Allentown City Councilmember Ce-Ce Gerlach failed to report suspected child abuse when she was a Valley Youth House social worker, instead dropping a teenaged boy off at a crime-ridden homeless encampment where he was solicited for sex, the Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office alleges.
Gerlach, 35, was charged Tuesday with two misdemeanors — endangering the welfare of children and failing to report or refer the information in violation of the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law. The eight-week investigation began in May, when a county detective was assigned to investigate a Facebook post from April 2021 that alleged Gerlach, while working with the Valley Youth House Synergy Project in July 2020, left a then-16-year-old boy at the homeless tent encampment in a wooded area of Allentown and failed to report suspected abuse.
As an employee of Valley Youth House, Gerlach was a mandated reporter, meaning she was required to alert the Pennsylvania Department of Services of the suspected abuse via ChildLine. Gerlach, who lost a bid for the Democratic nomination in the city’s mayoral primary this year, was fired from Valley Youth House. In a statement, the organization said it suspended Gerlach upon learning of the allegations and began an internal investigation.
Gerlach was fired May 14.
“Valley Youth House has cooperated fully with law enforcement with regard to this matter,” the statement said. “Our number one priority is the safety, protection, and well-being of the young people served by Valley Youth House.” Under an agreement with defense counsel, Gerlach was permitted to surrender to authorities to be arraigned. She was arraigned by District Judge Rashid Santiago on behalf of District Judge Karen C. Devine, and was released on unsecured bail. In a statement released by her attorney late Tuesday afternoon, Gerlach denied wrongdoing.
“I have never committed a crime in my life and that includes the current allegations against me,” she said. “I have not committed any crimes. I refuse to allow these allegations to distract me from my service to the people of Allentown.” District Attorney Jim Martin declined to comment further.
Gerlach’s attorney, Ed Angelo of Allentown, said Martin’s nearly 900-word news release detailing the allegations against Gerlach “poisons the justice process” and appeared to be politically motivated. “He has sent shorter press releases for murder cases, and Ms. Gerlach is being charged with only misdemeanors,” Angelo wrote.
According to Martin’s news release, the teen, whose name will not be released, told a detective that he had run away from home, contacted the Synergy Hotline number on July 6 and came into contact with Gerlach, who was the worker on duty at the time. The teen said he told Gerlach he was 16, had run away and needed a place to stay.
Gerlach, the release said, provided the teen with a tent and other supplies, walked him to the homeless encampment known as “Tent City” — located at that time along Basin Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard — and asked a resident of the encampment to “take care” of the teen. She returned the next day, did additional paperwork and brought him back to the encampment, the release said, adding that the paperwork showed Gerlach knew the boy’s age.
Records show that since 2020 there have been 36 police calls at the homeless encampment, an unlicensed mass gathering site with no access to public utilities, according to the release. The calls include assaults, warrant services, armed subjects, disturbances and thefts. Records from the Lehigh County Coroner’s Office also show there have been six death investigations at the encampment in the same period.
According to Martin’s news release, the teen said that while he was at the encampment, he was subjected to sexual solicitation from a male resident in exchange for a cigarette. He said he observed prostitution taking place in exchange for drugs and several fights among those living there.
On July 7, an outreach worker at “Operation Address the Homeless” met him and contacted Promise Neighborhood because she could tell the teen was “young and should not be in tent city,” the release said. Promise Neighborhood contacted Gerlach and said the teen should not be at the encampment. “At 3:44 p.m. July 7, Gerlach finally contacted ChildLine about the teen,” the release said.
Investigators spoke to an unnamed man living at “Tent City” who described the teen as a “young skinny kid that was scared to be there and not capable to taking care of himself.” The man told investigators that Gerlach told him she tried to get the teen into the YMCA, but they would not accept him because he wasn’t an adult. The man said that in his past six years living at the homeless encampment, he had been the victim of numerous thefts, and described it as a dangerous place.
In the April Facebook posts that prompted the investigation, community activist Jeani Garcia said the 16-year-old Allen High School student met Gerlach at American Plaza Shopping Center. Gerlach completed an intake and took the boy to the encampment, according to Garcia. The boy was “subjected for two nights to some things I won’t mention,” Garcia wrote.
Christine Smith, a volunteer facility manager for the nonprofit Operation Address The Homeless, and an unidentified individual staying at Tent City contacted Garcia with concerns about the boy, Garcia wrote in separate Facebook posts. Garcia picked up the boy, and he told her Gerlach had driven him to the encampment and dropped him off there, according to her Facebook post. Gerlach did not notify the boy’s family, Garcia wrote.
Garcia is the board president of the Ortiz Ark Foundation, another local nonprofit that assists under-served families in crisis. She’s also involved with various youth anti-violence initiatives. She declined to comment to The Morning Call during earlier inquiries into the matter.
Smith told The Morning Call in early May that she also spoke to the teen in July 2020, when he came to Operation Address The Homeless’ Seventh Street facility for food and a shower. According to Smith, a few individuals accompanying him from Tent City told her other adults at the encampment were badgering the boy for sexual favors. She did not identify those individuals.
Smith said the boy was reluctant to share much information with her, but disclosed he was 16, ran away from home because of a dispute with his parents and reached out to Valley Youth House for assistance. According to Smith, the boy said Gerlach contacted him, completed the intake process for Valley Youth House’s emergency shelter, and ultimately dropped him off at the encampment.
Smith said she reached out to Garcia to help the boy find safer shelter. Smith said Garcia arrived, talked to the boy privately, and then contacted Gerlach, who at that point found him a place in one of Valley Youth House’s shelters. Gerlach worked for The Synergy Project, a street outreach program designed to help runaway, homeless, nomadic and street youth under age 21 in the Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, Bucks County and Dauphin County.
According to Valley Youth House’s website, the program offers survival supplies (food, clothes, hygienic products, sleeping bags, tents, tarps, etc.), peer support, informal counseling. referral services and assistance to help youth get off the streets if desired. According to the website, “street outreach coordinators spend most of their time ... reaching out to youth who tend to settle in places that are not easily accessible, assisting them to find permanent housing or making it safer for them to be on the streets.”
The program assisted more than 2,500 homeless youth in 2019, according to Valley Youth House’s annual report. It served 284 youth at youth shelters in Bethlehem and Warminster. Valley Youth House declined to explain the policies and procedures it expects employees to follow when conducting the child intake process. During her first 16 months on city council, Gerlach has been a vocal advocate for individuals experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.
She spearheaded the creation of a commission on homelessness made up of appointees from numerous nonprofits, the unsheltered community, the Allentown School District and other stakeholders, and lobbied to earmark $100,000 in the city’s budget to help fund the commission’s objectives. Gerlach was elected to Allentown City Council in 2019 and previously served eight years on the Allentown School Board. Prior to joining Valley Youth House in 2020, Gerlach held a number of social worker and education positions, including stints as a teacher at the Children’s Home of Easton and as a substitute teacher for the Allentown School District. If found guilty, Gerlach could still serve on city council. Only convicted felons are barred from holding public office in Pennsylvania.