Philadelphia parents say social workers taking away their kids without reason

Miltreda Kress organized a protest outside Family Court. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Miltreda Kress organized a protest outside Family Court. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Miltreda Kress has been fighting to get her three teenage daughters back for well over a year. They were placed in foster care in 2017 after a report of child abuse and neglect from a Philadelphia social worker.

Though she’s repeatedly denied those allegations, Kress said the city’s Department of Human Services and Family Court system refuse to let her children return home.

“My children have never been abused a day in their life,” she testified before City Council’s committee on Public Health and Human Services.

Kress was among dozens of parents who gathered Tuesday in City Hall for an hours-long hearing on the department’s reporting guidelines. Parent after parent shared stories about children unjustly being taken from them.

“They’re not seeing … what certain social workers are doing that’s hurting the entire system,” Kress said.

Councilman David Oh called the hearing after his own run-in with DHS. His son was hurt during a martial arts lesson at home, and that injury prompted a report of suspected child abuse, despite the lack of evidence, Oh said.

No abuse was found, and Oh said DHS needs more objective guidelines for reporting possible abuse to prevent unnecessary investigations.

“When the people in charge say, ‘There is no problem, nothing went wrong, that person did everything they should do,’ then I see that there is a problem because this will not correct itself,” he said.

Oh’s office is working on a form for mandated reporters to outline their suspicions. The form would be available for parents to see, and it would be reviewed for compliance with state law.

He said the hearing will continue next week because of the many parents weren’t able to testify Tuesday due to time constraints.

During the hearing, Councilman Al Taubenberger defended the department.

“The staff and social workers are understaffed and many times overworked. It is one of the most stressful jobs in all of city government,” he said. “But [for the] specific case that brought us here today, and in all cases where child abuse is a possibility, DHS should not be criticized for taking extraordinary measures to get to the truth.”

And DHS does have guidelines, said Cynthia Figueroa, the department commissioner, noting that its reporting is governed by Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Law.

Still, DHS is working to reduce the number of removals.

“We’ve done a lot on what we call the front end, which is our hotline, our intake and investigations, to make sure that we’re only bringing in families who are in absolute need of our assistance and oversight,” she said.

The number of DHS investigations decreased by 14 percent between FY2017 and FY2018. Also, the number of new families with children removed dropped from 805 to 739.

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