After scathing report on Philly’s child welfare system, DHS head describes efforts to improve

Philadelphia City Hall (Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital)

Philadelphia City Hall (Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital)

A Philadelphia City Council committee questioned the head of the city’s child welfare system Friday, over concerns about excessive family separations and mismanaged cases of abuse.

“It’s just unfathomable, the idea of removing a child from a household situation in which they could actually stay, with the right supports,” said Special Committee on Child Separation in Philadelphia co-chair Councilmember Cindy Bass. “What else can we do … to keep families unified?”

The hearing came weeks after the committee released a report that accused Philly’s Department of Human Services of separating some families without reason, perpetuating race and class bias, and punishing mothers for being victims of domestic abuse.

It recommended dozens of reforms — including abolishing mandatory reporting.

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Department of Human Services Commissioner Kimberly Ali testified Friday that her agency is working to reduce family separations by helping mandatory reporters refer families to services.  She admitted Black children are overrepresented in Philly’s child welfare system, but said her agency is committed to doing better.

“We have to look at our internal policies and our processes to determine if they have an anit-racist lens,” she said.

Ali presented data showing that in recent years, her agency has reduced the number of kids it puts in out-of-home care. She said her agency is working on developing an alternate hotline focused on connecting families to services.

But committee member Yolanda Bryant says she’s been fighting to get her grandkids out of the system.

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“Our children are still suffering,” Bryant said. “Our families are still suffering.”

The committee is also evaluating the city’s oversight of contracted case management nonprofits known as Community Umbrella Agencies (CUAs) — after one settled with three sisters it returned to their sexually abusive father.

Committee co-chair Councilmember David Oh asked witnesses during the hearing how the current system could be improved.

David Krain of AFSCME District Council 47, which represents workers in the nonprofit and government sectors, said work by CUAs has become “hit-or-miss.”

“A lot of times, if the CUA would say, fail to do something or follow up, it’s going to fall back on to DHS anyway,” Krain said. “It’s kind of like there’s really nothing to hold them accountable.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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