If a child or teen tells you they have been hurt by an adult, listen to them. Call the child-abuse hotline and make a report. As the commonwealth's largest child welfare agency, the City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) received more than 35,000 calls to our child-abuse hotline last year. Each call was reviewed and assessed for the child's safety, leading to the department's investigation of 17,744 reports of abuse or neglect last year.
Your call could mean the difference of ending abuse for a child or providing the opportunity for a family to connect to critical resources that will stabilize their family and help prevent abuse or neglect. When you call the hotline to report abuse or neglect, it does not always mean a child will be removed from the home. Our focus is on safely reducing the number of children in our care and providing services in the community. To this end, we are committed to expanding our child-abuse prevention work and diverting families to supportive services as long as it is safe to do so.
We work with families in different ways, depending on their need. Some parents are connected to voluntary services that work to address basic needs, such as food and housing, and identify other resources that can help strengthen their family, such as child-care, preschool, Out of School Time programs, and behavioral health services. Other families are provided with in-home case management that works to increase parenting skills and mitigate any child-safety issues.
For some families, it is unsafe for children to remain in the home. Last year, this led to 2,683 children court ordered to DHS custody. Currently, 5,852 children and youth are receiving child-welfare placement services through Philadelphia DHS. When children need to be placed with DHS, we know that they do best when they can live with another family and close to their community of origin. To this end, 86 percent of children and youth who are removed from their home are in family foster care. Of all children in foster care, a majority — 55 percent — are with relatives they know.
We all need to speak up for children. Some individuals are mandated to report by the state's Child Protective Services Law. Significant changes to this law went into effect in 2014, following the investigation and conviction of Jerry Sandusky for child rape and sexual abuse. The lessons learned from this tragedy helped to strengthen the state's child-abuse reporting laws and increased the list of mandated reporters. It created clear pathways for medical practitioners to provide information to county child-welfare agencies. It also expanded the role of school employees as mandated reporters.
No matter what your role is in a child's life—if a child discloses wrong-doing or if you witness abuse — respond with urgency. If recent news reports about child sex abuse and sexual assault have taught us anything, it is to listen to the victim. The impact of child abuse and sexual assault may be felt for a lifetime, but the sooner we can listen, the sooner we can provide help, and the sooner healing can take place.
Cynthia F. Figueroa is commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.