Pa. aide demoted in fallout at DHS

Amid an inquiry into child deaths in Phila., the aide, in the job

The state official in charge of regulating Philadelphia's child-welfare system has been removed from his post amid questions about why the city agency received passing grades while child-abuse deaths were increasing.

State Welfare Secretary Estelle Richman said she demoted the Southeastern Pennsylvania regional director after deciding that her agency, the Department of Public Welfare, had not properly monitored Philadelphia's Department of Human Services.

"There hasn't been any oversight on the state's part," she said yesterday.

Richman said she was recently startled to learn that DPW wasn't performing its own reviews of child deaths in Philadelphia. She said she had assumed they were being done.

"There have been no death reviews done in this region in the past few years, and it's my policy to do them," said Richman, who was Philadelphia's managing director before she became welfare chief in 2003.

Although the DHS is a city department under Mayor Street, it gets most of its money from the state and federal governments and must follow state rules. The DPW is supposed to make sure that happens.

The former regional director, Alexander Prattis, had worked in that job for less than a year, Richman said.

He is returning to his former job in the division, and will be replaced on Monday by Roberta Trombetta, who has been involved in juvenile justice and child-welfare issues in Harrisburg and Philadelphia.

"We've had some concerns that the person wasn't strong enough for the job and we really needed a more sophisticated level of leadership," Richman said, adding that recent Inquirer stories on DHS "sort of pushed us over the edge. "

An Inquirer investigation published Oct. 15 raised questions about whether DHS could have better protected children who were later killed by caregivers.

The story noted that the welfare department had not cited the city agency for any major regulatory violations in the last three years.

The story also reported that the number of child deaths in families known to DHS had risen from 3 in 2003 to 10 in 2005.

Trombetta will take over a regional child-welfare office at Broad and Spring Garden Streets.

"I am feeling excited about a new challenge, and I'm interested to get down there and meet the team," said the 39-year-old lawyer, who is the mother of two teenagers. She is paid $85,047 a year.

The welfare department also was not performing death reviews under Prattis' predecessor, Anne Shenberger, who spent 20 years in the post, Richman said. She left at the end of 2005 to become executive director of Philadelphia Safe and Sound, a city-funded child-advocacy group.

In a statement, Shenberger did not address the death reviews, but said she forced reforms in DHS after problems arose in the 1980s.

"Clearly, we are back in a similar situation again," she said. "We need to review the system again and make whatever reforms are necessary to better protect the city's children. "

Prattis, whose salary is $58,465, did not return two voice mail messages left at his office.

Richman said that, although state officials in Philadelphia had been participating in death reviews conducted by DHS, the only independent death review they had conducted in recent years was in the case of Porchia Bennett, a toddler who was killed in 2003 after blunders by DHS. No regulatory violations were cited in that review, records show.

Richman could not explain why her agency wasn't performing death reviews in Philadelphia.

Her plan now is to review each death from 2003 and to hire a team of outside experts to examine Pennsylvania's child-welfare system.

Richman said she wanted to make clear that the state, not Mayor Street, would lead the joint review of recent child deaths.

In a separate development, Richman said she would order an audit of payments to Multiethnic Behavioral Health, the agency that was paid to visit 14-year-old Danieal Kelly but found no problems while she was wasting away with bedsores. The girl died in an extreme heat wave this summer.

The Inquirer reported Wednesday that police were investigating the circumstances surrounding the death, which the medical examiner said resulted in part from neglect.

DHS has paid the company $3.6 million since 2001, city records show. Richman said some of that was from state coffers. Richman, who was working for the city in 2001, said she did not know how Multiethnic was hired.

"There's no way you could have visited this child and not known there was something wrong," the welfare secretary said.

Also yesterday, DHS workers were circulating a letter sent to them Wednesday by Arthur C. Evans Jr., the new agency chief.

"Clearly, some of the recent articles in the media may serve to undermine the credibility of this agency and its people," Evans wrote. "It is important to me that you understand how much I respect the work you do. "

He added: "In the tragic case of Danieal Kelly, we must acknowledge in our own hearts that the collective child welfare system did fail this child. We must learn from this sad episode, honestly assess our own behavior and that of our system partners, and embrace new reforms and ideas."


Inquirer staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.

To read the Inquirer investigation of child deaths that led to the DHS shakeup, visit http://go.philly.com/dhs

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