Every Sunday morning, City Councilman David Oh teaches his kids martial arts in his Southwest Philadelphia home. Last July, Oh was demonstrating a judo roll — a sort of side somersault — when he flipped his 8-year-old son, Joshua, onto the mat. The boy landed between his face and a shoulder with a thud.
“He looked kind of stunned, and I immediately knew it wasn’t a good fall,” said Oh, who has been teaching his children martial arts for several years and has practiced jiu-jitsu for the last 16 years.
Oh and his wife rushed Joshua to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where doctors determined the boy had fractured his collar bone.
That is when things grew uncomfortable for Oh. A social worker arrived and asked Oh and his wife to leave the room so she could speak to their son alone. After doing so, she told the Ohs she was filing a report of suspected child abuse with the city Department of Human Services (DHS).
Oh said he tried to show the social worker cell phone photos of him doing martial arts with his kids, to show how common the activity is for the family.
“It kind of comes out of left field,” said Oh. “To have an accident, you take your kid to an excellent children’s hospital, like CHOP, and then, out of nowhere, to have someone say, ‘We’re reporting you to DHS.’ ”
Ultimately, no abuse was found, but the incident bothered Oh, who as a City Council member has recourse not available to the average citizen. He decided to hold a hearing on whether there should be more explicit guidelines for those legally mandated to report abuse. The hearing, set for Tuesday at 10 a.m. at City Hall, is also shaping up to be more of a general forum to discuss the agency.
Oh, who has been an at-large Republican on Council since 2011, said he thought it appropriate to call the hearing not only from his personal experience, but from similar complaints received from constituents.
He said he was bothered that the social worker could not articulate why she thought the incident was more than an accident. He said she told him she typically reports injuries children suffer in all sports.
“She insinuated that [a report] was no big deal, it was routine,” Oh said. “And when I pressed her for a reason, she made a comment: ‘You’re a grown man, you shouldn’t be teaching your son judo. He’s 8.’ ”
A DHS investigator went to Oh’s home a few days later and toured the martial arts room. The two talked about what happened, and the caseworker told him she was deeming the report unfounded, Oh said.
But Oh was frustrated by the incident and follow-up conversations with the head of social work at CHOP and with DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, who, he said, defended the social worker’s actions as in line with her directive for workers to follow their intuition.
Figueroa on Friday would not comment on Oh’s case but said hospital workers are required to report any possible abuse.
“You’re reporting based on your own suspicion, but not necessarily because you have the concrete evidence,” Figueroa said. “Which is why you would call it in. Then, whether it rose to require an investigation would be a determination that is made. If a child is presenting with either an injury or something that maybe would lead you to ask more questions about the safety of a child, it’s a good-faith effort that you’re reporting it.”
Oh, who is of Korean background, also said the incident left him feeling discriminated against because of his race.
“It seems irresponsible that you’re just going to report whenever you feel like it,” Oh said. “It seems like a lot of room for subjective bias — my wife and I being Asian, and no one knowing I’m a lawyer and a councilman, you’re very quick to report on us.”
The hearing will examine the possibility of DHS’s creating objective guidelines and uniform standards for people tasked with reporting suspected abuse. But the city has limited authority in the matter even if Council got behind it, Figueroa said.
Figueroa said she has met with Oh twice and told him that she believed changing the reporting requirements would violate state law and could jeopardize the agency’s license. “It would also be incredibly chaotic in terms of an enforcement standpoint if each county decided to go rogue in how to adhere to the child protective services law," she said.
Cathy Utz, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, said the law is clear that a person who has reasonable cause to suspect a child is a victim of abuse is required to make a report to the state’s child abuse hotline, ChildLine. “Without more information on what [Oh] is looking at doing, all I can say is, it would have to mirror state law,” Utz said.
Utz said the state also encourages people to call with “general protective” concerns or signs of neglect rather than abuse.
Philadelphia has one of the highest child removal rates of any city in the country, but the most common reason for taking a child from a home is neglect, not abuse. Figueroa said that investigations are down from last year and that the department only removes about three percent of children after an investigation.
Oh said he hopes the hearing prompts the state to take up the issue, or at least starts a conversation on whether some investigations are unnecessary. Social welfare experts are expected to testify, along with several parents who say their children were wrongfully removed.
“I think there are things we can do,” Oh said. “If they’re going to say basically, ‘We can’t do anything because everything’s controlled by the state,’ that’s dodging an opportunity and avoiding the problem.”
Oh, who started doing taekwondo when he was 12 and has a brown belt in jiu-jitsu, said his son made a full recovery and still practices with him every Sunday.
He continues to go over how to roll safely.
“They’ve learned before,” he said. “But they forget, because they’re kids.”