New report on DHS highlights failings, makes recommendations

Carol Spigner from Penn's School of Social Policy and Practice Carol Spigner, from Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, co-chaired a committee that reviewed the work of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.
Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

A recent report on the City’s Department of Human Services casts new light on the agency—and systemic failures within the department that have put Philadelphia’s children at risk and resulted in several preventable deaths in recent years.

Carol Wilson Spigner, an associate professor in Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, co-chaired the review committee, which analyzed the cases of 52 children— whose families were known to DHS—who died from 2001 through 2006. The panel also reviewed cases of children under its care who did not die, as well as young people who had entered the system recently. Focus groups, interviews and surveys of DHS workers and staff of contract agencies rounded out the committee’s study, whose findings were presented to the mayor last month in a 230-page report.

The review was prompted by a series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer on child fatalities, some of which occurred while families were under the care of the department. In response to this high-profile lambasting, the mayor issued an executive order to create a panel to review the agency and issue recommendations.

Delving into the agency’s records proved an often-overwhelming task, says Spigner, who describes the paperwork she and her team scrutinized as “voluminous.” Sometimes, she says, “one case would be boxes and boxes of files.” To make sense of the complex workings of the agency, they focused on questions of safety and how the department was organized to address safety.

What they found was an organization deeply confused about its mission that had become an agency of last resort. “They’re expected to respond to a wide range of problems,” says Spigner, “so the focus on child safety has been diffused. If you’re responding to a person’s housing needs because the housing authority is not doing its job, you have less time and energy to focus on children. That was a big finding.”

The panel also found that the services a family received were “absolutely random,” depending on the level of experience and empathy of the social worker assigned to their case. “The randomness was striking but not surprising given the absence of clarity about what the work is and the lack of support to frontline workers to help them make good decisions.”

Spigner stresses that despite its challenges the DHS is not a failing institution. “Absolutely not. They have a number of strengths they can build on that need to be mobilized and enhanced. There are huge challenges, but it’s not un-doable.”

The report recommended the DHS step back and reassess its mission and its values and put the focus back on child safety. Other specific recommendations called for visiting all children under 5 within two hours of receiving a warning of neglect or abuse and requiring social workers to use a common set of guidelines to determine if a child is in danger.
Spigner is well aware that over the past two decades there have been numerous reviews of the department that have yielded little.

“There’s a pattern,” she says, “of having some kind of high-profile event, a study, then work initiated but not completed.” She is hopeful, though, that this time it will be different. The report has garnered much attention in the print and broadcast media and has been welcomed by Mayor Street who, according to an article in the Inquirer, called it a “road map to lasting reform.” Michael Nutter, the Democratic candidate for mayor, was quoted in the same article as saying that if elected he would use the report as a “blueprint for change.”

Also encouraging is the fact that the mayor recently issued an executive order directing the DHS to implement the panel’s recommendations, which include appointing a permanent oversight commission. That piece, says Spigner, is critical to effecting real change, especially with the upcoming political transition, which may bring a change in the leadership of the agency.

“I’m encouraged by it,” she says. “It’s a good place to start.”

Originally published on July 5, 2007