DHS moves swiftly on review

The new leader said a probe in-house would review dozens of contractors being paid to monitor children.

In what he calls an effort to "begin to reestablish the credibility of this agency," Philadelphia's new child welfare commissioner has launched a plan to step up the monitoring of millions of dollars in contracts and revisit each child under the city's care.

Acting Department of Human Services Commissioner Arthur C. Evans, unveiling his plan Friday, said the agency would review the performance of dozens of contractors that are being paid to monitor thousands of children in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

In light of recent revelations about MultiEthnic Behavioral Health, a contractor terminated amid questions about a case in which a child died, Evans acknowledged the agency "needs to do a better job" monitoring its service providers.

He said the in-depth checks would start with agencies that had a recent child death on their caseload.

MultiEthnic had been hired under a program called "services to children in their own homes." This year, the city will pay $30 million to about 38 contractors to provide services in neglect cases that are not serious enough to warrant removing the children from their caregivers.

The Inquirer reported last month that a 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, Danieal Kelly, died in an August heat wave, her skin decaying with maggot-infested bedsores, despite being monitored by what were supposed to have been regular visits by MultiEthnic workers paid by DHS.

The newspaper later reported that MultiEthnic claimed to be visiting another teenager in his home while police were seeking him on murder charges.

Those stories followed an Inquirer investigation that raised questions about how DHS handled cases in which children later died.

According to the city, 25 children whose families were previously known to DHS have been killed by a caregiver since January 2003. Even as children were dying, The Inquirer found, DHS failed to make recommended improvements on how it evaluates risk to children.

"One of the challenges is that everybody wants us to fix everything now," said Evans, 47, who took the job last month after Mayor Street forced the resignation of Evans' predecessor, Cheryl Ransom-Garner.

"We can't fix everything now. . . . We really are focusing on policies and procedures that assure us that kids are getting what they need, our staff is doing what they need to do, and that kids are safe."

Evans' plan calls for agency caseworkers to revisit each of the 26,000 children in the DHS system to ensure they are safe.

The agency will use a new safety-screening tool designed to reduce reliance on the individual judgment of caseworkers. Information collected in those visits will be compiled in a new database, Evans said.

All children under 6 will be seen in the next 30 days, Evans said, and the rest within three months.

Evans said his reform plan was designed to quickly fix immediate problems. The agency cannot afford to wait, he said, for the longer-term reviews of DHS that are to be undertaken by a panel named by Street and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.

Those reviews are focusing on recent child deaths and what the agency can learn from them, the commissioner said. Street has named four of the nine members to his panel, expected to present a report by May 1. Harrisburg has not said when its review will be finished.

Union leaders and child advocates who crowded into a small DHS conference room for Friday's briefing praised the plan, but expressed concern about how DHS workers would be able to carry it out while performing their everyday duties.

"We think everyone in this room understands that implementing this plan is no small feat," said Cathy Scott, a leader of the DHS caseworkers union."It will take time, money and commitment, and we agree that it is our most important task."

Frank Cervone, a child advocate who has been named to serve on Street's DHS panel, called the plan "a courageous, visionary approach to a quick start."

But he asked Evans to go further in one section that promises "increasing transparency and accountability."

Evans said he planned a Web site that will explain to the public what lessons are learned from so-called child-death reviews - the internal DHS investigations of each child death. Those reviews are now secret.

The plan includes a promise to "enhance" the department's ombudsman's office, which is designed to investigate complaints about DHS from the public; and to set up telephone hotlines and e-mail accounts to solicit feedback from the public and from DHS staff.

The agency also will review random samples of cases from units that have experienced child deaths in recent years.

Evans disclosed Friday that after The Inquirer stories there had been a spike in efforts by DHS workers to remove children from homes in suspected abuse cases - a phenomenon known as placement panic.

After media scrutiny of mistakes that lead to child deaths, caseworkers tend to be more aggressive in removing children from caregivers. That can be a problem if there is a lack of good foster homes or other options, experts say.

Evans said his staff was trying to quantify the spike in removals. Calls to the child-abuse hotline also have increased, he said.

"Whenever you have these kinds of incidents, there's more conservatism" among caseworkers, he said."We want to make sure that they are not overly cautious."

Contact staff writer Ken Dilanian at 215-854-4779 or at kdilanian@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Wendy Ruderman contributed to this report.