A Philadelphia City Council committee has released a report criticizing the city’s Department of Human Services, with recommendations for upgrades in department policies.
At-large City Council member David Oh said the DHS does a good job overall but does not protect children as best as possible.
“Unfortunately, while it (DHS) does good, it also does bad, and some of that seems to be from a policy perspective, and others of it are based on its interpretation of the law,” Oh said.
Oh and Councilmember Cindy Bass, D-8th District, are co-chairs of the Special Committee on Child Separation.
The special committee released findings of questionable practices such as removing children with false documents, arriving at a house with police to remove a child, and placing children with known abuser foster parents.
“We’re looking for reforms that would make DHS hopefully a welcome agency in the community and neighborhoods of Philadelphia,” Oh said. “I think it’s important to have transparency and accountability, and it’s important to ensure that evidence is presented and that any refuting of basically anonymous allegations are unfounded.”
DHS Communications Director Nya Sturrup said the department appreciated the Council members’ concerns but had just received a copy of the report Friday and did not have enough information to respond.
“To note, this was provided after DHS made a second request for the report. Thus, we have not had time to review the report and cannot comment on its findings,” Sturrup said in an email.
“DHS remains laser-focused on supporting families. Our diversion programs (which means families are supported to safely care for their children without DHS involvement) served 5,182 children in fiscal year 2021,” the email said. “City Council members, community stakeholders, youth, and families have long been valued partners in our effort to support Philadelphia’s children, youth, and families. However, we cannot help but share our disappointment that DHS was not included in the review process and that an advanced copy of the report was not shared, despite a direct request from the commissioner. Such a review would have allowed DHS to work in partnership regarding concerns and recommendations.”
Oh said interpretation of the law has led to families being separated, disproportionately affecting Black families.
“So we end up in a situation where Philadelphia DHS removes children from families, and they do so even when there’s no evidence of any abuse of the child,” Oh said. “They go in. They remove children. They separate the brothers and sisters and place them in foster care, where, unfortunately, many of these children are subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. And, you know, again, overwhelmingly, those children and those — mostly single mothers — are African American.”
Oh said those families are often not given the benefit of the doubt. For example, he said if he was teaching one of his children to ride a bike and they fell off, he could take the child to the hospital without facing questions or suspicions about abuse.
“There’s every bit of evidence that someone was teaching their child to ride a bike, who fell by accident, but this begins this whole process of child removal,” Oh said.
Oh said that the main recommendation is for a tighter following of the law because over 85% of children removed from their families were not removed because of abuse but because of selective judgment of living conditions.
Oh said the next step for council is to mail the report to every member of the state legislature.
“We’re sending it to the secretary of health, secretary of children and youth, the governor’s office, and then we are pushing this report as a rallying point conversation-starter to look at these issues,” Oh said.
Children, especially Black and brown children, already have a negative idea of DHS, he said.
“The more we bring this up, the more we hope people will step forward. This is about the evidence. They have to present evidence,” Oh said. “Why were their children taken? There is a big problem because there is no reason why the child was taken many times. They simply say there’s an allegation, and then they say it’s unfounded, but we want to remove the children and leave it up to the judge. And that’s it, and that’s very problematic.”