Philadelphia social workers and their agency seriously violated safety rules and procedures in a case that led to the death of a 5-year-old in 1997.
The Department of Human Services repeatedly dropped the ball and failed to check if the child's life was in danger, according to a state review of the death of Charnae Wise, whose skeleton police found in the basement of a Brewerytown rowhouse on Sept. 16, 1997.
The agency had been charged with helping the troubled family; Charnae lived with a number of siblings and their mother, Charlene Wise.
The state report said DHS failed to:
* Maintain a family service plan - an important document designed to provide social workers and the family with a guide of goals, services and schedules.
* Assign social workers so the Wise family could receive uninterrupted service.
* Document social workers' meetings with the family and a number of danger signals coming from the house at 3017 W. Harper St.
* Conduct crucial assessments that could have shown Charnae was in danger.
In June 1997, when the child was still alive, DHS closed the case without checking to see whether the child lived in a safe home, the state report said. A string of reports that could have documented abuse, neglect and other danger signs were also ignored.
``A number of them were what we would consider to be serious violations,'' said Anne Shenberger, the regional director of Children, Youth and Families at the state Department of Public Welfare in Philadelphia. The department licenses DHS to provide family services.
``It's hard to label how egregious this one was because we label all cases involving child abuse to be very serious,'' welfare department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said.
DHS commissioner Joan Reeves, who has called the tragedy ``unthinkable, unimaginable,'' declined to comment on the case.
Agency spokeswoman Patricia Bathurst cited ``pending litigation'' as the reason for the silence. There are no current lawsuits against the agency in the matter, she said, but there might be in the future.
Shenberger said the review found that DHS had taken steps to correct many of the violations in this case. She said an audit of the agency's work did not suggest that the violations were widespread: ``Our larger sample did not indicate this case was the norm. ''
Last month, Charlene Wise, 37, was convicted of murdering her daughter and sentenced to up to 56 years in prison.
Police reports and accounts at her trial showed that she abused drugs and alcohol. She beat some of her children and neglected them.
A long trail of warning signals preceded Charnae's death: Social workers in 1996 had taken her to Hahnemann University Hospital, where she weighed in at a malnourished 22 pounds. There were reports of abuse and anonymous calls to the local child-abuse hotline that children in the house were being ill-treated.
Even as Charnae's death came to light, her older brother was taken to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia covered with bruises, scars and welts.
The state review is based on an internal investigation into the case conducted by DHS. The DHS investigation has not been made public.
Bathurst declined to say whether any agency workers involved in the case had been disciplined.
The 1998 state review, which is a licensing inspection document, shows that the family had been active with DHS from February 1993 to January 1997. In the first months of 1997, services to the home were to have been delivered by a nonprofit social service agency in Germantown.
DHS contracted with the Juvenile Justice Center to monitor the family and make sure there was enough food, that the children were clothed and properly housed and attended school. Center social workers were to help with household management, doctors' appointments and to offer Wise some parenting skills.
The single mother refused to let them in.
``We need the cooperation of parents to be successful,'' said Richard Chapman, executive director of the center. He declined to comment on the specific case without the permission of DHS. ``We can't push our way in. ''
The center referred the family to the city in May 1997, shortly before DHS closed the case. Chapman said the city had not blamed the center for any wrongdoing.
The state review cited seven specific violations DHS committed.
There was no family service plan between June 1994 and July 1995. A required risk assessment was not conducted in February 1997. (The procedure investigates whether children in the house are in danger). Agency workers did not maintain records.
``The agency must record all activity of a case,'' said Shenberger, the state Department of Public Welfare official. ``They must record those facts - who was present, what went on, like an ongoing narrative. There was no narrative in this case. It means there was no recording of any activity. ''
The agency did not keep track of reports of abuse, or what social workers had done about them. Supervisors failed to oversee the case. There was a period in October 1996 when the family went without a caseworker because no one was assigned. In June 1997 the case was closed ``without an assessment of progress, or an assessment of whether the children continued to be in a safe home. Additionally, there was no closing summary in the case.''
``There was no documentation of why it was closed,'' Shenberger said. ``We don't know whether a social worker visited or not. There are no records. ''
In comments that were included in the state report, DHS said that it had found ways to identify cases that supervisors had not seen and that it had developed a system to ensure that supervisors documented their review of case records. It planned steps to ensure that inexperienced staff got experienced oversight.
The agency said it would ensure that the other documented lapses did not recur.
Saying that it had made ``systemic improvements,'' the agency denied responsibility for Charnae's death.