DHS: trouble handling the basics

Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services was rocked several years ago by the deaths of children due in part from poor oversight of outside agencies charged with their care.

A new commissioner was brought in with promises to overhaul the agency. While progress has been made, a recent audit has uncovered troubling record-keeping problems with the agency doling out $81 million without required audit reports.

Despite shoddy paperwork, taxpayer-funded grants were given to service providers during the fiscal years 2006 to 2008, according to findings by City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

The lack of oversight and accountability put millions of dollars at risk of possible misuse. It also raises questions about how much progress has been made at DHS. The audit was released last week and spans the Street and Nutter administrations. Even more disappointing, some of the findings occurred under the watch of current Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose.

Ambrose was tapped in 2008 to put the dysfunctional agency back on track. Before her arrival, 25 children died needlessly over three years because of “significant system failures” in the department.

Ambrose has begun implementing sweeping reforms recommended by a blue-ribbon panel. Her efforts to restore public confidence, however, are undermined when the agency falls short.

The problem then and now — as suggested by the latest Butkovitz report — has been inadequate monitoring, follow-through, and compliance with such basic requirements as submitting audit reports on time.

DHS has since received all of the delinquent audits from vendors — some 22 months after they were due.

The audit focused largely on fiscal management findings didn’t find the grants were used improperly by nonprofits. Butkovitz has correctly threatened to withhold future payments to contractors that fail to provide audits.

In a statement Tuesday, Ambrose blamed the findings on a lack of a standard city policy, which has since been corrected. Only five of 128 audits due in 2009 are outstanding, she said.

That’s good news, but it should not have taken so long to address what should have been an obvious problem to an agency with a troubled track record.

If Ambrose wants to fulfill her goal to make DHS a national model for excellence in child welfare, more must be done to fix old problems.