The fantastic report described in this article is a big victory for the international movement against unjust and arbitrary separations, and we can use it here to press for much needed changes to the child welfare/family court system. Philadelphia group Give Us Back Our Children is part of Support Not Separation’s international network – see quote from spokeswoman Phoebe Jones, below.
Kim Strong York Daily Record
It has been three years since a hearing in Philadelphia exploded the issue of child welfare, as one mother after another told the city council their horror stories of separation from their children.
Last week, a special committee of the Philadelphia City Council issued a searing 50-page report on what it has uncovered since that meeting and what needs to be fixed to make children safer. Philadelphia, at one time, removed children at the highest rate of any large city in the United States.
“The research is clear: For the overwhelming majority of children, family preservation is safer than foster care. And for children in typical child welfare cases, the outcomes are better when they are allowed to remain in their own homes,” the Special Committee on Child Separations in Philadelphia wrote in a report directed at Pennsylvania’s legislature and Department of Human Services (DHS) as well as the city’s child welfare system.
DHS investigates families that have been reported for alleged child abuse or child neglect. More cases of neglect are investigated than abuse, and neglect often involves children living in poverty – such as not enough food in the home, inadequate housing.
“Neglect should be removed from the state law defining child abuse and should no longer be subject to (Child Protect Services) investigations,” the report says. “In both the definitions of abuse and neglect … the following clause should be added: Any family condition that can be remedied through the provision of concrete help, including but not limited to, direct cash assistance, food, clothing, housing assistance and/or childcare, shall not constitute neglect and shall not be cause for (an) investigation.”
In one case, according to the report, a Pennsylvania school district threatened to call ChildLine on parents who couldn’t afford their child’s lunch money.
Phoebe Jones has spent a couple of decades listening to the stories of women who have had their children taken away. She’s a spokeswoman for DHS-Give Us Back Our Children, a group that formed in Philadelphia in 2006 as mothers and grandmothers fought removal of children from their families.
“Children are poor because their mothers, by and large, are poor. And really you need to be dealing with the poverty of the mothers and grandmothers and the other caregivers – that’s really the ultimate remedy to the high rate of removal,” she said. “Even though caregiving is valued at $1.5 trillion to the U.S. economy, we’re considered beggars at the gate, undeserving of anything, even our children. DHS child removals just act as if the bonding of mother and child is nothing.”
She applauded the report’s recommendations.
“We felt that it really was a victory for the mothers and grandmothers and others who have really been spending decades challenging unjust removal (of children) and also working to change the policies and practices,” she said.
Some of the recommendations from the committee were:
- Provide families and children with high quality legal representation in dependency cases.
- Open the family court system to the media and public to hold child welfare workers and judges accountable.
- Require a form of “Miranda Rights” to be given to parents when a child welfare worker enters their home.
- Record all child welfare interviews over the course of an investigation.
- Stop taking children away from a parent for using drugs. The report cites a University of Florida study where children, taken from a home in which there was drug use, did not fare as well in foster care as children left with their family.
- Strengthen due process protections and provide a right to a lawyer before a person can be placed on a child abuse registry.
“There are just too many ways for children to be placed into the system for investigation,” the report states. “No procedures currently exist to protect the rights of the families who are under investigation by DHS. Little transparency exists in the interactions between DHS and the Family Court.”
Richard Wexler has served on one of the subcommittees that wrote the report. He is the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. To him, the critical recommendation in the report is providing a high-quality attorney for children and their families.
He expects resistance to the committee’s recommendations, which suggests upending decades of legislation aimed at child welfare, particularly laws enacted after the conviction of Jerry Sandusky. The state legislature has repeatedly heard “the horror stories” and the advice has been to trample on the civil rights and civil liberties of families and children, he said.
They have been told: “We have to report anything and everything, otherwise they will say terrible things will happen to children, but what I would point out is: Terrible things are happening to children right now. This is the system you built, meaning DHS, various municipal governments and the state of Pennsylvania. Are you happy with it? Is it working? Is it keeping children safe? Clearly it is not,” he said.
He hopes to see the report lead to conversations with state legislators, the state’s DHS and Philadelphia’s city council. The co-chairs of the special committee were city council’s David Oh and Cindy Bass.
“In a sense, we’re not done. We have to see this through. We have to keep the pressure on DHS, on the city government and on the state government, and it’s going to be very difficult. We’re up against 50 years of health terrorism,” he said.
Kim Strong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.