State and local elected officials called yesterday for hearings into the conduct of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services (DHS), the $600 million agency that investigates child abuse.
Rep. George Kenney (R., Phila.), who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said he was not satisfied with how DHS responded in an article in Sunday's Inquirer examining recent child-abuse deaths. He said he was considering legislative oversight hearings and subpoenas to demand documents from the department, which is funded largely with federal and state dollars.
"If the agency needs help, tell us you need help," he said. "But the bottom line is, it shouldn't be secrecy and confidentiality where children continue to die, especially if these deaths were preventable."
City Controller Alan Butkovitz said he also planned to hold hearings, which he said the City Charter gives him the authority to do. Butkovitz said he would ask experts, including Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania, to testify about how to improve the department's investigative procedures.
The Inquirer reported Sunday that from 2003 through 2005, 20 children died of abuse or neglect after they or their families had contact with DHS. There were 10 such deaths last year alone. The article spotlighted three cases in which signs of danger appeared to have been missed or discounted.
The death rate among children who have come to the attention of DHS is on the rise, three years after a string of blunders by the agency was widely blamed for failing to prevent the torture-murder of toddler Porchia Bennett. Although that case prompted the department to seek advice on how to improve its investigations, agency officials have failed to act on most of those recommendations, The Inquirer found.
The Inquirer stories explained that confidentiality rules make it nearly impossible for the public to learn how DHS is performing.
"No administration has been more committed than this one in caring for children. It is our number-one priority," said Joe Grace, a spokesman for Mayor Street. "This administration and DHS are committed to doing everything within our power to protect our children."
The department's commissioner, Cheryl Ransom-Garner, defended the agency in recent interviews without discussing the handling of specific cases.
Butkovitz said he found her responses lacking.
"It did not indicate any sense of urgency or an appreciation that the agency might be the only thing that is between defenseless children and an early death," he said. "It was a kind of shrug of the shoulders and 'What can we do?' I think there needs to be more of a sense of passion and zeal."
Butkovitz said he wanted the agency to explain why it had not fully implemented the recommendations of consultants who say its risk-assessment procedures are inadequate.
The state Senate may also examine DHS, said a spokeswoman for Sen. Leanna Washington (D., Phila.).
The senator "is asking officially for the Senate Aging and Youth Committee to take a look at what you wrote in your article, and the implications of it, and we will have some sort of official look that will allow us to request documents," said Pamela Smith-Chavis, the aide.
Potential mayoral candidates also weighed in yesterday.
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) said he believed DHS had been improving, but he criticized the state confidentiality rules that shield its actions from public scrutiny.
"I think that one of the biggest fallacies here is that secrecy somehow protects these children," he said. "We need to get more information. We need to be more transparent."
Democrat Jonathan Saidel, a former city controller, said the deaths point out the need for closer scrutiny of all the city's departments.
"I don't believe that DHS wanted to kill these children, but it is a perfect example of people being overworked, and an opportunity for us to make some material changes so that this horrible type of incident never occurs again," he said.
Labor leader John Dougherty, a close ally of Street's, defended the agency.
"I know that DHS has implemented reforms over the past five or six years that have made children safer and repaired a lot of fractured families," he said in a statement. "There is undoubtedly more that can and should be done, but it would be a mistake to look to DHS alone to solve this problem."
Rep. Scott Petri (R., Bucks), who participated in legislative oversight hearings after the Bennett murder, offered a different view.
"If you look at the Porchia Bennett situation and you say, what went wrong, well, basically everything went wrong. The entire system failed the family. If you look at each of those areas, could I look somebody in the eye and say anything has changed? No."
An Inquirer investigation into the city's handling of child-abuse deaths is at http://go.philly.com/dhs
Contact staff writer John Sullivan 215-854-2473 or firstname.lastname@example.org.