Philadelphia City Council calls for hearings into child abuse cases that settled for millions
Philly is one of the few big cities that outsources its foster-care system. Lawmakers want to investigate the “systemic failures” that put three girls in jeopardy.
Philadelphia City Council plans to evaluate the city’s child-welfare system after two multimillion-dollar court settlements over allegations of negligence that led to the abuse of three foster children.
Turning Points for Children, the city’s largest child welfare provider, and another city-funded residential facility recently paid more than $10 million for their roles in returning the three girls to their sexually abusive father, who continued to assault them.
Councilmember Cindy Bass on Wednesday proposed hearings to assess Turning Points and other contracted agencies that manage child welfare on behalf of the city’s Department of Human Services.
Council also wants to “investigate the systemic failures” that put the girls at risk, including staff attrition among case managers and DHS’s oversight of contractors. Bass and other lawmakers have described a lack of transparency around child welfare cases and DHS’s involvement for years, but the grisly case involving the three girls pushed her to call for oversight hearings.
“Until we raise our hands and say ‘hey, what the heck,’ the city is basically content to continue operating this way,” Bass said.
» READ MORE: Staff burnout, turnover at root of millions in child abuse settlements against Philly welfare agencies
DHS spokesperson Heather Keafer confirmed that agency officials would attend the hearings, as they have in the past. Council called DHS to testify on child welfare agencies in 2017, a few years after the city overhauled its foster system.
Philadelphia is one of the few major U.S. cities that outsources foster child cases to outside managers. In 2014, the city established a network of 10 geographic divisions, each run by a community umbrella agency that handles cases in its division. Turning Points operates four of these agencies and is paid more than $50 million annually through the city’s DHS.
Bass, who chairs a council committee overseeing human services, said she would call on officials from DHS as well as members of Turning Points to testify about the case involving the three girls.
The Turning Points case has been the subject of a series of Inquirer articles — which revealed the name of the agency using court records after it had sought to settle the case confidentially. A subsequent report revealed that DHS does not track lawsuits or legal settlements against its hundreds of outsourced agencies, despite a contractual requirement that the companies tell the city when they have been sued.
» READ MORE: Child welfare agency hired by city pays $6M for putting 3 girls back with abusive dad
In response to the Inquirer reporting, several lawmakers called on the city to shine light on these secretive payouts. Bass said that not knowing the full scope of litigation involving foster agencies is a “huge red flag,” which would be addressed at the hearings.
“The most irresponsible thing we could do would be not paying attention to lawsuits and settlements,” she said. “We owe that much to the children.”
Recent reporting also shed light on staff attrition among caseworkers in the child welfare system. DHS has acknowledged the well-known struggle of retaining caseworkers, who are paid $44,000 a year. On the last annual report from DHS, nearly every foster agency scored “unsatisfactory” or “critical” when it came to staff retention.
Advocates and attorneys have linked the revolving door to many of the oversight errors that put children at risk. Many say high pressure and stress lead to fast burnout.
“In my opinion, this is destined to lead to a failure of the system,” Bass said. “It’s set up to fail.”
Bass said she hopes to hold the first hearing before Council adjourns for winter break next month.