A sign held at an April rally in Love Park after a Philadelphia City Council committee released a report calling for child welfare reform

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A recent report decrying Philadelphia’s policies around foster care as dangerous and inequitable echoes concerns currently rising to the forefront of the national conversation about child welfare reform.

The report, released last month by a City Council special committee, was a scathing indictment of the city’s Department of Human Services. It suggested the child welfare agency has far outstripped its mandate to protect endangered children, and too often separates families, needlessly placing children in foster care.

Some prominent local child welfare experts gave the report a mixed review, questioning whether it included enough data or engagement with a broad enough audience. But it hit home for many Philly families who’ve been affected by the system.

At an April rally in Love Park sparked by the report, parents brimmed with emotions, describing their children as “kidnapped” as by the government.

“It was very powerful to see everyone gathered together, all these families who have been through this,” said Yolanda Bryant, an activist for DHS reform and member of the Special Committee on Child Separations in Philadelphia.

Calls have resounded for years among child welfare professionals that the number of youth taken into foster care should be reduced by 50% or more. Calls to simply abolish the child welfare system and start over have also increased, gaining momentum from the concurrent call to abolish the police in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by law enforcement.

There are other signs of a building push for change. BuzzFeed News recently published an in-depth investigation of child abuse registries leading to abuse against parents, particularly people of color — one of the phenomena detailed in the Philadelphia Council report.

In late April, the Child Welfare League of America held its annual convention, gathering top local, state and federal caseworkers and administrators in Washington DC to discuss large-scale reforms of the system. (Philadelphia DHS is not a member of the organization.)

One of the main topics of discussion at the CWLA convention was revamping the organization’s guidelines to suggest governments move away from Child Protective Services as their “go to” agency for teachers, doctors, and other mandated reporters, and instead refer families facing economic struggles to supportive service providers.

The goal: to make CPS a smaller part of the overall child welfare system, allowing workers to manage smaller caseloads and focus more on kids in actual danger.

Such a shift would also lead to fewer unnecessary family separations, which are traumatic to kids, their parents and loved ones.

Councilmember David Oh, who co-chaired the special committee that produced the report, speaks at the Love Park rally Credit: Joshua Childs, Resolve Reporting Fellow

Even critics of Philly’s report agreed with parts of it

Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services has reduced the number of youth in foster care by about 29% since 2017, a steep drop.

But Philly DHS remains one of the most aggressive child welfare agencies in the nation, separating children from families experiencing poverty at a rate twice that of other big cities like New York and Chicago.

This dichotomy is evident in the response to the Council committee’s 52-page report by local child welfare experts. Even those who criticized it said they found some of the recommendations valuable.

Cathleen Palm, founder of the Pa.-based nonprofit Center for Children’s Justice, said the report’s conclusions appeared to be pre-formed, without outside input.

“It feels like the whole process lacked engagement with diverse stakeholders,” Palm said. “My sense … is that folks knew what they wanted the narrative [of the] report to look like, and so the door to the room didn’t have to be wide open.”

Frank Cervone, longtime executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, which trains attorneys to represent children in court said, “The report is chock-full of innuendo, misleading statements, and impressively little data.” But, he added, “There’s lots of good stuff, mired in the mix of too many misstatements, oversimplifications, and a few absurdities.”

Both Palm and Cervone criticized the small sample size of cases examined in the report, and called out unhelpful language. Children were described as “confiscated” from their mothers at birth, for example, an inflammatory word choice that fails to recognize that child protection is sometimes needed.

Yet Cervone supplied a list of points in the report he supports, among them:

  • opening dependency courts to the media
  • improved quality of legal representation for children and families
  • strengthening due process in court
  • right to counsel to argue against any unwarranted inclusions on the state’s child abuse registry

Data suggests that if the city moved on just one of these points of agreement- strengthening legal representation for families — the system would alleviate many of the council committee’s concerns.

Families represented by the holistic family defense model currently deployed in New York, and operating in Philadelphia’s Community Legal services as a kind of pilot program, are more likely to be reunited, at greater speed, or placed with kin if foster care is ordered.

A sign held at an April rally in Love Park after a Philadelphia City Council committee released a report calling for child welfare reform Credit: Joshua Childs, Resolve Reporting Fellow

Child Welfare Professionals Look toward Reforms

At the Child Welfare League of America conference, attendees discussed an in-progress reworking of the organization’s Standards of Excellence, a set of guidelines issued in the hopes the entire field of child welfare will follow.

The new standards were framed as a significant reform, running under the headline “Redesign of the Child Welfare System,” and several of them lined up with the ideas outlined in the Philadelphia report and endorsed by the Philly experts.

Throughout the CWLA program, some of the leading figures in the field — including Aysha E. Schomburg, associate commissioner of the federal Children’s Bureau Administration on Children, Youth and Families — echoed these goals and others, including reducing longstanding systemic racial bias.

“The field is ready, hungry for this type of change,” said Christine James-Brown, president and CEO of CWLA. “Many are tired of being the de facto system for what is not working in other systems and in society at large.”

Sheriff Rochelle Bilal speaks at the Love Park rally Credit: Joshua Childs, Resolve Reporting Fellow

Another common thread at the conference was the role of media in disrupting the system.

The pattern is well-known to longstanding child services workers: The foster care and child welfare systems receive little coverage, until a tragedy occurs. Then coverage spikes, as news reports blast the agency, and the hunt begins for people to blame.

Caseworkers, fearful of facing the same fate as their colleagues, retreat into “defensive practice,” or a “foster care panic,” defending themselves by separating more families than usual — or necessary.

“All of this is very fragile,” said Vicky Kelly, a board chair at CWLA and former director of Delaware’s Division of Family Services. “It’s about language. When something goes wrong, the system is described as ‘broken.’”

CWLA attendees, including Kelly, asked for more frequent child welfare coverage and more context to be supplied in times of trouble.

For example, in Philadelphia fiscal year 2021, there were  approximately 28,000 child hotline calls and 12,000 investigations. A tragedy in one of these cases would be horrifying, but also an outlier. Yet a case like that can trigger a spike in negative coverage — and panic.

Philly and other systems around the country are moving to retool how they respond to such crises and spikes. Some are working with consultants like Collaborative Safety to adopt data-based practices used within the airline industry to promote safety and investigate tragedies for systemic flaws instead of people to fire and blame.

At the CWLA conference, administrators from the state of Indiana conducted a session on how using such data-based practices helped them, stating that adopting “safety science” measures preceded a drop in re-abuse among kids in the system and overall removals.

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,...