DHS mustn't blink

Experience shows that fixing the complicated child-welfare system requires constant attention to details. A new panel has all it needs.

By Paul DiLorenzo

Twenty years ago, I was a member of a team appointed by then-Secretary of Public Welfare John F. White to review the deaths of 21 children known to the Philadelphia child-welfare system.

The task was grueling and depressing. Our team dug deep into every corner of the Department of Human Services.

The report and recommendations were voluminous, but we agreed that "the child-welfare system in Philadelphia has broken down. . . . The system . . . is failing to protect children, failing to separate the causes from the symptoms, failing to establish time-framed, achievable objectives, failing to provide aggressive intervention, and failing to disengage when objectives have been met."

Subsequently, I have been involved in child-fatality reviews and system-improvement projects in many parts of the country.

The scenarios and conclusions rarely differ, and neither does the cycle of finger-pointing, improvement, business as usual, complacency and inevitable tragedy.

Since that 1987 study, Philadelphia has made tremendous progress in improving its child-welfare system.

Beginning with the administration of Mayor Ed Rendell, the human-services agency has enhanced social-worker training and supervision, reduced caseloads, and created child-abuse-prevention programs.

Under Mayor Street, Philadelphia now spends more money proportionately on child welfare than almost any other system in the country. There are higher levels of quality assurance and accountability.

However, almost predictably, the department and its contract agencies are again the subject of multiple reviews to determine how a new spate of child fatalities could have occurred.

Why?

Because all of the reform efforts are fragile and dependent on constant attention to detail.

To succeed in its mission of child protection, a child-welfare agency must continually determine who the most vulnerable children are and then make them its top priority.

An agency as large as the DHS, however, can easily be distracted in a city where almost 25 percent of the children live below the poverty line.

Any child death weakens our spirits. But the death of a child known to the social-service system elicits a whole other response: We want to know what went wrong, identify whoever is to blame, and reinvent programs for at-risk children.

We try to accomplish all of this within a relatively short period, mostly to demonstrate our righteousness and concern for the victim. This pattern repeats itself all over the United States, in large cities as well as in the most remote rural areas.

Most of us expect government to protect the most vulnerable citizens. In our haste, however, we delude ourselves into believing we are dealing with a straightforward challenge with a beginning, a middle and an end.

In reality, multiple factors, always in play, mitigate the agency's ability to maintain a consistent threshold of quality. As a result, tragedies occur, and when they do, we begin again the cyclical process of redefining the roles and responsibilities of the child-service agencies.

Fortunately, unlike our team in 1987, the panel chosen by Mayor Street will have much more socioeconomic data about the families involved to guide its recommendations.

The combination of those data, and the lessons learned from the recent tragedies, will enhance the next commissioner's ability to reduce the risk of child fatalities.

Still, when a child-welfare agency takes its eyes off its unique mission, the possibility of another child death remains.

The responsibility of protecting children and supporting family stability requires a relentless pursuit of excellence.


Paul DiLorenzo was director of children's policy at the Division of Social Services during Mayor Street's first term. He now is a consultant to child-welfare agencies in Philadelphia and other parts of the country. He writes from Bala Cynwyd.