When Cynthia Figueroa was named the commissioner of the Department of Human Services in July, she received more condolences than congratulations.
"It really struck me. Before I had even started, [I got] this defeatist, almost negative, 'oh, look, she's got a smile now but just wait' attitude," Figueroa said in an interview last week, her first on the job. "If people want, or hope, for this department and this position to get it right, we really have to be in this more together."
Figueroa, who flashed a big smile and pumped her fist at her appointment, isn't naïve about the challenges ahead but thinks there is room and need for enthusiasm.
There's plenty of gloom and doom. The agency is operating under a provisional license after the state found it in violation of child welfare laws. A 10-year-old boy recently died under the agency's care, after a slew of failures and missed opportunities. And the system now has more children in foster care than it did four years ago despite a 10-year reform effort producing limited results.
Figueroa, 43, a former deputy commissioner at DHS, spent the last five years as president and CEO of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a nonprofit that provides social services to the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
News coverage in May of DHS caseworkers falsifying documents prompted her to seek her new job.
"That was, to me, a little bit of a call to action, to say 'I can stand on the sidelines and complain like folks and disparage this department, or I can decide I want to be part of the solution,' " she said.
Figueroa sought guidance from advisers, including David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president of Comcast, a major supporter of Congreso.
"I said to her, 'This is the toughest job in city government, and it has the potential to eat people alive ... so if you're not up for the challenge of your lifetime, this would be a really bad idea,' " Cohen said. " 'But, speaking as a citizen of Philadelphia, I really hope you will take the job.' "
Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Miami at age 5. Her father, American-born but reared in Cuba, and her mother, an immigrant from Honduras, instilled a sense of duty in her from a young age.
Figueroa's father was a Peace Corps volunteer turned Catholic school teacher. She learned English at the same time as her mother, who worked as a clerk in a hardware store. The family didn't have a lot but made ends meet.
"My parents were both products of significant poverty, and even given that, they gave us the most amazing loving home but also this significant sense of responsibility," Figueroa said.
Figueroa's first job out of college was with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Detroit, living below the poverty line and working at a domestic violence shelter.
The job challenged the 22-year-old from the start. A woman at the shelter had fled her abusive husband, but had a son still living with the father in her home. Figueroa suspected the boy was also being abused and wanted to report the situation to the authorities.
Her supervisor told her not to, because it could compromise the mother's trust and her parental rights. Figueroa reported it anyway, and the child was removed from the home -- but Figueroa was shunned from returning to work.
"It was the right call in that situation," she said. "I will stand for what's right. No matter the cost it has in that moment."
Figueroa will be the department's fourth commissioner in less than five years. As DHS has decentralized and privatized some of its operations, tension has emerged between city employees and the private contractors.
This summer, District Council 47 AFSCME, the union representing DHS workers, called on the state to dismantle the reform model involving 10 "community umbrella organizations," or CUAs, that provide ground-level work to families.
Meanwhile, the state has directed DHS to cut its city workforce in order to divert resources to better support the CUAs.
"Obviously the threat of one person's employment over another is a difficult thing to manage," Figueroa said. "My goal is to try to bring folks together where we can."
Figueroa said she has no plans to lay off DHS workers but will continue to decrease staff via attrition.
She wants to hold CUAs more accountable by tracking their handling of cases through performance reviews that could be published online. The department would then use those ongoing reviews to determine whether contracts get renewed.
At Congreso, Figueroa won awards for analyzing the organization's performance and using the data to guide changes.
Figueroa lives in Mount Airy with her husband, Robert Clark, and their 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.
Clark, 42, a marketing manager at CertainTeed in Malvern, describes his wife as a great mother, a lover of exercise and running, a skilled cook (particularly of Latin food), and "a wonderful partner of 18 years."
"There's nothing she can't tackle," Clark said. "Nothing she's not up for once she sets her mind on it. She wants to do the right thing and in this case, she'll give everything to this job."
When Figueroa drives around Philadelphia's more impoverished neighborhoods and passes children on front steps or out playing, she says she often wonders, "Are they OK? Are we helping them?"
"As overwhelming as this job is, it's not the 5,900 kids we're taking care of that worry me," she said of children under the agency's care. "It's the kids who might be at risk who we don't even know about. When I took this job, I told myself, I'm not taking this job because I think that means there will never be another child death. I took this job to make us as accountable as possible to the kids we serve."