Commentary: State delivers wake-up call to DHS

By SaraKay Smullens

Perhaps you recall the coverage through the years of children who died while under the care of the city's Department of Human Services (DHS). There was 5-year-old Charnae Wise, who died in her mother's basement. And 14-year-old Danieal Kelly, who was starved and weighed 46 pounds when she died, her body riddled by running sores and scabs. Tara M. did not die, but the 9-year-old was tortured and sexually assaulted by her foster parents.

These stories go back decades, and each new horror results in reports that document the horrors and call for reforms at DHS.

With such stories in mind, I was disheartened and angry - but not surprised - to read last week that the state had downgraded DHS's license. It now has a provisional certificate while it comes up with a plan to deal with the serious violations of child-welfare laws cited in the state audit.

Investigators visited all 10 of Philadelphia's Community Umbrella Agencies (CUAs), the neighborhood-based organizations that handle cases for DHS. They found a lack of access to records holding client histories and information about prior abuse, neglect, and criminal information; delays or absence of home-visit reports; nine records in which threats to a child's safety were not addressed; and a lack of training of staff and of those who care for our city's endangered children.

Though not surprised by the need for action, I became incensed when I read in the Inquirer that "Philadelphia is weighing whether to appeal the decision" - in other words, cost the city more money through legal challenges rather than face the truth and fix what is badly broken.

I have worked closely with many skilled, committed, dedicated social workers at DHS who do magnificent work. I well know all they carry, and I respect them enormously. However, the work they bravely carry on is within a seriously impaired setting. It wasn't always this way.

My first social-work job was at the Philadelphia Society to Protect Children, the private nonprofit agency that cared for abused and neglected children until the city took over these services. There I was trained by devoted, highly skilled professionals, a true rainbow coalition, who mentored superbly, helping us face the horrors we saw daily and use social-work skills to assist families in turning their lives around. (In those days, when a child had to be removed from a home, he or she was represented by a social worker, not a lawyer. Too often, regarless of the evidence presented, they were returned to a dangerous home. Today, fortunately, each child has legal counsel.)

More recently, during the years that Lynne Abraham was district attorney, I carried pro bono cases for the city. Few (thankfully) know the suffering and brutality seen on the front lines of what is known as "protective service."

Sadly, from what I have observed over the years, DHS has been a department in over its head, unable to implement necessary reforms, putting Band-Aids on festering problems for decades. There is inadequate emphasis on the complexity of child development and inadequate understanding of internal forces in some families that spell disaster.

Also lacking is emphasis on consistent family communication, as well as coordination with all resources serving their clients. Some of the city's most devoted and well-trained social workers have left DHS because overall standards have been so gravely lacking that they faced constant anxiety and frustration, culminating in burnout, as they tried to protect the children in their care. This high turnover rate makes it harder for the necessary trust between a vulnerable child and his or her social worker to develop, and the loss of competent staff impairs the availability of experienced supervision.

For social workers to do their job effectively, they must first have quality supervision and training, and high-level emergency services must be available to clients 24/7. But that's just a start. Police officers must accompany staff for evening emergency home visits or whenever necessary. Online resources for ongoing work and future evaluation and research are also essential. There must be a concerted effort to employ committed graduates who have received degrees in social work and related mental-health fields, and to do everything possible to keep them. (Unfortunately, to be employed in crucial front-line protective services these days, all that is needed is a college degree in any field.)

How many more kids have to suffer, die, and live in terror before the City of Philadelphia protects them? Don't common sense and concern for the welfare of children make it essential that we meet crucial problems with necessary solutions?

The city should recognize the downgrading of DHS's license as a necessary opportunity for the bold action and immediate intervention that are tragically overdue.

SaraKay Smullens, a Philadelphia social worker, is the author of "Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work." SaraKay1710@aol.com