Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh said he believes a lack of clearly defined standards and child abuse reporting guidelines for city social workers means children in Philadelphia are too easily ripped away from their families.
Oh recently put forth a resolution in city council calling for hearings examining whether the Philadelphia Department of Human Services should implement “objective guidelines and uniform reporting standards” for social workers to rely on when they suspect a child is being abused.
In an interview with The Legal, Oh maintained that social workers are free to recommend that children be removed from their families based merely on “gut” instincts.
However, DHS’s position is that Oh’s legislative efforts are misguided.
Cynthia Figueroa, DHS’s commissioner, said in an email that “state law, which was significantly amended in 2015 by the state legislature in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, provides adequate objective guidelines and uniform reporting standards; encourages reporting of child abuse made in good faith; contains penalties for false reports of child abuse; and requires a state approved training for mandated reporters.”
But Oh said social workers can pull a child out of a household for a multitude of ill-defined reasons, some of which can be based on things as simple as cultural misunderstandings.
For example, a social worker could say, “You shouldn’t teach your child Judo,” and then send a child into DHS custody over claims that the household is dangerous, Oh said.
“It reminds me of the days when the police could beat a confession out of you for justice’s sake,” Oh said. “We have a situation like that with social workers where they go with their gut and not a lot of hard evidence.”
State law requires mandated reporters to alert authorities when “they have reasonable cause to suspect on the basis of their professional or other training or experience, that a child coming before them in their professional or official capacity is a victim of child abuse.”
A hearing on Oh’s motion has not yet been scheduled.
Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services, which represents indigent parents in family court, said Philadelphia takes children out of family homes based on abuse reports at a higher rate than other cities.
“We have a really disproportionate rate of removal compared with other major urban jurisdictions,” she said.
Despite that, Creamer praised Figueroa for implementing measures to increase selectivity in the reports of abuse DHS investigates.
“There continues to be a challenge to make sure we intervene in families only when there is a safety need,” Creamer said, but ” … we’ve seen progress in terms of the commissioner taking this issue seriously, with the department being more deliberate about the cases they pick up.”