When Judge Lyris Younge was reassigned out of Philadelphia Family Court, parents and guardians whose children she had ordered into foster care shared a glimmer of hope.
About half of her rulings have been reversed or overturned by state appellate judges for violating due process.
But parents still fighting for custody of their children say Younge’s exit is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the city, mothers and fathers are accusing the Philadelphia Department of Human Services of corruption including falsifying reports and denial of due process.
“It is much bigger than Judge Younge,” said Miltreda Kress of Holmesburg. “It is DHS. It’s CUA. It’s the child advocates.”
CUAs, or community umbrella agencies, are organizations Philadelphia contracts with to manage the thousands of children getting services from — or in the custody of — the city.
Kress’ children were taken into custody in September following allegations of abuse and neglect. After an investigation found there was no abuse, DHS used false reports to prove neglect, she claimed.
Younge presided over the case, but it’s since been sent to her replacement, Judge Joseph Fernandes. Kress’ hearing is scheduled later this month.
Several of those protesting Friday outside the Philadelphia Family Court building said family members have been unfairly denied custody of children, leaving them to foster homes. Others claimed claim children are physically and sexually abused with little to no repercussions.
Jeff and Virginia McKale said they were unfairly denied custody of their two grandsons by Younge who, at one point, issued a restraining order against them.
The boys are now in separate foster homes. One child has a developmental disability, and the other has already been through five different homes due to abuse, the McKales said. A new hearing is scheduled for September.
Even if she regains custody of her grandsons, Virginia McKale vowed she will continue to fight for what is right.
“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “Literally a nightmare. I never thought I’d be dealing with this, ever.”
DHS issued a statement, saying the parents’ claims are inaccurate. Agency officials reiterated their commitment to child safety and family reunification.
According to agency statistics, 61 percent of children are reunited with their families within a year, and 55 percent of children in family foster care live with kin.
The statement also urged disgruntled parents to file a complaint with the DHS’ commissioner’s action response office, but parents say the complaints are used for retaliation.
“It’s not like they’re separate from DHS,” said Angela Willard of Tacony. “They call right away and tell your caseworker what you said.”
Willard’s children were taken by DHS over abuse allegations. She has been fighting to regain custody of them for more than a year as she completed all of the court-ordered requirements to get them back.
After facing Younge, she had a new hearing before Fernandes. But, again, her hopes of being reunited with her children were denied.
Her attorney, Linda Walters, said when abuse or neglect accusations are settled or proved unfounded, parents often face another fight to regain their kids.
“It’s my fear it’s turning into a custody case and no longer an abuse case,” she said. “That’s my biggest fear in these cases.”
The mayor’s office released an evaluation of the city’s child welfare system in October. It found the city’s rate of out-of-home care is almost three times higher than the national rate.
In May, Mayor Jim Kenney created the Child Welfare Oversight Board to assess and review DHS.
No changes have been announced yet.