Residents rallied in October 2019 in Council chambers to demand creation of the special committee

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A City Council committee today issued a blistering report detailing systemic failures at Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.

The city agency responsible for keeping children safe from abuse and neglect is itself guilty of myriad abuses, according to the report, via actions like separating families without cause, punishing mothers for being victims of domestic abuse, and perpetuating systemic bias in both race and class.

Produced by the Special Committee on Child Separations co-chaired by Councilmembers David Oh and Cindy Bass, and based on interviews with families affected by the system, the report includes dozens of recommendations for reform.

“There are just too many ways for children to be placed into the system for investigation,” the report states, in part. “No procedures currently exist to protect the rights of the families who are under investigation by DHS. Little transparency exists in the interactions between DHS and the Family Court.”

The report includes case studies of four parents and one grandmother who were allegedly mistreated by caseworkers and the courts, and inappropriately separated from their kids — for reasons including retaliation and false testimony by caseworkers, to parents and children being denied due process and the opportunity to testify.

The committee ultimately determined the city is pulling too many kids into care, overstretching its resources and compromising its ability to accomplish its central mission of keeping kids safe.

“The tragedies that make headlines are as rare as they are horrific,” the report reads. “They are needles in a haystack. You can’t find the needles by constantly making the haystack bigger.”

If the city can demonstrate better judgment in the cases it does take on, the report concludes, “caseworkers will have more time to find those few children in real danger.”

Philadelphia has reduced the city foster rolls by about 29% since June 2017, according to DHS figures. But that success pales against calls for a reduction of 50% or more, including from the deeply influential Casey Family Programs, the largest operating foundation focused on improving foster care and child welfare. Philly still removes youth from homes experiencing poverty at a rate about twice that of cities like New York and Chicago.

The report’s findings were presented Friday morning by Councilmember Oh. Family members and parents are holding a planned rally at Love Park following the press conference.

The Dept. of Human Services was not included in the review process and did not even get an advance copy of the report, according to a statement from DHS Commissioner Kimberly Ali.

“The report’s rollout, without input from the department and staff affected, is counterproductive to its stated purpose, and most of all represents a disservice to the hundreds of DHS employees who work tirelessly in difficult conditions to protect the lives of children,” Ali said, “and an equal disservice to the thousands of Philadelphia children and families whose lives have been helped through DHS programs and services.”

Ali added, “We appreciate the Special Committee on Child Separations’ concerns and look forward to receiving a copy of the report to review.”

Oh pushed for creation of the committee in 2019, after meeting with parents who reached out to him when he accidentally broke his son’s collarbone practicing martial arts was himself investigated by DHS. The group was made up of elected officials, members of parent and family associations, alumni of the foster care system, former family court judge Paul Panepinto, Robin Cooper of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (Teamsters Local 502), civil attorney Nadeem Bezar, and Sheriff Rochelle Bilal.

Bilal has previously expressed concern over finding a balance between keeping kids safe and making sure family separations are warranted. She lauded the group for putting solutions into its report.

“A lot of times, a committee like this would just complain, complain, complain,” Bilal said. “But for everything that comes up, we’re able to say, ‘Here’s a way to do it better.’”

The report’s major findings and suggested solutions included better support for families experiencing poverty, changes in the way domestic abuse cases are handled, getting rid of mandatory reporting, and making sure families get due process.

Read more about the recommendations below.

DHS should support families experiencing poverty, instead of separate them

The report suggests that instead of “neglect” being defined under state law as a form of child abuse, these cases should be referred to social services.

The idea is to prevent separating families for reasons that are solely economic, so conditions that can be remedied through the provision of concrete help — like food, clothing, housing assistance and/or childcare — don’t end up being the reason a child is pulled out of their home. Further, it says, truancy should be handled by the school district, and not serve as a reason for removal.

As it does throughout the report, the committee also recommends that if the state fails to enact such legislation, City Council should act on its own.

DHS must stop punishing women suffering from domestic abuse (and by extension, their kids)

Child abuse investigations should not be launched over allegations of domestic abuse, the committee paper declares.

Mothers in Philadelphia say they’re afraid to report domestic abuse, because the city is taking kids from households where women have “allowed” children to witness a husband or boyfriend abusing them.

Domestic abuse is clearly traumatic for children to witness, the report contends, but they are further traumatized when removed from their mothers. Taking kids away also re-victimizes victims of violence in the harshest terms possible.

CPS was brought in, and my kids were taken away,” one witness is quoted as saying, “and that was almost life ending.”

Credit: Dylan B. Caleho for Our Kids/Resolve Philly

Families must receive due process

The city should adopt a family defense model pioneered in New York, the committee report says. Under this system, families undergoing a DHS investigation are provided with a high-quality lawyer, a social worker to guide them through the often-complicated workings, and connection with a fellow parent who has themself undergone an investigation.

New York City Family Court data, captured in a 2019 Children and Youth Services Review paper, suggests the program works.

Children whose parents are supported by this defense spend an average of about 4 months less time in foster care. Families with multi-disciplinary representation were 43% more likely to be reunited in the first year after separation than families with only an attorney to represent them, and 25% more likely to be reunited in the second year.

It’s necessary, the report contends, to combat dysfunction ranging from less frequent situations — such as “problem” judges who abuse their power — to more common issues like poorly compensated court appointed attorneys who fail to provide full representation.

One of the committee’s members, and a case study subject in the report, Yolanda Bryant, said she would have benefitted from a more level playing field in court.

Bryant, who is being prevented from serving as a kinship parent to her grandchildren, including a grandchild she was already raising, said she’s never been put on the stand to speak on her own behalf.

Kathleen Creamer of Philly nonprofit Community Legal Services, had not yet read the report. But she was enthused by the inclusion of the New York defense model, which CLS is already running in a smaller pilot program.

“Providing parents access to legal teams that include attorneys, social workers, and peer advocates is one of the most effective interventions available to keep families together,” said Creamer.

Data released by CLS shows Philly youth served by their holistic defense model are less likely to enter foster care, return home in half the time, and enjoy kinship placement rates of 77%, far outstripping the city’s current performance.

Mandatory reporting should be abolished

Mandated reporter laws currently require specific classes of workers to report any suspected abuse. The report contends this forces workers to stop using their own professional judgment and act preemptively for fear of breaking a law.

“Abolishing mandatory reporting does not mean abolishing reporting,” the report notes.

Cathleen Palm, founder and executive director of the Pa.-based nonprofit Center for Children’s Justice, disagrees with this suggestion, calling it “nonsense,” though she had not been given an opportunity to the report prior to its release.

“It sounds like the wrong solution to a valid problem,” Palm said. “The fact is, we need better, standardized training for mandated reporters, because right now workers are acting out of fear. But abolishing it entirely would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Palm noted a committee formed by President Obama and Congress likewise recommended improving training for mandated reporters.

Open the courts to increase transparency

The report recommends the courts be opened to the public and media to promote transparency and more professional processes.

It also suggests all interactions between families and DHS be recorded, so allegations made by caseworkers can be better refuted or substantiated.

Steve is a freelance writer and investigative reporter at Resolve Philadelphia, a collaborative journalism project focused on problems and solutions. He has served as a contributing editor for Discover,...