, Memphis, 1967. It was unbelievable. J.B. was the best.

One bad habit I can’t break … is sleeping just five hours. I’m never going to sleep more than that. People sleep too much. It’s overrated.

My favorite character in the Bible is … Shamgar, who is said to have delivered Israel with an ox goad. He started where he was, used what he had, and did what he could. Most people seem to think that their location speaks to their destination. He didn’t allow that to happen.

I hope my tombstone reads … “Here lies a man who did everything he could to make the world a better place.”

Published as “One of Us” in the December 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Dear Jim Kenney: 48 Philadelphians on How Our New Mayor Can Make the City Great


All photographs by Josh Pelta-Heller and Tiayrra Bradley

kenney-name-of-this-personKimyona Evans
22, West philly; sales associateIf there were more programs for younger kids, starting from eighth grade to high school, I feel like there’d be less violence. If they have something to do other than run outside, they wouldn’t be in trouble.

kenney-02-jake-cline-400x400Jake Cline
23, Glenside; construction workerNot enough treatment for people who are struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. That’s what I see, you know. I was an addict before, and it sucked.

Kenney-03-PakWingFok-400x400Pak-Wing Fok
36, Washington Square West; professor, University of DelawareThe one thing that I find disappointing is the trash collection. People just leave the rubbish on the sidewalks. In Seoul, they have to use government-mandated bags, which are strong and don’t tear. Seoul is a very clean city, so maybe that’s one way to do it.

Kenney-04-OsmanZubair-400x400Osman Zubair
22, Northeast philly; student, Temple UniversityThe Mayor should help the school district. Fights happen every day. They don’t have enough manpower because of budget cuts, and a lot of kids are afraid that they can’t get the education they need.

Kenney-05-NaamanHarrisNaaman Harris
30, homeless; unemployedI don’t know if anybody could change the crime in Philadelphia. There’s so much killing, and people want to sell drugs, go out and rob, shoot people. It’s getting worse.

Kenney-06-RochelleKeyhanRochelle Keyhan
30, Grad Hospital; executive director, Feminist Public WorksHe should continue being the excellent listener that he has been on City Council. You could tell he had such a genuine concern for the needs of the Philadelphians he was talking to and representing. I’m excited.

Kenney-07-TroyCrichton-400x400Troy Crichton
31, Northern Liberties; public defenderBail reform. We have lots of people held in prison simply for being poor. You have people sitting three, four, five months before they can get some money together, which results in losing their jobs, losing their kids, losing their pets.

Kenney_08-KimyettaKing-400x400Kimyetta King
46, West Oak Lane; police officerThe city is disgusting-looking. The only area that looks nice is the area that the tourists go to. That’s a tradition for Philadelphia. Money is always put into only what the public will see. The outer neighborhoods are always neglected.

Kenney_09-AnujGupta400x400Anuj Gupta
42, Mount Airy; GM, Reading Terminal MarketEmbrace the growing diversity of our city, both the millennial population and our immigrants. Make them feel vested in our city. They are the ones turning neighborhoods around in partnership with folks who have been here for a long time. That’s how we’re going to continue to grow.

Kenney_10-GraceHong-400x400Grace Hong
16, Germantown; student, SLA beeberIf you’re a leader, you should stay open-minded for what the people need and really listen to others. If you’re close-minded, you don’t have any space to grow. You’re only thinking about what you want to think.

Kenney_11-ThomasAustinSpain-400x400Thomas Austin Spain
27, North Philly; entertainerPut another tax on cigarettes so the money can go to schools. And really think about SEPTA, too, because SEPTA goes on strike almost every time there’s a contract negotiation, and it shuts the city down.

Kenney_12-MimiBell-400x400Mimi Bell
19, West Philly; student, Art Institute of PhiladelphiaI’m from Baltimore, so a comparison between Baltimore and Philly is like night and day. I think Philly has grown in the year I’ve been here. I can just see cleaner streets; everyone’s getting more jobs and opportunities. That’s a good thing.

Kenney_19-JennyCarpenterJenny Carpenter
53, Bella Vista; student teacherThe classroom size is just too big. I see over 200 kids every day — six sections with at least 33 kids. The kids want to learn and the teachers want to teach, but we really can’t reach all of the students. My question for the Mayor is, can you reduce class size?

Kenney_13-DwayneRoss-400x400Dwayne Ross
35, North philly; barberThe Mayor should deal with some ’hood figures, people that have respect in the neighborhoods. I don’t care if they’re eight-time felons. He’s going to have to build rapport and find out exactly what’s the problem and what’s the solution.

Kenney_14-DrewCallaghan-400x400Drew Callaghan
59, Bella Vista; photographerThe city really needs to get control of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. They need to get friendly. There’s no reason for the Parking Authority to be cruel in the way they treat people. A lot of times I feel it’s law enforcement for profit.

Kenney_15-MarangeliMejia-Rabell-400x400Marangeli Mejia-Rabell
47, Rittenhouse; nonprofit administratorThe sanctuary-city status really makes Philadelphia that welcoming city, that City of Brotherly Love that we so much want and respect. I have been here for almost 28 years and I come from Puerto Rico, so I feel like it’s really important.

Kenney_20-AndrewNoonan-400x400Andrew Noonan
25, University City; student, University of PennsylvaniaI’ve noticed murals popping up around the city, and I really like that. It infuses that Philadelphia culture into it, kind of like artsy street art. In general, the city’s in disrepair. We need a beautification of the city.

Kenney_24-TaequanDawkins-400x400Taequan Dawkins
20, North Philly; photographerIt comes down to recreational resources. When Mayor Nutter came into office, I saw a whole lot of places being shut down: city pools, sports teams. It’s really easy to influence a kid at that point in life, so if they’re surrounded by positive things, hopefully they make positive decisions.

Kenney_16-KathrynCasey-400x400Kathryn Casey
60, Rittenhouse; paralegalMayor Kenney is pro-union, and I’m glad about that. What I really am concerned about is how the city workers, the firefighters, the teachers and the policemen are treated. They should be paid more. They should have fair contracts.

Kenney_18-ThomasNailor-400x400Thomas Nailor
25, Center City; social services employeeDon’t get caught up with just Center City folks and your buddies in South Philly and union guys. Make sure everybody who’s here has something to be proud of.

Kenney_17-WillWilliamsWill Williams
20, Overbrook; retailCenter City is getting a lot better, but in areas around 12th and Lehigh where my grandmother lives, it’s not really getting that much better. Make Philly better for the citizens, not the tourists.

Kenney_21-AlbertFung-400x400Albert Fung
45, Fishtown; yoga instructor/artistI have a young son, and I’m seeing the schools around where I live getting better. The neighborhood is nicer and more livable. I have mixed feelings about gentrification, but I think that having energetic people move into the neighborhood is overall a good thing.

Kenney_22-AbbeyBiery-400x400Abbey Biery
30, Chinatown; cake decoratorTry your best! And fix the potholes.

Kenney_23-JamesHolland-400x400James Holland
29, South Philly; retailThey could have better policies to make sure everybody doesn’t get welfare. Find out if people are really being honest about their situations. Some people get cash assistance that they shouldn’t get, and some people that really need it get denied.

Kenney_25-StevenShare-400x400Steven Share
34, Queen Village; community organizer The neighborhoods are expanding. There’s a draw for young professionals — the influx of young people, shopping, dining, culture. I’m a Philadelphia native. I moved away for 13 years, and I just moved back because the city’s blowing up.

Kenney_26-JamieGauthier-400x400Jamie Gauthier
37, West Philly; executive director, Sustainable Business Network of greater Philadelphia Focus on the development of neighborhood commercial corridors. Our downtown has been doing fantastically. Our neighborhoods are still hurting.

Kenney_27-ScottSwankScott Swank
74, Fitler Square; retiredI went to Penn back in the ’60s and early ’70s, so comparing then to now in terms of restaurants, transportation, a lot of the basic things, the improvements are immense. It’s one of the reasons I moved back here — so I could enjoy that quality of life.

Kenney_31-KatelynBrothwell-400x400Katelyn Brothwell
26, Washington Square West; ICU nurseFix the PPA. The tickets are really outrageous. They tow your car without any real indication, and getting in touch with them is really hard. It’s a real burden for people who live here.

Kenney_30-SunandaGhosh-400x400Sunanda Ghosh
41, Logan Square; fund-raising consultantFor some, the city is better: more restaurants, bars, parks. But for others, it’s becoming more difficult to live and send their kids to good schools. Many people are invisible. Their perspectives aren’t considered important. I want city life to get better for all Philadelphians, not just for the privileged.

Kenney_28-IsaiahPierce-400x400Isaiah Pierce
24, Center City; artistI love all the new faces that are coming in, but I wish everybody would be a little bit more friendly. I’ve got a lot of new neighbors. I’ll say, “Hey, how’s it going?” And they’ll look like, “Why is he speaking to me?”

Kenney_32-MargaretFletcher-400x400Margaret Fletcher
71, West Oak Lane; homemakerI’d like to see that the young people are able to go to college affordably. They need the opportunity to work and empower themselves. I feel the Mayor has a lot of input, and I know that it can happen.

Kenney_29-VanessaWerring-400x400Vanessa Werring
35, East Passyunk; gallery directorWe should have more funding for arts in schools. Art is so important in development. It allows children to be really free and open and creative and discover strengths they may not find in other classes like science and math.

Kenney_33-UdiGoodjoines-400x400Udi Goodjoines
13, West Oak Lane; student, Wagner Middle SchoolThe city is getting worse because of the crime. I see people with guns in their back pocket, back of their pants, standing right next to the corner store. And I get scared, so I might go to a different store.

Kenney_34-DeniseGist-400x400Denise Gist
58, West philly; disability/unemployed I was born and raised here, and I had the privilege of going to Catholic school. My mother paid for it. It was a great education. But today, the public school system is atrocious. My main concern is the children’s education.

Kenney_35-SarahGrey-400x400Sarah Grey
35, Fishtown; freelance writer and editorTax the rich. Rein in the police. Open up the streets. I’d love to see that happen all over the city — in the working-class neighborhoods, the neighborhoods of color. Give everybody a chance to open up and talk to one another and create community.

Kenney_36-MatthewWashington-400x400Matthew Washington
38, Olney; construction workerFix the potholes. I keep riding in these streets, and there’s thousands of potholes.

Kenney_43-CarlCherkin-400x400Carl Cherkin
65, Queen Village; business relations vice president, Philadelphia UnionJim Kenney wants to eradicate poverty, improve early childhood education. I’m very optimistic. The Mayor is a man of his convictions, and he will do what he says he’s gonna do. At least he’ll try. He’s a battler. He’s a city kid.

Kenney_48-JonathanMaxim-400x400Jonathan Maxim
28, Center City; CEO, Vea FitnessIt’s definitely an up-and-coming entrepreneurial city. I would love to see more community involvement, more government-run events that promote small business and promote starting a business.

Kenney_37-Mia-LiaBouaKiernan-400x400Mia-Lia Boua Kiernan
31, South Philly; co-founder, 1Love MovementWe have a lot of values as a city around redemption and rehabilitation and second chances and keeping families together. I don’t think we necessarily match that up with our reentry policies or incarceration policies or immigration and deportation policies.

Kenney_38-EstebanDominguez-400x400Esteban Dominguez
21, Juniata; student, Temple UniversityIt’s cool that the Mayor graduated from my high school. St. Joe’s Prep is about family — you look out for each other. And there are high expectations, because kids want to be challenged. I think he’ll take some of that from the Prep and bring it into office.

Kenney_39-ShirleyLevin-400x400Shirley Levin
69, West Oak Lane; retiredKeep it moving and help the people. Everybody has campaign promises, but they’re not doing anything. Don’t say what you’re going to do. Do it. Easy as that.

Kenney_44-DemetrisWhiting-400x400Demetris Whiting
54, North philly; mechanicThe Mayor needs to stress more what we can do to allow us to come together. A lot of people don’t have trust in the system. The system is corrupted because they’re making a lot of money off of people being locked up. It’s almost like a form of slavery.

Kenney_40-DennisBradwell-400x400Dennis Bradwell
60, Southwest Philly; store managerWe need jobs. We need better jobs. Not McDonald’s jobs. It doesn’t make a difference who you are. Race has nothing to do with nothing. Money has no color. I hope Mr. Kenney hears this, and that’s why I voted for him — because I do believe in him.

Kenney_41-WilliamRementer-400x400William Rementer
37, South philly; computer technicianLower the crime rate. But I got a second-degree black belt in tang soo do, just in case.

Kenney_42-YaritzaSierra-400x400Yaritza Sierra
27, Northeast philly; actorA neighbor of mine was held up at gunpoint a few blocks from where I live. It used to be a good area. I’m making plans to move, for my daughter’s well-being and for my own. So that says a lot.

Kenney_45-LunaWolfson-400x400Luna Wolfson
19, homeless; artistImprove standards of living for the homeless, especially homeless youth. I’ve seen a huge increase in homeless in the LGBTQ community. Kids are coming out fast, like younger now. They’ve got families who are like, “You’re 18, we don’t need to raise you, get outta here.”

Kenney_46-DeenaHessler-400x400Deena Hessler
75, Rittenhouse; retiredTake Chestnut Street and make it two lanes of traffic, not just for buses and bikes. It causes such a backup with traffic. It’s ridiculous.

Kenney_47-AndrewOliva-400x400Andrew Oliva
27, Chinatown; line cookDon’t fuck up. That’s the best I got, honestly.

Published as “Dear Jim Kenney: 48 Philadelphians Would Like a Moment of Your Time” in the January 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Why I Decided to Stop Renting in Philly and Take the Home-Ownership Plunge

Illustration by Tim Parker

Illustration by Tim Parker

I expected my apartment hunt to be over before the weekend.

After all, I’ve never been particularly picky. My must-haves were few, and after a decade of renting in Philly, my definition of “charming” had become pretty generous.

That drafty West Philly studio? I didn’t just like it — I loved it, squatter mouse and all. He kept to himself, rarely invited friends over, and spent most of his time in the oven, which was fine by me — the oven didn’t work, and even if it did, I didn’t cook. In retrospect, the little guy was probably one of my best roommates. Read more »

Garrett Getlin Snider Is Not Your Average Teenager

Left: Garrett Getlin Snider (photography by Justin James Muir). Right: Lindy, Garrett, and Ed Snider, circa 1997 (courtesy of Garrett Getlin Snider)

Left: Garrett Getlin Snider (photography by Justin James Muir). Right: Lindy, Garrett, and Ed Snider, circa 1997 (courtesy of Garrett Getlin Snider)

Garrett Getlin Snider is fretting.

This really isn’t so unusual, as it turns out. Garrett Getlin Snider frets a lot. About his twin sisters, “16 and gorgeous,” who are now at an age where every horny teenage boy on the Main Line is taking notice. About his grandfather, Ed Snider, the legendary 82-year-old Philadelphia Flyers owner and chairman of Comcast Spectacor. About his grandmother, about his studies at Drexel, about the kids: the kids in Montgomery County, the kids around the country, the kids around the world. Who is going to help the kids? And so Garrett Getlin Snider frets, worry lines already beginning to form across his square, pale 19-year-old face. Read more »

Fame, Fate, and the Boy Soprano


Bobby Hill performing with the Keystone State Boychoir.

Three months after unexpectedly sharing the stage with Pope Francis on the Parkway, Bobby Hill is still being recognized everywhere he goes.

Consider just this past week: On Monday, Bobby’s father took him shopping for a new suit, and whether they were at Joseph A. Bank at Liberty Place or the Boscov’s in Plymouth Meeting, people would point and whisper Isn’t that the kid who sang for the pope?

On Wednesday, in Beverly Hills, where the 14-year-old was honored at the Ebony Power 100 gala along with John Legend, Prince, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, music managers and agents shoved business cards in his face while members of the African-American power crowd snapped selfies with him. Read more »

How Ron Jaworski Helped Change the Way We Watch Football

Jaws goes over the X’s and O’s in his office at NFL Films. Photograph by Jared Castaldi

Jaws goes over the X’s and O’s in his office at NFL Films. Photograph by Jared Castaldi

Outside of Canton, there may be no greater shrine to the legacy of professional football than the headquarters of NFL Films, hidden away on a nearly invisible road in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. The entrance to the house that Ed and Steve Sabol built is lined with archival photographs, game-worn helmets and, in the lobby alone, 71 gleaming Emmy statues, with scores more scattered throughout the winding halls. It’s a Tuesday during the season, and as usual, Ron Jaworski sits at his desk on the second floor. In sharp contrast to the glitz elsewhere, the walls of Jaworski’s lair are adorned with only a few relics from his playing days — snapshots, a locker nameplate, a couple pigskins on a shelf. There are five other guys in here, most hunched over computer screens, logging game film or unearthing obscure stats. It feels sort of like a locker room, with furniture from IKEA. For Jaworski — the first quarterback to lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl, 35 years ago — that’s just fine. He’s a married father of three who settled in South Jersey when he joined the Birds and never left. But this is his natural habitat. Read more »

One of Us: Merrill Reese, Eagles Broadcaster


Illustration by Andy Friedman

My name is … Merrill Alan Reese. I’m named after my mother’s brother.

I grew up in … West Philadelphia and then Overbrook Park, near 76th and Woodbine. I went to Overbrook High. The great basketball player Wali Jones was there at the time.

I am … an incredibly devoted golfer. You never quite conquer it.

I drive … a white BMW M235i convertible. Stick.

The best Eagle who ever lived … was Chuck Bednarik. Here is a guy that’s both a linebacker and a center and played for two championship teams.

My worst class at Temple was … modern world history. It was like things from the 1600s. It was just dreadfully boring.

Chip Kelly is … extremely bright.

The most famous person I have ever met is … Tiger Woods, when my wife and I went to the Battle at the Bridges near San Diego. And Gerald Ford when he was the House Minority Leader. I was on Navy Reserve duty at the Pentagon and Gerald Ford happened to pass by. He sat down with us, and we talked football.

I wanted to grow up to be … an NFL quarterback. But at five-foot-eight and 140 pounds, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I lack size, speed and talent.

The most overrated Eagles player ever was … Jevon Kearse. We thought we were getting a great player, but he really didn’t contribute much to this team.

On Friday night, you’ll probably find me … at Phil’s Tavern in Blue Bell, which has great burgers and salads. I also love Chickie’s and Pete’s. That shrimp pizza.

The first concert I ever went to was … the Lettermen, back in college. My last was Billy Joel. At the Spectrum. That’s how long it’s been.

The most memorable game I ever called … was on December 19, 2010. The Eagles came from way behind to beat the Giants at the Meadowlands. They overcame a huge deficit and won it with a DeSean Jackson walk-off punt return.

When I want to relax … I play golf. I’m a member of the Blue Bell Country Club and Radnor Country Club. I have an index, which is at the moment a 10.4, which would really be a 12 handicap where I play. My broadcast partner, Mike Quick, is a terrific golfer, too.

People would be surprised to know that I … was in many TV commercials as a child. And I was an extra in The Greatest Show on Earth, part of which was filmed here. My mother picked me up from the set one day and saw me playing catch with a guy, and she says to me, “Do you know who that is? That’s Jimmy Stewart.”

The best football movie ever … was Everybody’s All-American, with Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange and John Goodman.

The hardest part of my job is … flying home after a night game on the West Coast.

My secret talent is … playing the drums. I have a set in my recreation room, and I took lessons when I was a kid. The best drummer of all time was Buddy Rich.

My second favorite Philly sports team is … the Phillies. They have some bright young players in the organization. They can only get better.

For Thanksgiving this year, I’ll be … in Detroit for the Eagles, of course.

If I could change one thing about Philadelphia, I would change … nothing. The warmth, the passion. It’s got a small-town feel. I love it.

Published in the November 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Racial Profiling on the Main Line

Clockwise from top left: Keith Taylor; Muneera Walker; Anita Friday; Harry Mobley Jr. with his sons Aseda, Omosesan and Akinyele Adebamgbe; Loraine Carter; Schoolly D, Crystal Blunt with her son Michael. Photography by Colin Lenton

Clockwise from top left: Keith Taylor; Muneera Walker; Anita Friday; Harry Mobley Jr. with his sons Aseda, Omosesan and Akinyele Adebamgbe; Loraine Carter; Schoolly D, Crystal Blunt with her
son Michael. Photography by Colin Lenton

This past July, Jordan and Joshua Friday confronted one of those endless summer days that teenagers are given. They journeyed by bicycle to an aunt’s house to swim, met up with a friend, and stopped to get pizza. After lunch, the trio went looking for a fourth friend in the Greens of Waynesborough, a small housing development near their Berwyn home. Jordan and Joshua, 15-year-old African-American high-school students, were unfamiliar with this subdivision. They figured they’d reach the fourth kid on his cell phone or find his house. The identical twins, long and thin, both over six feet tall, were dressed in shorts and colorful t-shirts. They wore school backpacks slung over their shoulders, and bicycle helmets strapped tight to their heads. The twins — mom is a lawyer, dad is a doctor — pedaled slowly past wide lawns and big million-dollar houses, feeling right at home. But this development stretched several blocks from the main road.

The fourth boy didn’t answer his cell phone. The Fridays weren’t quite sure where he lived. And at some point, the white friend they’d come with pedaled ahead of them. He was almost a full block away when the Fridays noticed the SUV. Read more »

Meet Ed Bassmaster, Philadelphia’s Biggest Star … on YouTube

Ed Bassmaster as the character “Always Teste,” left, and as himself. Photography by Gene Smirnov

Ed Bassmaster as the character “The Hacker,” left, and as himself. Photography by Gene Smirnov

There isn’t much that grates on Philadelphians more than having their city defined by a tired canard about a Santa Claus who got booed in 1968. (Or by a bell. Or a sandwich.) Which explains the citywide stomach-drop when news broke in August that a defenseless globe-trotting robot had been annihilated here. Every hard-fought reputational victory, every hint of burgeoning cosmopolitanism — put on hold for the foreseeable future. “Somebody put a lot of work into that robot,” ashamed resident Cathie McMullin told 6 ABC. “It’s been all over the world, and ‘Welcome to Philly! Let’s kill you.’”

HitchBOT, constructed by Canadian engineers, was a science experiment in human compassion. A white plastic bucket equipped with GPS plus blue pool floaties for limbs, the robot was to hitchhike across the world, relying on random humans to transport it from one city to the next. It made it across Europe but couldn’t make it from Massachusetts to San Francisco; on the morning of August 1st, hitchBOT was found, wasted and inert, on the streets of Old City. A few days later, grainy video footage emerged of a man in a throwback Randall Cunningham jersey appearing to assault poor hitchBOT. Read more »

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