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An Improved DHS? Not So Fast, Says Advocate

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Got a thought-provoking letter from my favorite pissed-off child-protection-advocate Richard Wexler,  executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

This time, the worried Wexler wanted to add his two cents to a recent report from the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, whose researchers concluded in a new report that DHS was doing a better job these days of finding good placement for children in foster care.

Not so fast, says Wexler.

While Pennsylvania Partnerships "deserves a lot of credit for pulling all this together," says Wexler  – noting that the data is enormously useful and has been very hard to get in Pennsylvania in the past - "when it comes to Philadelphia, the data are dismal. I see no rational basis for ... optimistic comments about Philadelphia DHS."

 For starters, he says, "the report apparently didn't discuss the fact that Philadelphia places 22.2 percent of foster children in the worst form of placement - institutionalization.  That is a rate well above the state average and more than double the national average.  Pittsburgh institutionalizes only nine percent of foster children.

"As for all that bragging about kinship care, the rate in Philadelphia is equal to the national average.  Wow.  DHS has attained mediocrity.  (Or maybe things have gotten worse.  These data are a baseline; they don't indicate trends.)  Good systems use kinship care for at least one-third of foster children; in Pittsburgh it's over 35 percent.

"Philadelphia performs dismally on a key safety measure - the proportion of children returned home who are placed in foster care again within 12 months," he continues. "The figure is astoundingly high: 42.5 percent, suggesting a system that remains in chaos, with workers too overloaded to make good decisions in any case.  The urban average in Pennsylvania is 31.7 percent, in Pittsburgh it's 22.5 percent."

On the other key safety measure, Wexler points out, "Philadelphia is at the state average – but the state has a whole takes children at a lower rate than Philadelphia.  (That, in itself is unusual, in most states, big cities take children at a lower rate than their state average).  That means Philadelphia's obscene rate of child removal is doing nothing to improve child safety, and in fact worsening it by overloading workers so they can't make sound judgments.  And there is more evidence for this below.

"Because this brings me to the worst stat of all.

"Philadelphia's rate of removal – entries into care divided by the number of impoverished children - is 31.3 children removed for every thousand impoverished children in the county.  The national average is 20.2."

[To see how Philadelphia compares to other big cities, click here.]

He adds, "Some people argue that a fairer measure is to compare removals to the total child population.  I disagree.  I think it's unfair to ignore the biggest single factor in actual maltreatment (as well as one that often is confused with 'neglect').  But just for the record, when you run the numbers using total child population, the results for Philadelphia are just as dismal.

"Of course some might argue that this high rate of removal is making Philadelphia children safer.  There is no evidence for that.  On the contrary, to cite some examples: Illinois and Florida have independent evaluations showing their reforms reducing removals have improved child safety, and Los Angeles and Atlanta do better on the two key safety measures.

"This may be confusing to anyone who read a news story that bragged about the number of children in foster care in Philadelphia going down.  But that figure is based on the 'snapshot number,' the number of children in foster care on any given day. That can rise or fall for all sorts of reasons – possibly including the large number of Philadelphia children who run away from their foster care placements.

 "The key indicator of a locality's propensity to 'take the child and run' is the number of children actually taken away over the course of a year – and that's the figure that, in Philadelphia, is almost unchanged.

"To the extent that there is any good news, it's in that word almost.  The number of entries is down a little, to 3,525, from 3,730 in the year ending Sept. 30, 2007.  But the current figures do not reflect any spike in removals that may have occurred after the death of Charlenni Ferreira.

"And finally, here's what the figures on reports of abuse and substantiations tell you about the extent of child abuse in Philadelphia – or anywhere else: Absolutely nothing.  Both the decision on whether to report and the decision on whether to substantiate are highly subjective.  Reports always spike when a high profile death is in the news, and the same often is the case with substantiations.

"I think [DHS commissioner Annemarie] Ambrose really wants to change all this.  I was pleasantly surprised, and quite impressed, when I heard her speak out for providing high quality legal representation to birth parents – in other words, leveling the playing field for people challenging her own agency.  That's almost unheard-of even among reform-minded CPS agency chiefs.

"So I get that there is a case to be made for positive reinforcement (though I can see where some might find that hard to believe).  But I also think it ought to be earned.  So far," Wexler concludes, "DHS hasn't earned it."

So, are there any local child advocates out there who'd like to weigh in here about Wexler's points?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.