Three months after a state report faulted the city's Department of Human Services for failing to meet federal standards for protecting children, Pennsylvania's secretary of public welfare said the agency had not moved fast enough to reform.
"We are trying to create a sense of urgency in Philadelphia," Estelle Richman said Monday. "They need to see this as a matter of life and death, and not just a matter of process."
The report, issued in February, demanded that the agency make changes by the end of this month. The state reviewed 80 cases where the city paid private child-welfare agencies to visit children in their own homes and said the city's performance was wanting in every category. The findings come despite five years of alleged improvements, including changes made in the first part of the year.
"Many of the same issues and concerns continue to be and have not been remedied by new DHS policy and practice," Richman wrote in a Feb. 27 letter to Acting DHS Commissioner Arthur C. Evans Jr.
"We can no longer wait to act on improving the quality of services provided to the children and families in Philadelphia." The state licenses county human services programs.
Evans, who took over DHS in October, said the state's report mirrored the agency's self-assessment. Many of the changes have been planned or put in place since he received the report, he said. All will be under way by the May 27 deadline, he added.
"If you're on the inside of this agency for more than a day, you know we're moving as fast as any agency can move," he said in response to the letter.
In a statement issued in response to Richman's comments, Evans' spokesman, Frank Keel, said, "DHS in the process of addressing systemic societal issues and imperfect systems that have existed for generations. It is unrealistic to think we can turn things around in what amounts to a blink of an eye."
Safety of the children, he said, has been his top priority.
For Evans and the rest of the staff at DHS, the challenge is to make sure years of promised fixes are finally carried out.
Over the past 20 years, a series of child deaths has rocked the agency, and prompted advocates and politicians to call for change.
In just the last five years, the city has faced many child deaths that called the system further into question. In 2003 the torture and beating death of Porchia Bennett at the hands of her caregivers led then-Commissioner Alba Martinez to push for change. Many initiatives fell away after she left. In October, an Inquirer investigation showed that 25 children had perished over three years after they or their families had come to the attention of the agency.
Richman said the state shared some of the blame.
"The state has not done a stellar job at holding Philadelphia accountable," she said. "We had a perfect opportunity 20 years ago, after the last blue-ribbon panel, and it wasn't done."
She said the state had taken the federal government up on an offer to help change the city's agency by providing intensive training for workers and supervisors. "I'm trying to turn around the culture," she said. "I'm willing to work methodically and deliberately to make sure it's done this time."
Evans, who is running two of the city's larger agencies at once - he also is head of the Department of Behavioral Health and Mental Retardation - said that this time would be different because his agency is setting up systems to ensure that the changes stick.
"We are attending to sustainability," he said, pointing out that the final phase of his proposed reform plan deals with improved infrastructure and computer systems to monitor cases and better train workers.
Evans said the agency is just part of a larger community that cares for children, including the courts, private child-welfare providers, the schools, the state, and the mayor.
"At the end of the day, though, Philadelphia's success at DHS depends on a close working relationship with the state and all the players involved with children," he said.
The state report shows the depth of his challenge.
Among the areas in need of improvement was how quickly DHS started to investigate reports of maltreatment.
When looking at how the agency performed in keeping children safe in their homes, the state said DHS failed in 21 of 80 cases. In a subcategory called "risk of harm to children," the state found that in 46 of 80 cases DHS needed improvement. Evans said both had been addressed.
By the end of the month, a panel of child-welfare experts appointed by the mayor will deliver another review of the agency and make recommendations. Both Richman and Evans said they would do whatever it took to make sure that the changes take hold.
In February, the state Department of Public Welfare released a report card on the performance of Philadelphia's Department of Human Services. It looked at 80 cases where the city paid private child-welfare agencies to visit children in their own homes. Some excerpts:
"Children are, first and foremost, protected from abuse and neglect."
Substantially achieved: 34 cases (42.5 percent)
"Families have enhanced capacity to provide for their children's needs."
Substantially achieved: 17 cases (21 percent)
"Children receive adequate services to meet their physical and mental health needs."
Substantially achieved: 33 cases (41 percent)
Read our continuing coverage of DHS at http://go.philly.com/dhsEndText