The hunt for two girls reportedly abducted from Philadelphia by their mother might have begun earlier if the city had placed a call to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, a state official said yesterday.
One of the girls, age 10, was returned to Philadelphia on Friday night, a few days after police discovered her panhandling for spare change at a glitzy mall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The other child remained missing.
"Most concerning right now is that no Amber Alert was ever issued," said Stacey Witalec, a welfare department spokeswoman. "I think everyone recognizes that there was a breakdown in the system somewhere."
A spokesman for Mayor Nutter said, however, that the city's child-welfare agency had done more than required to spread the word of the children's disappearance from near a school on Oct. 16.
If the state welfare department didn't know about it, said Doug Oliver, then it had failed to read a report on the incident sent right away to both the city and the state by Jewish Family and Children's Service, a foster-care agency.
On Friday, two social workers from the Philadelphia Department of Human Services flew to Fort Lauderdale and brought back the 10-year-old, Kelley KongKham.
Alicia Taylor, spokeswoman for DHS, said the girl was in good health and "doing well" at a location she would not disclose. The girl was interviewed yesterday by the Police Department's Special Victims Unit.
Her mother, Tammy KongKham, and her sister, Kimberly, 8, remained missing yesterday, Taylor said.
Police reported Friday that they had been living in a hole dug in sand under a sliding-board play station at a playground. They said the mother had cast out Kelley, telling her she had to fend for herself.
KongKham, 35, faces kidnapping and child-endangerment charges, police said.
The children, who lived with KongKham after a divorce, were taken from her and put in foster care this fall because she hadn't kept them in school, officials said.
Police have said the girls went with their mother without a fuss when she approached them near Juniata Park Academy on East Hunting Park Avenue.
The city-state dispute arose after reports Friday that the Amber Alert had dropped between the cracks. Such an alert increases police and public awareness to a missing child in danger.
Taylor said the agency requested the alert on Oct. 16. She quoted the city police, saying that the state police, who control the alerts, had turned down the request on grounds that the case didn't meet Amber Alert criteria.
But Jack Lewis, a state police spokesman, said yesterday that state police never received a request for an Amber Alert.
Witalec, the welfare department spokeswoman, said, "Right now, I think finger-pointing is secondary to everyone looking for the child."
But she said that state regulations required DHS to call the department to report the disappearance.
If it had done so, she said, "I think we could have reacted faster. We could have learned earlier that no Amber Alert was issued."
Oliver, speaking for the mayor, said a call might indeed have been a good idea. But he disputed that any rule or regulation required DHS to notify state welfare officials by phone.
"DHS did follow the requirements," he said. "DHS did everything it was required to do in this situation."
He said that when the foster-care agency filed its report through the online Home and Community Services Information System, the report automatically went to both city and state.
Witalec acknowledged state receipt of the online report, but said the city should have "followed up" with a call anyway. She did not explain why the state had not acted on the report.
Oliver said DHS responded by notifying the Police Department. It then went beyond requirements, he said, by notifying the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and hiring a private detective to look for the missing girls.
"The agency responded swiftly and acted in the best interest of these children," he said.