Arthur C. Evans Jr., the man charged with revamping the city's troubled Department of Human Services, assured City Council members yesterday that he was moving swiftly to fix the agency's problems.
His workers have met with nearly 1,000 families under their care, asking them when city-paid agencies last visited, how long they stayed, and what services they performed.
He's trying to find out why the agency failed to act on some of the recommendations in its death reviews that are meant to help the agency learn lessons after a child dies in its care. Workers are dissecting existing cases to identify shortcomings. And they are forming a community board to monitor the agency's turnaround efforts.
"DHS is taking every possible measure to not only address factors within families and communities that lead to abuse and neglect, but also to improve our own policies," he said.
The acting commissioner's comments came during a City Council hearing looking into the cases of 25 children who died over the last three years after they or their families became known to DHS.
The Inquirer wrote about some of those deaths in October. Shortly afterward, Mayor Street forced the agency's commissioner, Cheryl-Ransom Garner, to resign and fired her deputy, John McGee.
Street formed a Child Welfare Review Panel, which is scrutinizing all 25 fatalities. The panel has met only once, but Evans said members were reading over death summaries and would meet again after the holidays.
Of the seven members on the Council's Committee on Public Health and Human Services, four listened to the testimony, but only chairwoman Marian Tasco sat through the entire four-hour hearing.
Tamara Askew, a social worker at DHS for the last eight years, said workers often faced incredible time pressure to investigate allegations of abuse, and were fearful of missing deadlines.
"You're trying to do as much as you can as fast as you can," she said. "You don't have time to do all you'd like to do for the family." Askew said she often took time away from her own child to make sure she had done enough to protect others.
After hearing from social workers, supervisors and child advocates, Tasco said that the $600 million agency needed more money so it could improve training for social workers and increase payments to contractors.
"With the system overwhelmed, how are we going to protect children?" she asked. "We have have to put more money into the system." She plans to push for more funding during upcoming budget hearings.
Some child-welfare advocates and contractors disagreed with her assessment.
"New money will not get to where it is needed most, closer to the families in the form of hard goods and services," said Bill Haussmann, the executive director of Tabor Children's Services.
"I believe you can research other child-welfare programs in the country and not find any with the dollars per child greater than DHS. There is plenty of money. It's the distribution that's the problem."
Frank Cervone, who heads the Support Center for Child Advocates and is a member of the Mayor's Child Welfare Review Panel, testified that Philadelphia spends more money than other major cities on children's services.
"We're a leader when it comes to spending," he told the committee.