Teen under DHS care: A fugitive

A caseworker told the agency she saw the youth regularly. Police said he was on the run part of that time, sought in two slayings.

Throughout the summer, a city-paid caseworker visited the home of a troubled 17-year-old named Braheem Burke to make sure he was OK.

The worker's employer, MultiEthnic Behavioral Health, assured the city Department of Human Services in a report that the teen "remained safe," and that nothing unusual had happened to him.

But police tell a different story: During part of the time MultiEthnic claimed to be checking on the teen, Burke was a fugitive, wanted in a double slaying.

Burke was named in a murder warrant June 8. Three times over the next two months, police tried to catch him at his South Philadelphia home - they came armed, wearing body armor - but failed. They finally found him Oct. 4, hiding in a North Philadelphia home under construction.

MultiEthnic is a nonprofit agency that has been paid $3.6 million since 2001 to provide services to at-risk children. As The Inquirer reported last week, MultiEthnic was the company paid to check on Danieal Kelly, the 14-year-old girl, bedridden with cerebral palsy, who died of neglect in a stifling Mantua rowhouse.

Top city officials have acknowledged that her death, in August, reflects a failure on the part of DHS to do its job.

The Burke case is the latest example of questionable oversight by DHS, a $600 million agency that is supposed to serve at-risk children. Eighty-five percent of its budget, the bulk of which comes from federal and state funds, is spent on outside contractors.

An Inquirer investigation published Oct. 15 raised questions about whether DHS could have better protected children who were later killed by caregivers. The DHS commissioner and a deputy lost their jobs and a state official was demoted in the wake of the story and subsequent revelations.

On Friday, homicide detectives were astonished when told that a DHS contractor claimed to be providing services for Burke while they were trying to arrest him.

"That's ludicrous," said Detective Michael Walter.

Sgt. William Britt called the notion "incredible" and "bogus."

Britt said his squad descended on the teen's South Philadelphia house July 28, a day MultiEthnic claimed it was there for counseling, according to the company's report to DHS.

"I guess we must have just missed them," Britt said sarcastically.

A MultiEthnic quarterly report to the city, obtained last week by The Inquirer, lists a series of seven weekly "home visits" in June and July, after the slaying of two young men.

In a column DHS says was designed to list those who had been seen by a caseworker, MultiEthnic typed "Braheeim, Ms. Joan." Joan Burke is Braheem's mother.

In the view of DHS, that means the caseworker reported meeting personally with Braheem Burke, when in fact she had not, an agency source said.

A lawyer for MultiEthnic, Luther E. Weaver III, said Friday it was possible that the worker had indeed spoken with Braheem Burke, not realizing that the teen was a fugitive. Even if detectives couldn't find him, Burke might have shown up for meetings with his social worker, Weaver said.

"It just doesn't prove anything," Weaver said, referring to the teen's wanted status.

Weaver later called back to say that the caseworker did not remember reporting visits to the home after the murder warrant was issued. He asked a reporter to fax him MultiEthnic's document - which reports the seven visits.

The lawyer did not return subsequent phone calls.

MultiEthnic's executive director, psychologist Earle McNeill, could not be reached for comment.

Braheem Burke represents another facet of the agency's work - services to troubled teens. MultiEthnic's report appears to suggest that DHS had been providing services to the Burke family since November 2004.

According to the arrest warrant, Burke and an accomplice allegedly shot and killed two men, and injured a third, after an altercation on June 7. The dead were Niall Saracini, 18, and Charles Carter, 19.

The warrant says Burke and his cousin, Yusef Washington, 20, let loose with a noontime volley of shots in North Philadelphia that struck Carter in the head and Saracini in the neck and body, fatally injuring both. A third man was shot in the leg and survived.

Burke is being held without bail, awaiting trial. He has not entered a plea. Washington remains at large. At the time of the double slaying, Washington was a fugitive on a previous arrest on charges of dealing crack cocaine near where the shootings took place.

Though Burke is only 17, he has long been involved with the police. As a juvenile, he was twice arrested on charges of assault and twice for robbery, said a source familiar with his record. The cases had a mixed outcome, and Burke was never found formally delinquent.

In January, court records show, police arrested him on a charge of aggravated assault; police said he shot a 16-year-old girl in the leg in his mother's house when he was playing with a handgun. The charges were dropped after the girl failed to show up for a hearing.

MultiEthnic was providing what are called SCOH services, which stands for "services to children in their own home."

Records obtained by The Inquirer state that the teenager was monitored to prevent abuse, neglect and truancy.

It is not known why DHS first became involved with Burke, but law enforcement officials said it may have stemmed from his juvenile court history.

In an interview Friday, Joan Burke, 44, Braheem's mother, said that a social worker from MultiEthnic regularly visited her home in South Philadelphia in June and July, but never spoke with her son, because he was no longer living there.

She said he was staying with her mother in North Philadelphia, though police said they never found him at that address.

Joan Burke said the social worker would linger only briefly - sometimes just five to 10 minutes - and would leave after she told him her son was doing OK and was living elsewhere. Before the worker left, she said, she would ask Burke to sign a form affirming the visit.

Burke said she didn't know her son was being sought on a murder warrant. She said she did not think the MultiEthnic social workers knew that either.

It's unclear why a murder charge for a 17-year-old would not have come to the attention of DHS or MultiEthnic.

According to the MultiEthnic report, the company told the city it had "contacted Job Corp for Braheeim."

This was news to his mother.

"I never heard nothing about Job Corps," she said."I would have been all for that. If that happened, he wouldn't be in the predicament he's in now."

Burke complained that the agency's checks seemed cursory.

"There was no plan. . . . No goals or nothing," she said.

The MultiEthnic progress report, which covers the period from May 8 to Aug. 7, lists two DHS employees who were overseeing the case - caseworker James Butler and supervisor Jeanette Pringle. Butler did not return a voice mail left at the office.

Arthur C. Evans Jr., acting DHS commissioner, called the matter "very troubling."

He said the agency would look at this and other cases as part of an internal review of how it monitors contractors. A separate city-state panel will review DHS operations.

MultiEthnic's billings will be audited by the state Department of Public Welfare, officials said.

Evans noted that his predecessor, Cheryl Ransom-Garner, who was forced to resign Oct. 20, had terminated the contract and had begun moving the children to other providers. And when Evans took over, he moved 109 children who were still supervised by MultiEthnic to other providers, he said.

In an interview Friday, Ransom-Garner said that after the Kelly death she reviewed all active cases handled by MultiEthnic."We had concerns about several," she said, including both the Kelly and Burke cases.

Evans said he had not seen that review. He declined to discuss what other specific issues had arisen with MultiEthnic.

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

Inquirer staff writer Vernon Clark contributed to this article.