Clinton Lewis, who testified at Tuesday's hearing on child welfare proceedings in Philadelphia, said it took him seven and a half years to regain custody of his two sons. (Charles Mostoller)

A packed, emotional hearing was held in Philadelphia City Council on Tuesday inquiring into the Philadelphia Department of Human Services' (DHS) practices around child custody and welfare, at which parents whose children were removed from their homes had the chance to unleash their complaints on the leaders of the city agencies responsible.

Some accused DHS of "kidnapping." Many complained about being left voiceless in the Family Court system. "Taking kids out of their homes should be a last resort," a sign held by one attendee read.

One mother claimed children were removed from her home days after a social worker flagged her for not having a child seat in her car and not having age-appropriate foods. The mother said she was waiting for a baby food delivery at the time – and that her baby seat was temporarily inside her house to be cleaned.

One father testifying was Clinton Lewis, who previously spoke to Metro in 2014 about the struggle to regain custody of his two sons. After he contacted DHS asking for help with one sick son, both boys were removed in 2009 over "inadequate housing," he said, due to temporary damages to his home. His children are now back at home after three more years of fighting in the courts, gone a total of "seven years, five months," he said.

 

This hearing was convened at the request of City Councilman David Oh, who was prompted to examine the issue after himself having a run-in with DHS not long ago. Oh accidentally broke his 8-year-old son's collarbone while teaching him judo – and subsequently got referred to DHS and investigated for child welfare violations. While Oh was cleared, the process left him with concern about how families are being treated. He convened the hearing to investigate DHS processes and examine whether they can be reformed.

UPenn professor Kara R. Finck testified at the hearing that children in Philadelphia are removed from their families at a rate higher than any other large metropolitan area – reportedly three times that of New York City and four times that in Chicago.

"The high rates of child removal indicate that Philadelphia resorts to removal far more frequently than necessary to attempt to resolve the struggles facing parents and their children," Finck testified. "Placement in foster care, even for a brief amount of time, is not a benign or netural event in a child's life. It upends their daily existence. ... Removal causes lifelong trauma to children and can often have lasting negative consequences."

Finck stressed rehabilitative social programs that can address the reasons for a child's home being deemed unsafe, or preventive legal services advocating on behalf of the family in child welfare hearings, as possible ways to reduce trauma within the system.

But DHS officials defended themselves against criticism of lacking clear obejctive standards for reporting abuse.

"Our mandate is child safety," DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa testified. "Removal of children from their parents' care happens only by court order and is restricted to situations of 'emergency removal because of imminent risk' and 'clear necessity' under the Juvenile Act and well-established case law."

DHS follows mandated reporting standards under Pennsylvania's Child Protective Services Law, which were expanded in 2015 following several high-profile child abuse cases. They said removing children is a "last resort," and that a DHS supervisor and administrator, along with a city solicitor and judge, all must sign off on removing a child from a home. Some mentioned that other unchecked social problems, from opioid addiction to homelessness, are factors that lead to incidents where child welfare services become involved in a family's life. 

But nonetheless, some of the incidents discussed at the hearing have left deep wounds in some Philly families.

"Child abuse in the child welfare system, in foster homes and residential treatment facilities and other youth facilities around the state ... has grown to be a common occurrence," testified attorney Nadeem Bezar, an attorney with Kline & Specter P.C., who has sued numerous child welfare and foster care agencies and has filed 50 lawsuits on behalf of abused children in the last three years alone.

Bezar mentioned the cases of Ethan Okula, a 10-year-old who died at the home of foster parents who allegedly didn't know his stomach pains were signs of a serious gastrointestinal disorder, and of Wordsworth Academy, the West Philly residential youth facility where one teen was killed by counselors during a struggle related to his possessing an iPod, while several young women reported being sexually abused by a staff member.

Bezar called for transparency, objective guidelines, more clearly defined roles between agencies investigating cases, for investigation of any reported child abuse within 30 days, and for believing children.

"There is no great mystery here" Bezar testified. "An overburdened system will break and failures will be the result."

By the numbers

As of 2017, 6,095 Philly children are in the child welfare system.

As of federal fiscal year 2015, reasons for Pennsylvania children to be placed in foster care broke down as follows:

-9 percent for physical abuse

-23 percent for neglect

-27 percent for child behavior problems

-53 percent for parental substance abuse

-14 percent for inadequate housing

African Americans are 13 percent of Pennsylvania's population, but 42 percent of the foster care population.

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