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In Philly’s DHS crisis, a bleak reminder of how America treats its most vulnerable children | Editorial

Five years after an auditor general report called child welfare in Pennsylvania "broken," the system is still in desperate need of repair.

Philadelphia's Department of Human Services headquarters in Center City.
Philadelphia's Department of Human Services headquarters in Center City.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Children sleeping on cots and air mattresses in the conference room of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS) office is heartbreaking and outrageous. But Philadelphia is not an outlier. Across the country, children are sleeping in child welfare offices in Virginia, Florida, Oregon, and beyond. In Texas, a 15-year-old girl who ran away from a child welfare office where she was staying was struck and killed by a minivan.

It is beyond belief that this is how a country of such wealth and innovation treats its most vulnerable children. Then again, it’s not surprising since the U.S. spends less on children than most of the world’s other developed nations.

Child welfare agencies are overwhelmed and struggling to find foster homes for infants and teens. The pandemic further complicated the situation by creating staffing shortages and increasing the strain on an already stressed system. In Philadelphia, the number of children who have spent at least one night in DHS’s office because there was no other place for them has tripled, as Inquirer staff writer Samantha Melamed reported.

There are several reasons for the spike. While demand for alternative lodging is still high, DHS has been removing fewer children from their homes. That has prompted housing providers to reduce the number of available beds. Meanwhile, one facility closed, abuse scandals forced DHS to pull children from other facilities, and the city’s only treatment center for troubled youths was shut down after a 17-year-old boy was killed in a confrontation with staffers.

» READ MORE: Missing kids, illicit activity: Staff warn of chaos at Philly DHS office that houses stranded kids

City Council issued a report in April that criticized DHS for separating children from families without sufficient reason, punishing struggling mothers, and perpetuating race and class bias. The report came after it was disclosed that two agencies with DHS contracts together paid more than $10 million to settle two lawsuits after girls were reunited with fathers who had sexually abused them.

Philadelphia isn’t the only place in the state facing these kinds of problems. A 2017 report by former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called Pennsylvania’s child welfare system “broken.” The report said 46 children died from abuse and neglect in one year and 79 more nearly died. Nearly half of those 125 children were already under the supervision of child welfare agencies. It blamed staffing shortages, inadequate training, heavy caseloads, low pay, and high turnover, and called for increased funding at the state and local levels.

So, how has Harrisburg responded to the crisis? Rather than attempt to fix it, House lawmakers passed a bill that places a $500,000 cap on the damages a social service agency would have to pay if successfully sued in cases involving abused children. This misguided measure — which the full Senate is still considering — values profits more than children and shows how lawmakers answer to lobbyists instead of the people they were elected to serve.

The pandemic further upended an already broken system. With children isolated at home, the number of reported child abuse cases — which often come from teachers, day-care workers, and doctors — dropped. But emergency room visits by children for behavioral and mental health issues surged, along with visits by children with eating disorders and those who have attempted suicide.

» READ MORE: Philly doesn’t have too few foster homes. It has too many foster kids.

Dorothy E. Roberts, a scholar on race and gender at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, has called for dismantling America’s child welfare system, arguing that it largely punishes Black families for being poor. Studies show Black children continue to be taken from their mothers at a higher rate than white children in similar circumstances.

Roberts’ suggestion may seem extreme, but it’s understandable. Something must give when children are dying, being abused, and sleeping in government office buildings because there is no other place for them. Additional disruptions caused by the pandemic have exposed a child welfare system that too often does more harm than good. It is in desperate need of repair, and there’s no time to waste.