Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Details of Porchia case's failures emerge

DHS officials knew more about what had gone wrong, but did not reveal it publicly - because they weren't asked, they said.

In the months after the torture-murder of 3-year-old Porchia Bennett, top officials at the Department of Human Services spoke of the 2003 case as a shattering event that would change the culture at the agency.

But as they promised reform, they didn't tell the public how badly the Bennett case had been handled, newly obtained court records show.

Just after Porchia's lifeless body was found - she had been whipped, pummeled and starved - the DHS commissioner at the time, Alba Martinez, told reporters that an anonymous abuse report had come in three days before her death. The caller said the Bennett children were being severely beaten.

Jerry Chambers, 34, was sentenced to death as well as 73 to 146 years in prison for murdering Porchia. His girlfriend Candice Geiger, 21 - Porchia's aunt - got 17 to 34 years for helping with the fatal beating. Porchia's mother, Tiffany Bennett, 30, is serving a sentence of 20 to 40 years for virtually abandoning her four young daughters in the squalid South Philadelphia home of Chambers, who was a crack addict.

Martinez said a caseworker, Joseph Maiden, had gone to the address, but couldn't get past a locked iron gate. Martinez said Maiden had left a letter asking the family to call DHS.

"Unfortunately in this case, our staff went out, did not hear any noises, left a letter for the family - which is a standard procedure - saying we're actively investigating, and the next time that we received a call on this family was on Sunday, when the 3-year-old had been found dead," Martinez said.

But weeks after she made that statement, Martinez came to believe that Maiden had never gone to the house, according to her testimony in a federal lawsuit.

The police told her that they had found no note, and that the house did not have a locked gate.

The next month, DHS instituted disciplinary charges against Maiden for lying and falsifying records. He retired and took the Fifth Amendment in response to every question about the case in a civil deposition.

This month, Maiden told The Inquirer that he had gone to the house but never checked to see whether the gate was locked. He said he felt scapegoated by the agency. "Just because the police didn't find my letter, that means I didn't go?" he asked.

However, a federal judge ruled in May that "the facts on record suggest that Maiden made no effort to respond to the hotline report, and then he lied about this."

In the weeks and months that followed, neither Martinez nor other top DHS officials corrected the record. The news media, including The Inquirer, continued to report Martinez's initial account. In interviews, Martinez and her successor, Cheryl Ransom-Garner, said they had not disclosed that Maiden did not go to the house because they had never been asked.

"We never had any intention to conceal," said Martinez, now chairwoman of the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. "Perhaps I wasn't asked in a way that triggered that answer."

The facts came to light through the investigatory efforts of Teri B. Himebaugh, a lawyer representing the Porchia Bennett estate, who obtained DHS records after the estate filed a lawsuit accusing DHS of violating the child's civil rights. A federal judge threw out the suit in May, saying there was no proof that DHS actively caused harm.

That ruling is on appeal. Meanwhile, DHS documents obtained by the plaintiffs offer an unusual look at an agency shielded from public scrutiny.

The documents show that Maiden was hired as a DHS caseworker after he was laid off by the city's Department of Human Relations, which investigates discrimination.

His only training, Maiden testified, was two months of "on-the-job training."

He said he felt he was competent.

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

Porchia Bennett, 3 years old

The commissioner of DHS in 2003, Alba Martinez, said a caseworker had found a locked gate at the house where Porchia was killed.

But Martinez later came to believe that the caseworker had never gone to the house, according to her testimony in a federal lawsuit.

Ken Dilanian and John Sullivan Inquirer Staff Writers
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