Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh.

At an emotionally charged Philadelphia City Council hearing that was often interrupted by shouts of anger from the gallery, parents of children in foster care and legal experts told council members that the city’s chief child welfare agency needs an overhaul.

The council Public Health and Human Services Committee hearing Tuesday was related to a resolution drafted by City Councilman-at-Large David Oh, who is calling for the city Department of Human Services to implement “objective guidelines and uniform reporting standards” for social workers to rely on when they suspect a child is being abused.

Parents testified that their children were taken from them for no other reason than the fact that they are poor, with several stories involving housing issues, not abuse. They argued the money that is spent on sending their children to live with strangers in foster homes could have been allotted to them to help better their living situations, allowing the children to stay home.

Oh, who was himself investigated for child abuse after accidentally injuring his son during a Judo demonstration, claims that city social workers can too easily remove children from their parents based on nothing more than a gut feeling. Philadelphia has the highest rate of child removal from parents than any other major city in the country.

“What happened to me was a peek behind the window, and what I saw was not good,” Oh said at the beginning of the hearing.

“There has to be greater transparency, greater objectivity, and greater accountability,” Oh said in a follow-up interview. He added, “What we’re seeing is that, in a situation where there is so much uncertainty and vagueness, that when people start removing children, there is no way to get them back because there was not a clear reason why they were taken in the first place.”

However, City Councilman Al Taubenberger stuck up for DHS and its employees, who he said are making the right decisions to safeguard children.

“DHS should not be criticized for taking extraordinary measures to get to the truth … no matter how much grief and embarrassment it may bring to family members,” Taubenberger said during the hearing.

At times throughout the day’s testimony, committee chairwoman, Councilwoman Cindy Bass, urged the audience to remain calm and refrain from shouting over the panelists.

Audience jeers were especially frequent during the testimony of DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, who defended her agency’s work. She argued that the agency is bound by state law and cannot impose independent standards for its social workers when it comes to reporting child abuse.

“Our mandate is child safety,” she told the committee. “There is perhaps no other time in our nation’s history that it has been more important to listen to children,” Figueroa said, citing the high-profile abuse cases of former U.S. Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, ex-Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, and the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing decades of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests.

However, the panelists who followed claimed that Philadelphia’s child removal practices are seriously harming those they were created to protect.

One panelist, New York University School of Law professor Christine Gottlieb, likened the situation in Philadelphia to the controversial federal policy of separating immigrant children  from their families at the southern border with Mexico.

“It is simply harmful to a child, to take them from the security of their parents,” she said.

She added that while separation is necessary in some cases, “Philadelphia has the unfortunate distinction of having the highest removal rate in the country … and there is not a single piece of evidence that Philadelphians are more abusive toward their children” than parents in other major cities.

The hearing comes after the publishing of a series of Legal Intelligencer articles detailing abuse and oversight issues in Philadelphia’s foster care system and problems in family court.

Among those present at the hearing were two women previously interviewed by The Legal about their experiences with having children in foster care and their treatment by former Philadelphia Family Court Judge Lyris Younge, who was transferred after the publishing of a Legal article detailing her extensive history of due process violations.

Virginia McKale, who shared the story of her grandson’s sexual abuse in a foster home, was prohibited from testifying because of a subsequent gag order imposed upon her by Family Court Judge Joseph Fernandes. However, her husband was not bound by that restriction.

“Our grandchildren are not even together in DHS custody,” Jeffrey McKale told the committee while fighting back tears. One of the grandsons is disabled and resides in a specialized facility, while the other has been moved between foster homes five times.

McKale told the committee he and his wife are emotionally devastated from the affair. “After each hearing, and when the boys don’t come home to us, our hearts break,” he said.

Miltreda Kress, whose children were ordered into foster care by Younge without allowing Kress the right to speak in court, told council members that her experience with DHS has been “a nightmare.”

Among the other testifying panelists was Nadeem Bezar, a lawyer at the Center City firm Kline & Specter who deals exclusively with child abuse lawsuits.

“Child abuse in the child welfare system, in foster homes and residential treatment facilities and other youth facilities around the state, is not a small issue,” he told the committee. “It has grown to be a common occurrence. It is an epidemic that continues to not only impact an individual but to derail generations of our city’s children and families.”

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, criticized what he viewed as a veil of secrecy under which DHS operates. He accused DHS of keeping a lid on instances of dysfunction or abuse within the system.

“When a case does come to light, what does DHS do? It runs to court and gets a gag order,” he told the committee.

Later, Bass asked Figueroa to return to the microphone for more questions. The councilwoman also expressed concern over the city’s use of Community Umbrella Agencies (CUAs), which are private entities that DHS contracts with to provide caseworkers in addition to vetting potential foster homes.

CUAs have been sued numerous times over the years for failure to properly vet foster parents who went on to abuse children. Several of those cases have produced multimillion-dollar judgments in civil court and criminal charges against the abusers.

In 2016, 10-year-old Ethan Okula died because his caregivers, who worked with the CUAs NorthEast Treatment Centers and NET Treatment Centers, failed to get him medical attention for an intestinal blockage. The caretakers face criminal charges.

In 2017, Bethanna, a CUA in South Philadelphia, was hit with an $11 million jury verdict for sending a child to live with foster parents Walter and Deborah Scott, who subjected her to beatings and sexual abuse. Her court papers noted that her foster father had been under investigation for child rape based on accusations from other children in the foster home, and in 2016, pleaded guilty to multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child and rape of a child, among other charges, yet she was still sent to live with him.

But Figueroa responded that DHS takes seriously any allegations of abuse and, during her tenure, CUAs have made significant improvements in the quality of services offered.

“We’ve seen improvements in all the domains and all of the areas,” in which CUAs are measured, Figueroa said. “We want to make sure everyone is operating at the best of their ability.”

Bass appeared to remain skeptical.

“I think the CUA system is really part of the problem,” Bass said. “The gains that have been posted by the CUAs are still not enough.”

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