Police are investigating how a two-month-old boy was allowed to starve to death a few days before Christmas while staying at a shelter in West Philadelphia.
Travelers Aid is one of 12 shelters that contracts with the city to provide housing for homeless families. It serves meals in a communal dining room, has case workers who can help guests find permanent housing, and provides nurses who visit once a week to give vaccinations.
But all of the services it offers are optional. Philadelphia Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz says shelters have no legal right to make guests enroll in services.
“Unless we see overt misbehavior, either criminal misbehavior, substance use, child abuse or neglect actively,” Schwarz said, “the shelter doesn’t have a responsibility to mandate that someone be served.”
Part of the reason is that officials want shelters to remain relatively unobtrusive, to encourage people to come in off the street. Schwarz says that sometimes puts shelter social workers in tough situations.
“That becomes an issue if a parent is hiding something or trying to keep something from the shelter,” Schwarz said. “There is no mandatory way for the shelter to find out that information.”
Shelter workers are required to report abuse or neglect, but they can’t examine a child unless given permission by the family.
The infant, two-month-old Quasir Alexander, was pronounced dead at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on Dec. 23 after medics responded to a call at the shelter. Police say an autopsy revealed he died of starvation and dehydration, and ruled his death a homicide.
Ted Weerts, the executive director of Travelers Aid, couldn’t comment on the case but said the shelter is cooperating with the police investigation.
“It’s a very tragic circumstance, it’s a very unusual circumstance,” Weerts said, “There’s a great deal of investigation going on at this time.”
Police say an extensive investigation is ongoing, but as of yet won’t reveal further details.