Just ahead of a Friday afternoon City Council hearing on the city's longtime practice of going after working-poor parents of incarcerated children for child support, the city Department of Human Services said it will act to end the practice, effective immediately.
"Our priority is to reunify families safely and quickly, and this decision is a great move forward toward that goal, as well as promoting family stability," DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said in a statement.
DHS sought permission from the state to end the practice four months ago, after advocates began raising awareness about its impact on Philadelphia families.
It became clear in the run-up to the Council hearing that the city need not wait any longer. Figueroa, in her testimony to Council, said the state Department of Human Services had shared its prepared testimony with her, indicating that Philadelphia had the option to stop collections.
The hearing on costs and fees in the juvenile-justice system proceeded anyway, as advocates sought to ensure that the practice would not resume.
"It's important that we're not balancing our budget on the backs of children and families that come from neighborhoods in poverty," said City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who called the hearing.
Figueroa said that DHS would cease collection immediately and that it was working with counsel to end any active orders for child support, which is often collected by garnisheeing parents' wages and tax refunds.
Students at the Justice Lab at the Sheller Center at Temple University, with support from the nonprofit Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP), first documented how the practice was making it difficult for families to stay afloat. The Inquirer wrote about the families' plight in November.
"People are having to make choices you would hope no parent would have to make," YSRP cofounder Lauren Fine said.
One father told YSRP he had debated whether to advocate for his son's case to be moved from adult to juvenile court. Though juvenile court would be a better outcome for his son, it would mean he would be charged child support he couldn't afford.
At the hearing, Kameelah Davis-Spears, a mother of four who works 62 hours a week at a low-wage security job, told Council how the city garnishees $13.71, plus a $2 processing fee, from her weekly check. The West Philadelphia woman said that was the end to pizza night for her kids, their one luxury after climbing out of deep poverty and living in shelters.
"I can't do the little things with my family that are important to us," she said.
Colleen Shanahan, the professor behind Justice Lab, celebrated the end of the practice.
But, she added, “it is as important that Philadelphia also immediately stop collecting from parents with existing orders, and that mechanisms are put in place to make sure this practice does not begin again.”
As of April 1, DHS will replace Steven Kaplan, the lawyer who handled child-support enforcement, with a minority-owned firm that already works with the Revenue Department. The city collected about $500,000 annually from parents of incarcerated kids, but it brings in nearly $2 million from parents of kids in foster care — including from the working poor. That practice, which critics say is making it harder for families to reunite and remain together, is continuing.
Also continuing are the other fees imposed against kids in the juvenile-justice system, including court fees and restitution -- even though studies have shown those fees, rather than teaching kids a lesson, actually increase recidivism.
Jessica Feierman of the Juvenile Law Center urged City Council to take those costs on next.
"We encourage you to think of this as an important first step," she said. "Philadelphia has the opportunity to lead the nation in eliminating juvenile-court costs."