In July 2018, the city Department of Human Services investigated City Councilman David Oh after he accidentally broke his son’s collarbone while practicing martial arts.
Oh on Thursday turned the tables and will get a chance to probe the agency that looked into him, after persuading Council to create a special committee to examine DHS’s handling of child abuse and neglect allegations, and its process for deciding when to remove children from their homes.
Oh was cleared of wrongdoing after a social worker at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reported his son’s injury to DHS, but the Republican said the experience made him question the agency’s policies. He said he had a new understanding of complaints he had heard from constituents whose children had been taken from them.
Mothers and grandmothers “had been coming to me for months and months prior to when I took my son to the children’s hospital, but at the children’s hospital I experienced exactly what they had been complaining about,” Oh said. “It was an affirmation to me that it’s not just an individual case — one social worker, one teacher, one DHS worker. It’s a systemic problem created by DHS; it’s a misinterpretation of the law.”
Mayor Jim Kenney said Oh, who is seeking re-election to an at-large seat next month, was making false accusations against the department.
“It is concerning that Councilman Oh continues to make false claims against DHS, going as far as accusing a city department of not following the law,” Kenney said in a statement. "This type of rhetoric can also dissuade community members from reporting and protecting children from being harmed.”
Other Council members were initially loath to approve the resolution, a version of which Oh tried to have passed earlier this year. Some grumbled about Oh’s using his office to pursue a personal vendetta or of trying to score a political victory while in a tough reelection battle. On Thursday morning, with support looking thin, Oh planned to table the resolution.
But Council President Darrell L. Clarke persuaded Oh to soften the language to be less critical of DHS, and cajoled the rest of Council to suspend its rules and approve the new version of Oh’s measure in a voice vote.
Philadelphia has by far the highest rate of child removals of any big city. After adjusting the removal rate for the number of impoverished children, it still tops the list, albeit narrowly.
The number of children removed from their families and in the DHS system spiked from 4,200 to more than 6,000 after a policy change during former Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration and a change in state law that led to an increase in reports of abuse and neglect. The Nutter policy privatized many child welfare functions that used to be handled by the city to a network of nonprofits known as Community Umbrella Agencies. The Kenney administration has worked to lower the number of children in the system, which decreased to 5,208 by Oct. 2.
The passage of Oh’s resolution elated dozens of protesters whose children or family members had been taken away and who have been showing up to Council meetings for weeks, using the public comment period to demand an investigation of DHS.
Oh said he thought the parents’ lengthening of recent Council meetings played a role in his colleagues’ decision to approve the resolution.
“Was there a concern that this was going to continue to grow and grow with more and more protests? I think that’s true,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day, Council did its responsibility to respond to the people."
Clarke denied that the protests motivated him to help Oh’s measure across the line.
“I’ve heard both sides of the equation, and I think there is some legitimacy on both sides,” Clarke said. “What we will do is review the policies that have been established to ensure that the guidelines are being followed.”