Staff Q&A/Debra Schilling Wolfe

Director of Field Center Debra Schilling Wolfe Photo credit: Mark Stehle

Debra Schilling Wolfe has spent the past three decades working in child welfare. She’s seen the worst of what society has to offer.

So when news broke in Philadelphia of the sad case of Danieal Kelly—the 14-year-old Philadelphia girl who died in her home from complete and utter neglect—Schilling Wolfe says she was saddened, but hardly shocked.

“When you work in the field for many, many years, you see, unfortunately, children die because of abuse and you see the system fail to protect them,” says Schilling Wolfe. “But I think it’s important to keep the children who have died humanized, and not to look at them as statistics, because unfortunately, historically we’ve seen that systemic reforms typically come about as a result of a publicized death. That’s what gets funding. That’s what gets attention and what really helps people take a good hard look at these systems, make decisions and make changes.”

Systemic reform is precisely what Schilling Wolfe is working toward in her current role. As executive director of Penn’s unique Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research, she is helping organize and oversee efforts to improve the way American cities, counties and states protect children. The Center draws on Penn experts from multiple disciplines to come up with creative solutions to our most pressing child welfare issues.

The Current caught up with Schilling Wolfe just as the Center prepares to celebrate its fifth anniversary.

Q. What was the “mission statement” when the Center first launched?
Penn faculty got together and began talking about the importance of really making systematic changes in the child welfare system, and how much impact they could have if they collaborated across disciplines. That was the concept at the beginning of the Center and it’s been evolving since then. … But the basic idea was to impact systematic change in the child welfare system. The founders saw a situation where children were falling through the cracks, where the system was not meeting the needs of abused and neglected children. And the faculty directors each saw from their perspective who was failing these children, and they wanted to make changes on a large-scale level.

Q. Was the Center built on an existing model?
No, it’s a very unique structure, and it’s very much in line with President Gutmann’s vision. It’s an integrated Center, with experts from the School of Social Policy and Practice, Penn Law, Penn Medicine and Children’s Hospital. CHOP wasn’t an original partner, but we’ve since engaged them. And what I would call the brain trust of the Center are our faculty directors, who are all experts in their own disciplines. The first is Dean Richard Gelles. Our second is Dr. Cindy Christian, who is from Children’s Hospital and the School of Medicine. And we have Prof. Alan Lerner, who runs the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at Penn Law that trains law students to represent abuse and neglect victims in court. Each one of them has a different perspective on these problems and, together, we can be incredibly effective. We bring multiple perspectives, multiple identities, and multiple solutions. This is the first Center of its kind. No other school has a center like this. One of the benefits of being at Penn is that we can have three of our most renowned schools involved in this Center, and then Children’s Hospital, too.

Q. Tell me about your background, and how you ended up here at Penn.
I am not from an academic background. I worked in child welfare for 30 years, both in the public and private sector. My professional training is that I have a Master’s degree in community health counseling. I had previously been running a nonprofit in Montgomery County, but I have lived in six different states and worked in child welfare a lot of different places. What I’ve tried to do is bridge the gap between the community and academia. I am trying to bring Penn to the community in a way that can be helpful to the community and impact social change.

Q. Over the past year, Philadelphia has seen several high-profile cases of child abuse and neglect. Are the problems that we’re seeing here in Philadelphia the same problems that occur elsewhere?
Yes and no. The issues you see in Philadelphia are, unfortunately, the same issues you see around the country. But each child welfare system faces its own set of challenges. When you’re looking at a city-based system, it’s going to face different challenges than a rural or suburban kind of system. There are 61 different child welfare systems in Pennsylvania and each of them is unique. Nationally, we have county-based systems and state-run systems and city-run systems. They’re all structured differently and have different kinds of oversight. But every system needs to be developed to treat specifically the challenges in their communities with the resources they have. Philadelphia, for example, is going through a process through reform efforts to re-establish [the system’s] mission as one of child protection. It turns out that many of these systems become the dumping ground for all kind of family needs, not just child protection. And so agencies end up adopting the mission of fighting poverty and protecting children, and the mission becomes very diffuse. That’s one of many issues in Philadelphia. They were trying to find shelter for people, they were trying to help get food on the table, while also trying to protect children from child abuse.

Q. Looking at these problems, then, what does the Field Center hope to accomplish?
What the Field Center is looking to do is reform these systems on multiple levels. One project that we’ve been involved in for the past two years is looking at how child welfare systems can utilize technology to protect children. We’re in the process of developing a pilot system—a MIS system—that will be tested in Montgomery County. It could potentially be a national model that will share information across the system and make information available, on a real-time basis, to caseworkers in the home and their supervisors and managers in the agency. This project came about after a number of very highly publicized child abuse cases, where it became clear that if more information had been available, these children may not have died. Workers in some cases had falsified records saying they had visited families when they had not. The real information had not been shared, and there was no way for the [agencies] to assess the risk to these children. As a result, these kids fell through the cracks.

Q. What was your reaction to the Danieal Kelly case here in Philadelphia? How could something like that happen?
I wasn’t shocked but I was very saddened. There are many reasons why something like that could occur. But the overarching reason is systemic failure. It wasn’t the failure of any one individual. It was a failure of the system itself. The system lost its mission—its mission to protect children. They did not have, or did not implement, the appropriate oversight policies and procedures. They did not have or were not using the appropriate methodology to assess risk to children. It’s many things.

Q. Do you have much hope Philadelphia’s system can be improved?
I am very hopeful for several reasons, the most important of which is that people who are in decision-making roles are now acknowledging what the issues are. They are willing to confront them and are willing to make changes. We are hopeful that this happens, and that the changes are effective. We do see this happening here and we’ve seen in other parts of the country, where systems have been in crisis, that they can be fixed. There are some very good systems in this country. Right across the state, Allegheny County has a very good system. The commissioner there had a vision of de-siloing the public assistance systems. So often, human services are in silos—you have the mental health system, and the health system, and the child welfare system. These systems don’t communicate across systems, but the problem is, families live across these systems. But Allegheny County realized if you don’t communicate across these systems, you won’t be effective and you won’t keep kids safe.

Q. What is the ultimate goal for the Field Center? Is there a five-year plan? A 10-year plan?
Our dream is to not have to exist. But sadly I don’t see that happening on the horizon. What we’d really like to do is impact the child welfare system and impact the lives of children in the ways they need to be impacted. Right now, for example, we’re looking hard at mental health services for these kids. In the system today, some kids will be waiting for six months to be seen by a therapist when they need one. That’s disgraceful. Another thing we’re trying to do is improve training for attorneys who represent kids in child welfare cases. Attorneys from the private bar, especially, don’t have the resources to learn about the very unique needs of these kids and how to represent them. So we’re working with Prof. Lerner toward developing a web-based training program for

Q. Finally, I have to ask: Do we as a society pay enough attention to child welfare issues?
I would say no. And the reason is that the consumers in these cases—the kids—they don’t have a political voice. Children are voiceless in general and families who are living in poverty, which make up a disproportionate number of these cases, especially don’t have a voice. Meanwhile, the voice of the advocates is sometimes seen as self serving. It really becomes a challenge.

Originally published Nov. 13, 2008

Originally published on November 13, 2008