Inquirer Editorial: DHS right to rate agencies handling children's cases

Cynthia Figueroa, former president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, had worked at the Department of Human Services earlier in her career.

Philadelphia Department of Human Services Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa is taking a step that was long overdue in rating the seven private companies contracted to safeguard the more than 6,000 children under DHS supervision.

The need for that type of supervision has been apparent for years. Having four directors since 2008 may have blurred the urgency, but Figueroa, who became director in September, recognized the problem. After all, she served as deputy DHS commissioner from 2008-2011 before becoming CEO of Congreso de Latinos Unidos.

DHS began the current contractor system in 2013 by selecting private social-service firms to become Community Umbrella Agencies. Each CUA was assigned a district to handle child welfare cases. They also subcontracted with foster care and adoption agencies. But the system hasn’t worked well, leading the state to downgrade DHS’s license.

DHS was cited in May for falsified social-worker visit reports, sloppy documentation of cases, and keeping children overnight in agency offices. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas said many of the issues were attributable to what he called a “troubled transition to this new CUA system.”

The state recommended that the city transfer more resources to the CUAs, but doing that without providing better monitoring of the private contractors would be taking a big risk. But Figueroa’s idea would address that risk. DHS will create scorecards to rank the seven CUAs, publish the information online, and use the data to help determine which contracts to renew.

The scorecards will look at a range of categories, including the quality and timeliness of required home visits and the diversity of a CUA’s staff. Julia Terruso reported that diversity is a particular concern in some communities. “They’re getting these gazillion-dollar contracts with the city, and what’s the evidence they’re hiring locally?” asked Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown.

Although Figuero said the intent is not to pit one CUA against another to keep the city’s business, the scorecards will allow DHS to compare providers. Debra Lacks, CEO of the Wordsworth agency, which operates two CUAs in West Philadelphia, said the prospect of being graded doesn’t intimidate her organization since it has improved staffing from a year ago.

DHS also plans to begin managing subcontractors so the CUAs can focus more on community engagement. Placement referrals will also be managed by DHS.

Philadelphia’s reliance on contractors and subcontractors to protect vulnerable children is fraught with danger. A contractor was blamed for the 2006 starvation death of Danieal Kelly, a bedridden 14-year-old with cerebral palsy. The contractor system is so entrenched that replacing it seems impossible. Absent that, closely monitoring the agencies isn’t an option; it must be done.