There's another legacy that Mayor Kenney could leave Philadelphia besides his sugary beverage tax to pay for more high-quality pre-kindergartens. The city would be even more grateful if he finally stopped so many children under Department of Human Services supervision from being abused and killed.
It's been 10 years since DHS began what was supposed to be an exhaustive overhaul following the death of Danieal Kelly, the bedridden 14-year-old girl nearly paralyzed with cerebral palsy who died in a stifling Mantua apartment while under DHS supervision. A private company contracted by DHS was supposed to visit Danieal at least twice a week, but never showed up.
Danieal's mother was convicted of murder. Her father, who didn't live in the home, was convicted of endangering the life of a child. A DHS caseworker pleaded guilty to child endangerment and nine workers for MultiEthnic Behavioral Health Inc., the agency contracted by DHS to watch over Danieal, were convicted of crimes ranging from involuntary manslaughter to conspiracy.
Mayor John Street fired the top two DHS officials. Anne Marie Ambrose became DHS commissioner in 2008; and in 2012, under Mayor Michael Nutter, began implementing a reorganization recommended by a blue-ribbon panel. Modeled after approaches in New York and Florida, the reorganization included contracting 10 private companies called community umbrella organizations, or CUAs, to deal directly with families receiving DHS services.
Four years later, however, 40 more children have died and the DHS reorganization doesn't appear to be working. In May, the state Department of Human Services downgraded Philadelphia's license, citing 71 serious violations of state child welfare laws, including falsified visit reports, sloppy documentation, and inappropriate lodging of children in welfare offices. The city's DHS has already been told to expect another provisional license when the current one expires in November.
Continuity may be part of DHS's problem. Ambrose told the Inquirer Editorial Board in 2012 that she would scrap the reorganization program, dubbed "Improving Outcomes for Children," if it wasn't working. But two years later Ambrose left DHS for another job. Since then the agency has had two directors, with Kenney's choice for the post, Cynthia Figueroa, not scheduled to assume the helm until Sept. 6.
As soon as Figueroa hits the door she will be confronted with the state's recommendation that the city reduce its DHS staff of 1,190 and transfer those resources to the private contractors running the CUAs. The idea sounds practical since the CUAs are working directly with families and children, but it also holds the potential for more harm. The CUAs need to be closely monitored to make sure they are doing their jobs. That won't happen if DHS becomes too lean to effectively watch the CUAs.