A daunting fight in DHS trenches

Caseworkers cope with poverty, abuse — and the fallout from children’s deaths.

Paula Soloman parallel-parked her hulking city-issued van into a tight space in front of the weathered white house.

Finally, she thought, she was going to meet the elusive Nakesha Bridges.

For months, the 19-year-old mother had been playing a real-life game of three-card monte with the Department of Human Services.

Soloman, a heavyset woman of 44, assertive and earnest, in faded jeans, reached for her clipboard and camera. An investigative social worker, she had been working on this case since June, when a report came in that a mother was giving her 2-year-old son beer but no food, and punching him in the chest. It also alleged that, in a fight with a neighbor, the mother was swinging with one arm while holding her baby in the other.

Over the summer, Soloman had left letters and messages for Bridges at three addresses where she and her boys supposedly lived. When Bridges failed to respond, Soloman got a court order, hoping to force the young woman out of hiding.

"We've had three court dates," Soloman said. "She never showed."

In October, a bench warrant was issued, and a threat to stop her welfare checks. That got her attention. In mid-November, Bridges called Soloman and agreed to meet her at this house.

"She's just a kid herself," Soloman said, walking up the porch steps. "One of the recycles, barely out of our system."

In this business, where social workers face long odds, Bridges is a perfect - and discouraging - example of how intractable the problems are. From age 13 until last year, she herself was a child of neglect, under DHS protection. She had been placed in several group homes, and repeatedly had run away.

She would try to run this day, too.

As Soloman reached the door, an ambulance pulled up and two paramedics jumped out. Bridges appeared on the porch, holding her 2-year-old boy, bundled in pajamas and an Eagles jacket and crying.

"He has a fever," she told the paramedics. "He won't stop crying."

As they hustled into the ambulance and raced away, Soloman watched, the red lights flashing in her stunned face.

• 

Every year, the city receives an average of 15,000 reports of child abuse and neglect, about 30 percent of which are found to be partly or wholly true.

The agency's 161 investigators each get six to 10 new cases a month. They visit homes, schools and hospitals, interviewing children, neighbors, teachers, doctors and relatives - anyone who might have information. They decide if the children are really at risk. And if so, whether to remove them from the home or refer the family for services.

In October, an Inquirer investigation found that eight children in the last three years died of abuse or neglect despite DHS involvement. Later, the agency said at least six children had died while the city was paying a contractor to check on them.

Martha Poller, a social work administrator who has been with the department 27 years, said she could remember every child who died.

"It's tough," Poller said. "We can't read minds. We don't have crystal balls. A parent who is very contrite with us could turn to a kid and say, 'You got me in trouble. I'm going to hit you again.' "

Social workers like Soloman are among the strongest members of the staff.

"There is a wide range of skills, of course," said Poller. "Some supervisors are more zealous than others. Some will try to cover for weak workers who are burned out and just don't care anymore, or who don't quite have the gumption or strength to deal with difficult issues."

Poller can recall about 15 firings, and a few others who left on their own after they were reprimanded for lying about making visits to a client.

"The truly bad ones are few and far between," she said. "Some we help shape up. Some we help ship out."

• 

Every choice has rough edges.

Take a child, and put him... where? There's a shortage of good foster homes. Leave a child, and who knows what may happen? DHS hires private companies to work with troubled families - teaching parenting skills, getting them medical and mental-health care and making sure they have enough to eat.

Given the consequences of making the wrong decision, a social worker like Soloman can have trouble staying detached.

Blunt-spoken and unadorned by makeup or jewelry, she projects a tough image, but her desk is covered with a Minnie and Mickey Mouse collection. She buys her clients toys. She carries with her a photo of a baby she recently saved from starvation - a child she pledges to visit until he is safely out of adolescence.

When Soloman first went into the field out of college, she was so disturbed by the suffering she saw that she quit and spent 10 years as a pediatric dental assistant.

"I wanted to take every kid home with me," she said.

Since returning to DHS three years ago, she still takes her cases personally. "I won't go out of a house unless I know I can sleep that night."

So it troubled her that, for five months, she could not be sure that Bridges' boys, Keshawn and Tavon, were safe.

• 

Children everywhere are neglected and abused. Whatever defect drives people to treat their young barbarically, it is not the exclusive domain of the poor and urban. DHS workers have to be careful not to punish families who are simply overwhelmed.

"Poverty is not a crime." That is the mantra Soloman and her coworkers repeat every time they walk into a house where parents seem to have given up, crushed by the weight of need and obligation.

Shamah Ellis, an investigator based on the same floor as Soloman in the DHS office building at 16th and Arch Streets, was called out last month on just such a case.

The mother had cerebral palsy, the report said, and was unable to care for her three children.

Ellis pulled into a street as narrow as an alley. From the outside, the house looked well-kept. A woman with one sock on invited Ellis in, and introduced herself as Alex.

She was eating pudding from a takeout container. Her year-old daughter, leaning against her knees, begged for a bite.

"I bought this for me," Alex told her. "I don't want to share no more."

The living room smelled of urine and disinfectant. A cupboard by the door contained a can of odor eliminator, D-con and Pepto-Bismol. The dirty carpet was strewn with empty syringe packaging, bits of paper, shoes, kids' bicycles, a box of Huggies, two folded lawn chairs and a cell phone broken into pieces. On the wall behind the television hung a series of educational flash cards showing household items.

A boy, who looked 6 or 7 and wearing only a diaper, peered through the railings of the stairs leading to the second floor.

"He's autistic, but you can say hi," his mother said.

"Hi, buddy," Ellis said, then told the mother the allegations.

"Can you come in here, Rob?" Alex called to a man putting dishes away in the kitchen. He was shirtless. Apologetic about the messy house.

The report was wrong, he said. "We have all our utilities." A former paratransit driver, he recently lost his job. "But I'm going to find another one soon."

Alex confided in Ellis about her medical problems. "Mild CP," a seizure disorder and diabetes. She patted her belly.

"How far along are you?" Ellis asked.

"Four months."

With her health issues and the $600-a-month rent, they were struggling, she said, but she did not understand why someone would say she was unable to care for her children.

Upstairs, the other social worker asked Rob to turn on the water in a trash-filled sink and flush the toilet, then peeked into a cluttered room with bunk beds.

"We just had it cleaned up, but we let the kids play in here," Rob said, explaining that his two sons from a previous relationship were visiting over the weekend.

He led her to the main bedroom, where a 3-year-old girl, eating a pretzel and mustard, flashed them a megawatt smile from atop the rumpled bed.

The family, he said, planned to move into a larger place, at $100 more a month.

"If you can't afford 600, how are you going to afford 700?" Ellis asked.

"Long story," Alex said.

"Do you have any relatives you can stay with?"

"No."

Gently, Ellis suggested: "After this, would you consider birth control?"

"I have trouble with birth control because of my medicines," Alex said.

The baby begged for more pudding. Her mother handed the child and the dessert to Rob.

"Has she eaten?" Ellis asked.

"Believe me, she eats," Alex said. "She just finished two slices of pizza."

"OK. So let's think about this. If you're having a hard time paying for this place and your husband isn't working... I think 700 would push you guys over the top. Do you think you can talk your landlord into leaving it at 600?"

"I'm going to find work," Rob repeated, trying to appease the baby, who was fussing, trying to grab the pudding.

Ellis gave them a voucher for food stamps, then told them she would come back for a second visit.

"I did tell your husband... "

"Boyfriend," Alex corrected.

"... boyfriend, that you will have to clean up."

"No problem," Rob said. "She's had a lot of doctor's appointments the last couple of days. We've been coming back dead tired. It usually doesn't look this way."

Ellis nodded. "I'll leave you my card so you can call with questions and concerns."

"Thanks," Alex said. "Sorry about the mess."

• 

In the back of every DHS worker's mind lurks the chilling knowledge that no matter how thoroughly you investigate, how carefully you monitor, children might still get hurt.

After the ambulance took off with Nakesha Bridges and her toddler, Soloman went into the house and found a spindly young man giving a bottle to a 5-month-old baby on his lap. Politely but pointedly, Soloman grilled him. He was the baby's father, 20 years old, working and trying to finish high school.

"Do you have any idea how long we've been trying to get in touch with you?" she asked.

He said he had no idea that DHS was looking for him, or that Bridges - his baby's mother - had claimed to live at this address. It was his family's home. He and Bridges were no longer a couple. She came over from time to time. Whenever she left the baby, his parents helped out.

Soloman looked around the ground floor and talked to other family members before she advised the baby's father to seek emergency custody. Then she told him he should persuade Bridges to be straight with DHS and stop running.

He said he would try.

"But she just might be scared of you guys."

• 

The same day that Ellis visited the pregnant mother of three, she was asked to investigate a report that a 7-year-old had been whipped by his mother with an extension cord.

If true, the case would be mild on the scale of offenses that DHS social workers witness every month.

Newborns stashed in corners like dirty laundry. Toddlers walking through dog feces in the living room. Children who no longer flinch when cockroaches drop from the ceiling. Kids beaten with hammers and fists. Gnawed by rats. Starved, kicked, whipped, burned, raped.

"I think I've seen just about everything," said Ellis, 27, who has been with DHS four years. And the hardest part, she says, is that bones break more easily than bonds. "No matter how badly they've been abused, they all love their parents."

Her coworkers call her "the crybaby," she confesses. "I try not to let them see me cry, but you just have to."

Ellis and her husband, who works in the prison system, have a 3-year-old daughter. Before putting her little girl into preschool, she ran background checks on everyone who worked there.

Usually, DHS workers travel alone, but on this day, Ellis was working with her friend, Elisha Ramberan. They would start the investigation at the boy's school, where children often feel safe to talk.

Inside, the boy, his clean oxford shirt hanging loosely on his thin frame, pushed hard against the grand double doors leading from the corridor to the nurse's office, where Ellis was waiting for him.

He stole timid glances at the adults gathered in the hall - the principal, a security guard and Ramberan.

She spoke to him, gently. "Do you know why you're here?"

Without a word, he lifted his arm, crosshatched with lash marks.

"Are you nervous?"

"No," he said, biting his fingernails and sniffing back tears.

"It's OK," Ramberan said. "Trust me. It's OK."

The following day, Ellis interviewed the boy's parents at home. He seemed happy and at ease. The parents seemed loving. They had hit him, but not maliciously. The marks on his skin did not leave scars, Ellis said. Ellis gave the parents a warning and advice about less aggressive forms of discipline.

The incident, she decided, did not seem to indicate a pattern of abuse.

She hoped she was right.

• 

An hour after the ambulance pulled away, Soloman went searching for Bridges.

She was angry.

"I feel like I've been played like a card," she said, climbing into her van.

She tracked Bridges down in the emergency room at St. Christopher's Hospital. The young mother was watching television. Her 2-year-old, Keshawn, was sitting quietly a few yards away.

As soon as she saw Soloman, the mother scooped up the boy. "Time to be up front," Soloman said.

Before they could talk, Bridges had to register. While Soloman lingered in the waiting room, she met another DHS worker, accompanying a teenage client.

"If I need to take this child, can I use you as backup?" Soloman asked.

"No," her colleague said. "What will I do with mine?"

It was past 5 p.m., the end of Soloman's shift, when the hospital gave them a room to speak in private.

Bridges denied ever punching her son, and lifted his shirt to show his pristine belly. "I won't lie. I do slap his thigh or pluck his fingers, but I don't hit my baby in the chest," she said.

As she tried to explain herself, her tone shifted with adolescent frenzy from indignant to defensive to plaintive, then dreamy.

"There's a lot I want to do," Bridges said. "I want to be a pediatrician. I want to do cosmetology. Or be a cook. Or a fashion designer." And above all, she said, she wanted to keep her babies.

"I want to put my kids in day care and work, to where my sons can love me. I want to get off welfare. I have real big dreams of going to my prom and the dresses I'll wear."

Her boy nuzzled her neck and stroked her arm.

They have been living like hermit crabs, she admitted, staying with relatives and for a while, squatting in an abandoned house. But they were about to move in with her new boyfriend.

Soloman asked Bridges to get the guy on the phone. She did, and Soloman asked him about his intentions. He said Bridges and her boys were moving in, but that he was just a friend.

Bridges hurriedly explained that he was probably afraid of leveling with DHS. After all, she said, the man was 47 and she was only 19.

Bridges squirmed. "Can I tell you something?" She began to cry.

"I know what you're going through is hard," Soloman hushed.

"When I first had my baby, my DHS worker came out and said I was one of the best damn mothers she's had."

"You need to show us that... . I'm not looking to judge you. I'm just looking for a way to help you."

• 

After an initial visit, DHS investigators have 60 days to decide what to do with a case. They have to retrieve old files, wait for medical reports, and locate all the children in the family, who are sometimes spread out across the city.

Legally, social workers are not supposed to carry more than 30 cases, but in reality, DHS workers say, any more than 10 will sink you. That is when caseworkers become overwhelmed and burned out.

As an investigator, Soloman's involvement with a family ends once she determines their needs - remove the child, get the family help, or close the case. She is efficient about keeping her caseload manageable. But Nakesha Bridges was not going to be quick and easy.

She wanted to be trusted. She wanted to keep her kids. But she also wanted to live with a man old enough to be her father.

Back at the office, Soloman looked up the records on Bridges' new boyfriend.

She found a file.

He had two children, both neglected.

Child Abuse and DHS

By the numbers

15,000    Approximate number of reports of abuse and neglect

    received in a year

30    Approximate percentage substantiated

161    Number of social workers investigating cases for DHS

4.5    Average number of years they stay in their jobs

6.5    Annual percentage attrition rate for all social work staff

    in the Children and Youth Division

$30,134    Salary range

- $52,133   

What is abuse?

Physical abuse - A recent act (within the past two years) or failure to act, which causes a non-accidental serious physical injury that causes the child severe pain or significantly impairs the child's functioning, either temporarily or permanently.

Mental abuse - An act or failure to act that results in a psychological condition, as diagnosed by a physician or licensed psychologist.

Serious physical neglect- A prolonged or repeated lack of supervision or the failure to provide the essentials of life including adequate medical care, which endangers a child's life or development or impairs the child's functioning.

SOURCE: Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare


Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com.