Philadelphia is quick to remove kids from bad homes. But how does that help the children?

SNS works closely with Carolyn Hill, Pat Albright and Phoebe Jones from Every Mother Is a Working Mother and the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Philadelphia who are quoted in this article. They highlight the trauma of separating children from their mother or other primary carer, and the sexism and racism inherent in the child welfare system. Carolyn Hill lost her nieces to a wealthier relative they hardly knew because she was Black, low income and didn’t have a school diploma. Together with our sisters in the US, we are campaigning for support not separation, and we are delighted their struggle in Philadelphia has got such great coverage! We also work with Richard Wexler from the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, also quoted here, who was a speaker at one of SNS meetings in Parliament.

Kim Strong York Daily Record 

In the neighborhoods of Philadelphia, a secret had been whispered about for years

The agency watching over the city’s children was heavy-handed, people said. It was easy for a family to lose its children into foster care, it was rumored.

Carolyn Hill heard the stories, then she became one of those people. The mother of five had taken in her two nieces in 2011, and a year later, she watched them walk out of her house with a social worker, right in the middle of the family’s dinner.

“I just bought their Easter dresses,” Hill said. 

They had just begun to understand what it felt like to be loved and safe. Before the girls moved into Hill’s home, they didn’t know they were sisters, separated into different foster homes and bounced around.

Hill fought Philadelphia’s Children and Youth Services and lost for reasons that still don’t make sense to her. She hasn’t seen her nieces since.

So, when she leaned into a microphone at a Philadelphia City Council meeting two years ago, she was nervous but resolute. She had a story to tell, and a small army of women lined up behind her to share similar ones. They could have been in any community in the United States, as similar issues resound everywhere. In the fight to help children, advocates say, children are separated from their families in their vulnerable years and often bounced from home to home.

People claimed that Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services took their children without cause. The open secret haunting the neighborhoods of Philadelphia slowly came to light as each parent reached the microphone.

Experts agreed that day, urging the city to institute reform because Philadelphia has the highest rate of child removal in the country, among the country’s 10 largest cities, according to the National Coalition for Child Protective Reform. The latest number, pre-pandemic, is nearly 7 children in 1,000 were removed from their Philadelphia homes in 2019. Read the report here.

DHS already had a commissioned report in hand that said something similar. Experts, led by Paul Vincent, director of the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, found both successes and failures.

These are among the challenges Vincent’s group found:

A high rate of removal of children from their families for reasons associated with the child’s own behavior (22 percent in Philadelphia compared with 11 percent nationally).

A large number of children and families served for reasons not directly connected with child safety, which is the traditional responsibility of child welfare system.

A higher than average number of children in Philadelphia are assigned a goal of long term foster care (12 percent compared with 7 percent nationally) rather than permanent homes or adoption.

Philadelphia has the highest rate of child removal from their homes, among the largest cities in the United States.

Why is this a challenge in the child welfare system?

When the death or severe abuse of a child makes headlines, there is a movement to fix the system, said Richard Wexler, executive director for the National Coalition for Child Protective Reform. In Lebanon County, the death of Maxwell Schollenberger and the near death of a boy adopted by the Duncan family have evoked that response.

The media, legislators and the public demand better laws in the shadow of a child’s death, but that instinct to repair the system often pushes child welfare agencies to remove more children from their homes, he said. Often those children are removed for neglect, not abuse, and that’s not helping the greater problem of finding and investigating the children at greatest risk.

Forcing children to separate from their families causes long-term damage to the child, so that decision should be carefully measured. 

“Child protective services is arbitrary, capricious and cruel,” Wexler said.

Children can be taken away for a social worker’s “gut feeling”; the parents – often low income – have no legal representation or minimal representation; and family court matters in Pennsylvania are closed to the public, so there’s no accountability, Wexler said.

“This is a lawless system,” Wexler said. “For all intents and purposes, it is.”

Abused women sometimes avoid calling police because they fear having their children taken away, said Phoebe Jones, coordinator at Crossroads Women’s Center in Philadelphia. 

“They’re not supposed to take children from people who are experiencing domestic violence,” Jones said. “Rather than protecting the mother, they’ll take the kids. That’s a trauma on top of a trauma.”

Separating children “creates toxic stress that creates irreparable harm disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- or long-term health,” said Christine Gottlieb, adjunct professor for child welfare law and policy at New York University Law School. “Some children need to be taken. We all understand that. But we need to understand and make real that we only do it when it is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, it does happen when it is not necessary.”

According to the Juvenile Law Center:

Black children are about twice as likely to be placed in foster care as white children.

Children in group foster homes are 2.5 times more likely to become involved in the justice system than youth placed with foster families.

More than 90% of youth in foster care with five or more moves will become involved in the juvenile justice system, a study showed.

Pat Albright’s organization, Every Mother is a Working Mother in Philadelphia, has heard from hundreds of parents whose children were taken by DHS.

“We found that, overwhelmingly, children were taken, not because of abuse or neglect, but because of poverty, sexism, racism, disability discrimination and lack of legal help.  Shockingly, mothers who are victims of domestic violence were more likely to have their children taken than to get support so they could stay together in safety,” she said. “The neighborhood I live in, they’re afraid of DHS,” Hill said.

Listening to testimony two years ago was a man whose life had also intersected with the city’s child welfare agency: David Oh, a Philadelphia City councilman and a lawyer. He knew how easily a single social worker’s gut instinct could upend a family’s life, and he wants that to end.

It was after a jiu-jitsu accident in his home that Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh learned just how quickly a parent can get on the Philadelphia Department of Human Services’ investigation list.

A child’s broken bone

David Oh and his wife rushed their son to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia one Sunday morning in 2018 because their son had taken a hard fall during a jiu-jitsu lesson at home. Oh, a brown belt, had been training his four children when 8-year-old Joshua flipped and landed improperly.

The physician’s diagnosis was a broken clavicle. The social worker saw something more.

“The social worker came in and pretty much told me they were calling DHS. She tried to say it was routine,” Oh said.

A child’s broken bone leads to a routine child abuse inquiry? Oh couldn’t fathom it.

A DHS investigator visited the Ohs’ home, spoke to their children and looked at the room where they trained and concluded the abuse was “unfounded.”

Case closed, but not for Oh, the lawyer and city councilman.

He had been pursued by a mother at his city office, telling her own tale of losing custody of her daughter. He hadn’t understood the gravity of what she faced until he saw how easy it was for a single person with nothing more than a gut instinct to initiate an investigation.

He learned that people mandated to report child abuse – like the hospital social worker – are told to act on their “gut instinct” when they suspect abuse.

“That’s kind of like telling me it’s better to pull a fire alarm every time you sense there might be a fire somewhere when there’s no evidence of it. It doesn’t actually prevent fires. What it does is it causes the fire department to waste a lot of resources,” Oh said.

“What exactly is the standard? The standard always has to be the law. You follow the law. It has to be applied equally to everyone,” he said.

It’s one of the reasons that people in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods fear DHS. It can be used to take revenge out on a neighbor or family member. A report to the child welfare agency will spark an investigation, so a neighbor with a beef can make up any reason to get city investigators involved.

“You go to a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, everyone knows. We have a tale of two cities, based on who you are,” Oh said.

Carolyn Hill, who was asked to take her two nieces into her home by the Department of Human Services in Philadelphia, had those same girls taken from her a year later. She fought and lost, but she spoke of her agonizing loss before the Philadelphia City Council in a hearing with dozens of other parents, mostly women.

Carolyn Hill, who was asked to take her two nieces into her home by the Department of Human Services in Philadelphia, had those same girls taken from her a year later. She fought and lost, but she spoke of her agonizing loss before the Philadelphia City Council in a hearing with dozens of other parents, mostly women.

Carolyn Hill’s fight against the Philadelphia DHS

When Carolyn Hill’s two nieces were taken from her, she fought.

“They was my world. They kept me going. They loved me,” she said.

First, she went to the Philadelphia Daily News to ask them to cover her story. She was directed to Crossroads Women’s Center, where she found other women just like her, and they helped her find a lawyer who would work pro bono.

According to Hill, DHS claimed the girls had been taken because Hill had mental issues, financial problems, a drug issue 15 years earlier, faced eviction and had not earned a GED. She didn’t have a GED, she said, and like the drug issue from the past, these facts were also true when the girls were originally put in her care. The other reasons, according to Hill, were untrue.

They didn’t help her find a lawyer or explain that she could appeal their decision.

“I’m a low-income person living in Section 8 housing with no GED. I had fought all the way up to the (Pennsylvania) Superior Court,” she said.

A DHS evaluator said Hill wasn’t fit to raise the children. The girls were moved to a family member who has no contact with her family, Hill said. She hasn’t seen the children since 2013.

“The more they’re removed (from homes), the more these kids get angry. You put them in a home and they get a lot of loved, then they remove them,” said Hill, who now has custody of three of her grandchildren. She now works with other women at Crossroads, calling to tell her their own version of the same story she lived.

Keeping families together is healthier for children, experts say, but child welfare agencies remove children from their homes at high rates in Philadelphia.

Change in Philadelphia child welfare services?

How Philadelphia reached these high rates of removal isn’t clear.

“It’s a mystery everywhere. Why is Montana such an outlier or Iowa or Minnesota? There are places where there is a deeply embedded culture of removal. A lot of places have children’s hospitals that over-report,” Wexler said. “Philadelphia has been that way since at least 2006, 2007.”

To change it, there must be deep-seated institutional reform, according to Wexler. Children and families need high-quality defense lawyers and advocates, and courts should be open to the public so that the decisions being made can be viewed outside the system itself and the families caught in it.

Oh and the city council formed the Special Committee on Child Separations to study child removals; Wexler is on that committee, and their work continues. The numbers are improving, Oh said, but it’s likely because of the attention being drawn to DHS.

“Philadelphia DHS has been proactively working to right-size its child welfare and juvenile justice systems since 2016,” according to Heather Keafer, director of communications for Philadelphia DHS, via email. The staff is processing abuse and neglect reports differently and offering more services that “focus on supporting families to safely care for their children.” In 2021, there are 23% fewer open cases than in 2016, she said.

Wexler said: “The hearing shocked the city council, not just the stories that came out but the sheer number of people who were there. That stunned the council. DHS said we cannot continue as usual. … They are beginning to focus on efforts to reduce entries to foster care. As long as change is dependent on the mood of politicians, though, it can change back again.”

Do you suspect abuse?

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services operates a 24/7 hotline, available to anyone concerned about the welfare of a child. ChildLine can be reached at 1-800-932-0313. According to the state DHS, every allegation of child abuse reported to ChildLine is investigated.

Kim Strong can be reached at