Richard Wexler written testimony to DHS hearing in Philadelphia City Council, Feb 12

Testimony of Richard Wexler, Executive Director, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
Before the Committee on Public Health and Human Services
Philadelphia City Council
February 12, 2019

Chairwoman Bass, Councilman Oh, Members of the Committee:

My name is Richard Wexler. I am Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. We are a small nonprofit child advocacy organization dedicated to trying to make the child protection system better serve America’s most vulnerable children.  There’s more about us at the end of this written testimony.

Thank you for inviting me to testify today about the state of the child welfare system in Philadelphia.  I have only one regret about being here: Too much of this testimony will be a rerun.

The first time I testified before the Philadelphia City Council was more than 12 years ago.  At that time, I pointed out that Philadelphia was an extreme outlier, tearing apart families at the highest rate among America’s largest cities.

In the years since, there have been improvements. The Department of Human Services takes away significantly fewer children than it did 12 years ago.  DHS has increased the proportion of foster children in the least harmful form of foster care, kinship foster care – but let me emphasize, kinship care is still foster care.  And DHS has reduced the proportion of foster children in the worst form of care, group homes and institutions.

DHS has done one other thing right. When looking for consultants to evaluate the system last year, they chose the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group.  They chose well.  Now DHS needs to pay serious attention to what those consultants found.

But what does it say about this city’s take-the-child-and-run extremism that even with all that improvement, and even when rates of child poverty are factored in to the comparison, Philadelphia still tears apart families at the highest rate among America’s big cities?

Philadelphia tears apart families at a rate nearly double the average for America’s ten largest cities.  Philadelphia tears apart families at two-and-a-half times the rate of New York City and more than four times the rate of Chicago.

Does anyone seriously think Philadelphia children are more than twice as safe from abuse as children in New York City, and more than four times as safe as children in Chicago?  Yes, there have been horror stories in those other cities.  But, as we all know, Philadelphia has horror stories, too.  So all that additional suffering inflicted on all those children needlessly taken from everyone they know and love, is doing nothing to make children safer.

And we are not alone in singling out Philadelphia’s obscene rate of removal as a serious problem. Those consultants hired by DHS itself raised it as well.

The consultants compared Philadelphia to still another group of cities – those with particularly high rates of child poverty.  Citing cities such as Detroit, Baltimore and Milwaukee, the consultants noted that these places “also have high rates of children in poverty, but do not experience out-of-home care rates even approaching those of Philadelphia.”

What does this mean in human terms?

Think back to what we all saw and heard last year at the Mexican border; the cries of children separated from their parents, never knowing when, or if, they would see them again. Think of what we heard from experts about the enduring trauma these children will suffer – and think about how we didn’t really need experts to tell us that.

Now consider what DHS does every day.  The number of children taken by DHS each year is nearly as high as the official number taken as a direct result of the Trump Administration family separation policy.

Are there differences? Of course.  DHS does not seek to inflict suffering on purpose. Most DHS employees, from frontline workers to the commissioner, have only the best of intentions.  But for the children, the good intentions don’t matter – the children shed the same sorts of tears, for the same sorts of reasons.

Another difference: Some children taken by DHS really do need to be taken from their homes.  Some really were in such danger that there was no other option.

But the typical cases that dominate the caseloads of child welfare workers are nothing like the horror stories. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”  Indeed, DHS’ own consultants write that

“The degree to which poverty constitutes an underlying factor in referrals to child welfare in Philadelphia is likely only partially reflected in DHS data that show housing as a factor in 11 percent of removals of children from their families.”

There is one time, however, when child welfare systems will admit to class bias – when you raise the issue of racial bias.

Heavens, no, they will say: We don’t throw children of color into foster care at disproportionate rates because of racial bias, we do it because they’re more likely to be poor!  So much for decades of claiming they don’t take children because they’re poor.

In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that child welfare systems are permeated with racial bias over and above the class bias.

To cite just one example: A study by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that when doctors examined children, “toddlers with accidental injuries were over five times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse, and over three times more likely to be reported to child protective services if they were African-American or Latino.”

Fortunately the scholar who – literally – wrote the book on racial bias in child welfare is right here in Philadelphia – Prof. Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The book is Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Prof. Roberts also is a member of my group’s Board of Directors. I urge you, and DHS to seek out her expertise in coming to grips with this problem.

Because let’s be clear: More “training” for caseworkers is not enough.  Concrete steps are necessary. One example: A process known as “Blind Removal Meetings” in which removals have to be approved by a committee that is told everything about the case – except information about the family’s race and neighborhood.  When Nassau County, in New York State, adopted this practice, removals of Black children dropped significantly.

Other cases fall between the extremes.  When the children in all these cases are thrown needlessly into foster care, they lose not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates.  They are cut loose from everyone loving and familiar.  For a young enough child it’s an experience akin to a kidnapping – just as it was for those children at the border.  Other children feel they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.

So it’s no wonder that two massive studies involving more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes typically fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.  Three more studies have reached similar conclusions.

And that includes cases in which the problem is substance use. The latest all-purpose excuse for taking away more children is the opioid epidemic.  But there was no opioid epidemic 12 years ago – when Philadelphia still had the worst record for child removal among big cities. The problem of opioid abuse is serious and real – as is the problem of child abuse.  But Philadelphia’s high rate-of-removal isn’t caused by opioid abuse.  It’s caused by the fact that DHS has applied the same knee-jerk take-the-child-and-run response to opioid abuse as it applies to everything else.

DHS failed to learn from the last “Worst Drug Plague Ever” – crack cocaine.  University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

That doesn’t mean we do nothing. It does mean that in those cases where parental substance use is endangering a child, drug treatment for the parent almost always is a better option than foster care for the child.

All this harm, all this needless trauma to children, occurs even when the foster home is a good one.  The majority are.  But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than revealed by official statistics which involve agencies such as DHS investigating themselves.  Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

Indeed, the issue of the rate of abuse in foster care is an excellent way to test if DHS is being straight with you.  If they give you some preposterous figure about how only one percent of foster children – or fewer – are abused each year that’s a tipoff that they are not to be trusted.

Because the people at DHS are not stupid.  They know full well that if you brought 100 former foster children into a room and said “All of you who were abused in a single year raise your hand” more than one hand would go up.

But even that isn’t the worst of it.  The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger.  So they make even more mistakes in all directions.  That’s almost always the real reason for the horror stories about children left in dangerous homes.

Don’t let anyone tell you that family preservation and child safety are opposites that need to be balanced. That is the Big Lie of American child welfare.  You can’t have child safety without family preservation. The take-the-child-and-run approach makes all children less safe.

Every day that Philadelphia DHS fails to embrace real change, every day Philadelphia DHS continues to be an extreme outlier, it only sets the stage for the next horror story and the one after that, and the one after that.

So who are some of these children and families? These stories don’t come from the Mexican border.  They come from Philadelphia. We know about them thanks to an outstanding grassroots family advocacy organization, DHS-Give Us Back Our Children, and some good reporters for the Philadelphia Daily News and In These Times:

● The case of Janice Brown whose three grandchildren were placed in her care by DHS after their mother was killed, only to have them taken away again and consigned to the chaos of foster care because, nearly a decade earlier, the agency had assumed her family’s poverty was neglect.

● The case of Carolyn Hill whose nieces were torn from her after a year doing well in her care and given to better off relatives because she is poor and doesn’t have a GED, despite the fact that the children were doing well in her care.

● The case of Shannon Berthiaume whose one outburst of rage and frustration at her child’s school for allowing her son to be constantly bullied, led to the removal of all of her children for years.  All three of her children were sexually abused in foster care.

As I noted earlier, DHS had, in fact, been making progress in reducing the number of children it took away over the course of a year, and the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day, through 2013. Starting in 2014, both increased dramatically.

Of course DHS has an excuse for that: All those state laws passed in the wake of the scandal concerning former foster parent and group home operator Jerry Sandusky that led to all those additional calls alleging child abuse.  But, of course, those same laws apply in Pittsburgh.  Yet there was no increase in removals in Allegheny County.

That’s because in Pittsburgh they understood that these kinds of laws, and the general atmosphere of panic surrounding them, tend to lead to an increase in false reports.  Sometimes they come from mandated reporters terrified of being punished for not reporting anything and everything – no matter how absurd – and sometimes from well-meaning citizens who have been bombarded with messages telling them to report anything and everything – no matter how absurd.

So Allegheny County showed more care in responding to the increase in reports, instead of taking them as a signal to take the child and run.



Watch the numbers, not the words

One of the problems with the child welfare debate is that we all say the same things, but we define our terms differently.  No one ever says: Foster care should be the first thing we do!  Everyone says it should be a last resort.  Nobody ever says: Boy, do I hate prevention!  If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s prevention!  Everybody says it’s their first priority.  And, by and large, the people who say these things are sincere.

But clearly, “last resort” in Philadelphia means something very different from “last resort” in New York.  And prevention is taken a lot more seriously in Chicago than in Philadelphia.  So when it comes to DHS leadership, never mind the words – watch the numbers.

The words do seem to be a bit more reliable when they come from the frontlines.

Sure, DHS leadership will tell you they never, ever take away a child unless it’s absolutely necessary.  But nearly two years ago, before this Council, Vanessa Fields, vice president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, cut right through all that b.s. With commendable candor, she declared:

“Workers are afraid that they’re going to be disciplined if anything goes wrong on a case. So their thing is, Well, I’m just going to take the kid out of the home and put them in care. That way, I don’t have to worry about being written up or disciplined because I left the children in the home and something happened to them. … You place that kid outside of that home, because you do not want to be in a situation where you left a child in a home and something happened to them.”


But what about all those practice models, risk assessment forms and assorted other documents that are supposed to guide how caseworkers do their jobs? Apparently, those are for suckers. Said Fields:

“People aren’t paying any attention to that guidance thing, the format that you use on the hotline. They’re not paying attention to that or those other forms. Their thing is, I want to have a job. Okay?”


And if caseworkers were following the practice model, things wouldn’t be much better because, as DHS’ own consultants found, that model isn’t very good.  According to the consultants:

The [Practice] Guidelines do not speak strongly to family engagement, and neither interview nor observation findings suggest that frontline caseworkers have strong family engagement skills or that they view the engagement of parents as a priority.


In other words: Philadelphia has a mediocre practice model – and no one’s paying attention to it anyway.

All of this gets worse when a high-profile tragedy is in the news or when that factory you have in Harrisburg for churning out bad legislation starts working overtime.  Either can, and will, set off a foster-care panic, a sharp, sudden spike in needless removals of children from their homes – or at least, that will happen when the child welfare agency lacks leadership willing to do anything about it.

Notice also what Ms. Fields did not say. Again, to her great credit, she did not make the traditional, and false, claim that frontline workers are “damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

In the nearly 43 years I have been following child welfare, I have never seen a caseworker fired, suspended, demoted, attacked in the media or even slapped on the wrist for taking away too many children.  All of those things have happened to workers who left a child in a home where something subsequently went terribly wrong.

Frontline caseworkers have incredibly difficult jobs. The hours are long, the pay is low, the stress is high and the stakes can be, literally, life and death. Most workers have the best of intentions.  They deserve our gratitude and our respect – all the more so when they show the candor shown by Ms. Fields.  They also deserve lower caseloads, higher pay and better working conditions.

But on one point they are wrong. When it comes to taking away children they are not “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” They’re only damned if they don’t.  Later, I’ll discuss how to change that.

Also, be skeptical of DHS when you mention some good child welfare program or policy and they say “Oh, we already have that.”  Having it on paper and having it in practice are two different things.

For example, one of the single most useful “preventive services” for families at risk of losing their children is – money.  Never underestimate the transformative power of cash.  And it doesn’t have to be a lot of cash.  A one-time infusion of funds for things like the security deposit on a better apartment or car repairs to get to a job or a job interview can make all the difference.

As DHS’ consultants put it:

Concrete services not only meet real needs, thus relieving stress for families, but demonstrate in a very direct way the desire of the case manager and the agency to be of help.

DHS may say: Oh, but we have that.

But here’s what the consultants found:

Evaluators were told, however, that the ability of case managers to access flexible funding to meet the immediate concrete needs of families is quite limited, both in terms of its amount and the policies that control its allocation.


So once again, look at the numbers, not the words.  The words may say “we have that.” The numbers say: “If you have it, you’re not doing a good job with it.”

Open the doors

When I testified 12 years ago, I said my testimony could be boiled down to six words: Stop the panic, open the doors.

The panic did stop, but then started up again in the wake of the crimes of former foster parent and group home operator Jerry Sandusky.  And the doors have never opened. – at least not the doors to Family Court.  Indeed, DHS is trying to shut them even tighter.

There should be a strong rebuttable presumption that all court hearings in abuse and neglect cases are open.  That’s already the case in Allegheny County, thanks largely to one outstanding former journalist, Barbara White Stack of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Almost single-handedly, she persuaded the judges in Allegheny County to open the courtroom doors.

And then she went to court. Day after day after day; watching the parade of cases; not just the ones that already were high-profile.  Her extraordinary, nuanced reporting has a lot to do with why Allegheny County has made so much progress. Indeed, in a recent story in the Legal Intelligencer, the longtime Director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, Marc Cherna, said that open courts had a lot to do with his agency’s improvement.

Allegheny County is not alone. Seeing the typical cases for oneself almost always changes people’s perceptions – especially the perceptions of journalists.

More than 20 years ago, New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ordered Family Courts in New York open to press and public.  As the Chief Judge at the time, the late Judith Kaye put it: “Sunshine is good for children.”

I believe opening those courts and the news coverage that followed, was among the reasons for significant reform in New York City, leading to significantly fewer needless removals of children, something I’ll get to in more detail below.

But in Philadelphia, DHS is doing everything it can to make the process even more secret.

Consider the story of the grandchildren of Virginia McKale, a story told by the Legal Intelligencer. First, Ms. McKale was denied custody of her grandchildren by a judge who later would be removed from family court after a Legal Intelligencer investigation “detailing her history of due process violations.”

The younger child, who suffers from severe brain damage, was institutionalized. The older child, age 9, was moved five different times.  In the fourth of those placements he was raped by another child.  The story was careful to use pseudonyms to protect the children’s identities.

“They know they’ve done wrong,” Ms. McKale said, “and every time I turn around they’re trying to cover it up.”

Ms. McKale had no idea how right she was.

An agency with a shred of common decency would have placed the children with their grandmother and surrounded the family with all the support they needed to heal from what the agency itself, and its private contractors, did to them.

Needless to say, that was not the response from DHS. Instead, DHS got a judge to issue two orders: First, a gag order, so McKale can’t tell anyone any more about what DHS and its contractors have done or are doing to her family.

Even worse, they got an order rescinding unsupervised visits.  Now all visits must be under the supervision of the very agencies she’s criticized – so you can be sure Ms. McKale will be under a microscope as the visit supervisors search for excuses to cut off visits all together.

I used to be a reporter, and there’s one thing all journalists know: The more desperate a big institution, private or public, is to keep things secret, the more ugliness they’ve got to hide.  So things at DHS must be really, really ugly.

So I wonder if, at a minimum, this Council could pass a Free Speech for Families Act that would bar DHS from seeking gag orders against families who say they have been wronged by the agency.

The argument against open courts, of course, is that some children might be embarrassed.  Indeed, that’s exactly what two Philadelphia Family Court Judges claimed in a letter to the Legal Intelligencer. In the same letter the judges appeared to presume that all parents who come before them are guilty and they referred to children and families as “inventory.”  No wonder they don’t want anyone to see them in action.

Poorly functioning agencies and courts always use children as rhetorical human shields to justify secrecy that protects only themselves, not children.

But the track record of open courts proves that the claims about harm to children don’t hold up.  Although only a minority of states open these hearings, they include some of the largest: New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois and Michigan among them. So more than 40 percent of America’s foster children already live in states where these hearings are open – and they’ve been open for a long time.  Yet in none of these states has there been any move to close the hearings again.

As I said, I am a former reporter, and as anyone who recalls when I was here in 2006 knows, I have plenty of reservations about how many in my former profession cover child welfare.  But one thing reporters have done well, almost always, is protecting the privacy of child victims.  And, indeed, the Legal Intelligencer carefully protected the privacy of Virginia McKale’s grandchildren.

No, I can’t guarantee that, if you open courts no child will ever be embarrassed.  But as I said in 2006, in an open, accountable system, it is likely that all children will be safer.  In an open, accountable system, chances are more children will live long enough to blush.

In 2006, I  said the Legislature should order courts in the rest of the state to follow Allegheny County’s example and open the doors – with a strong presumption of openness for every case, every time.  The law should specify that people can just show up, without asking permission beforehand; since, of course, unannounced inspections are far more likely to reveal what’s really going on.

But apparently, there’s a lot that can be done without a new law.

I was intrigued to read this in that excellent Legal Intelligencer story:

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer, formerly a family court judge in Allegheny County who oversaw reforms in that system, said, “The law on the subject is that courtrooms are presumptively open.”

He added, “Assume that the press appears and the courtroom is open; nothing precludes one of the other parties—the parent, the child advocate, the county solicitor—[from asking] to close the courtroom if that’s in the children’s best interest.”

The story also quotes retired Superior Court Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen. She had been a juvenile court judge in Pittsburgh.  According to the story:

Allen said … no one challenges the status quo of closed courtrooms despite case law that calls for transparency.  “The law is there,” Allen said. “There have been Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions in the past that have never been enforced. Someone has to challenge it.”

To me those comments sound like an invitation.

Don’t waste any more time with the deck chairs

One of the other things I learned as a reporter is a fundamental rule of bureaucracy: Reorganization is what you do when you don’t want real change.  You can spend years saying everything will be better once we reorganize.  Then you can say: “Of course there are problems, we’re in the middle of reorganization!”  And then there’s “Well, we’ve only just reorganized so it takes time for the new organizational structure to work.”

And by the time people get fed up, you can propose either a new reorganization or to undo the previous reorganization and start the process all over again.

So in child welfare there are endless debates over things like: Should the child protective services agency be a separate freestanding agency or part of a larger human services agency? The evidence tells us: It makes no difference.  Should child welfare be run by the state or by localities: The evidence tells us: It makes no difference.  And, of course, should child welfare services be delivered by public agencies, private contractors or some combination? The evidence tells us: It makes no difference.

So switching to a system of Community Umbrella Agencies was pointless.  But blaming that new system also is pointless, since the old system wasn’t any good either.

Don’t waste your time on further rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Instead, find new approaches to saving the ship.


You can’t change state law concerning who reports alleged child abuse and neglect, what they report, and how these terms are defined.  But you can change how DHS responds.

The consultants’ report has a number of sound recommendations.  So my first recommendation is simply this: Hold DHS accountable for implementing those recommendations. Don’t let them file away and forget these sound, sensible recommendations just because the consultants gave DHS answers that DHS may not have wanted to hear.

Hold periodic hearings to see what progress is being made toward implementing the recommendations, and demand action if the real answer turns out to be: Little or none.

In addition:

● You can demand that child protective services becomes child poverty services.  That does not mean the agency has to eradicate poverty – though that would be an excellent approach.  Simply focusing on housing, child care, and those one-time infusions of cash would help enormously to curb Philadelphia’s obscene rate of child removal.  And if DHS says “we’re going that” I say again: Never mind the words, look at the numbers.

● Demand a racial justice plan from DHS – specific, concrete steps, beyond “more training” to reduce the racial bias that compounds the class bias in the system.

● Provide high-quality drug treatment on demand for families where substance use is an issue – again, not because it’s best for the parents, but because it is best for their children.

● Demand strong leadership from DHS – and from the Mayor.  Earlier I described foster-care panics, and I quoted Vanessa Fields’ candid discussion of what happens during a panic.  But frontline workers run scared when they know that their commissioner and their commissioner’s boss, be that a mayor, a county executive or a governor, doesn’t have their backs.

For decades, the State of Connecticut went through the same cycles of foster-care panic as Philadelphia – and, indeed, much of the country.  Then, in 2011, a new governor brought in a new commissioner for the state child protective services agency, Joette Katz.  Not long after, a child “known to the system” died.

And that’s when Katz stepped up.  She said no.  She refused to run for cover.  She refused to tolerate another foster-care panic.  She refused to make policy by horror story.  She held her workers accountable when they were lazy or dumb – but backed them when there was no reasonable way to foresee tragedy, or when they simply made mistakes.  And the governor backed her up.  It cost them both politically. But it saved children’s futures, and it saved children’s lives.

Instead of knee-jerk responses they curbed needless removal, bolstered kinship care and pioneered an innovative model of home-based drug treatment.  Today, the rate of removal in the State of Connecticut – when factoring in rates of child poverty – is 40 percent lower than the rate in Philadelphia. (And again, I emphasize, this compares entries into care to the number of children living in poverty, so Connecticut’s relative affluence is not a factor.)

As a Council, you can demand strong leadership.  But, of course, you can’t ensure it.  And that brings me to the other vital change needed in Philadelphia: High-quality defense counsel for families.

Nearly 30 years ago, I wrote a book about child welfare, Wounded Innocents. It is filled with recommendations for changing laws.  I stand by those recommendations.  But what I’ve realized in the years since is that changing laws means nothing if there’s no way to enforce the changes. As long as the judge is hearing only DHS’ side of the story she or he almost always will rubber-stamp the agency, no matter what the law says.

That’s typically what happens. Technically, the family will have a court-appointed lawyer. But with rare exceptions that lawyer is an overworked public defender or private lawyer with an enormous caseload who either just met his or her client five minutes before the first court hearing or wasn’t appointed until after that hearing, when it’s often too late.  For all practical purposes, most families up against DHS are, literally, defense-less.

Indeed, the consultants hired by DHS itself said this issue was crucial, devoting a whole section of their report to model approaches.  They wrote:

Advocates and court personnel interviewed acknowledged that parent representation has not been well-resourced in Philadelphia.  This issue appears to be particularly acute with private attorneys representing parents who lack critical supports as well as a clear structure of accountability for the quality of their representation. … [G]iven that parent representation can be an important driver of permanency for children, this is an area that merits ongoing attention.


New York City used to have a similar system.  One of the things that happened when New York opened its courts to press and public is that everyone saw how much it was hurting children.  And that’s one of the reasons New York City has adopted its enormously successful model of high-quality family defense.

You also will be hearing today from two of New York’s family defense pioneers, Chris Gottlieb, Co-Director of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic and

Kara Finck, formerly managing attorney of the Family Defense Practice at the Bronx Defenders, They can discuss this model in detail in their testimony, so I won’t repeat that here.  But I do want to emphasize this:

● High quality family defense is one reason New York City takes children at a far lower rate than Philadelphia.  And the decline in foster care numbers in New York City has come with no compromise in child safety.

● This model has the full support of the lawyers who represent children in New York City – and New York City’s equivalent of DHS.

That’s because the point of the model is not to get “bad parents” off on technicalities – it’s to ensure that families get the help they need to keep their children safe.

You don’t need permission from the state to do this – DHS could do it tomorrow.

Where the state could help is in helping DHS to do it for the equivalent of 50 percent off.

The federal government has recognized that high-quality legal representation for children and for parents is in children’s best interests.  So they have now made it possible to use federal funds formerly reserved for administrative costs related to foster care, to reimburse half the cost of legal representation for children and parents.

The administrative mechanism is complex, it may need action by the state, and there will need to be safeguards to ensure DHS does not abuse the opportunity. But Philadelphia has the best chance it’s had in decades to give children a better chance in life, simply by giving their families an equal chance at justice.

Even systems with good leadership need this – because sometimes very good leaders can let their success go to their heads.  They can become too sure of themselves and unwilling to accept the need for checks and balances.  And, of course, the good leader who’s here today could be gone tomorrow.

Twelve years from now

As I said at the outset, it’s been 12 years since I last testified before the Philadelphia City Council.  If I am invited back in another 12 years, here’s what I hope to be able to say:

I hope I will be able to devote my time to praising DHS, city government, the judiciary and everyone else involved in Philadelphia child welfare for an amazing turnaround.  I hope I will be able to say that finally, Philadelphia is doing child welfare right.

And why not? The people of this city care as much about vulnerable children as the people of any other.  They are just as dedicated, they are just as skilled.  All that’s been missing is the strong leadership needed to finally get it done.

Thank you.



The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform is a small nonprofit child advocacy organization dedicated to trying to make the child protection system better serve America’s most vulnerable children.  The group was established at a 1991 Harvard Law School conference by the late Betty Vorenberg, a former member of the National Board of the ACLU.  NCCPR’s President is Prof. Martin Guggenheim of New York University School of Law, where he founded and co-directs the school’s Family Defense Clinic.

Members of our Board of Directors include Prof. Dorothy Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, author of the definitive book on child welfare and race, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Civitas Books, 2002), Ira Burnim, a former Legal

Director of the Children’s Defense Fund who now holds that position with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and Ruth White, former Director of Housing and Homelessness for the Child Welfare League of America.

My own background is in journalism: 19 years as a practitioner, three as a professor.  I spent much of my time covering child welfare, work that culminated in publication of a well-received book, Wounded Innocents (Prometheus Books, 1990, 1995).  You can read what other journalists and child welfare leaders say about us here:

2 thoughts on “Richard Wexler written testimony to DHS hearing in Philadelphia City Council, Feb 12

  1. Fredricka Holland-Guy

    I would like to know more about your organization. I was impressed by your documentation regarding the issues and practices of DHS and intrigued by your recommendations. As a citizen and a former DHS supervisor, I am very concerned about the extremely high rate of placent and how the children in our city fare.

  2. Robert cox

    I was giving custody of my grandson after my teen daughter left a teen mom program dhs came out checked my house and ran my clearance the investigator said he was coming the next day to bring kinship papers for me , instead of him showing up a caseworker and her supervisor came to my house in said they had to take my grandson because my daughter left the program it gave me a open gps. My heart dropped to the floor when they told me I had to give him up .the cops came because I was refusing , I didn’t understand why they gave me clearance but come back the next day to take my grandson! The cop couldn’t believe it either but I had to hand him was the most hurtful thing I ever did in my life!!!! I love him so much, I went with my daughter to all doctor appointments I was there when my grandson was born I cut the cord . Because I’m a grandparent they won’t give me hardly any information . The court date is on the 26 of august by phone ! I might not even be able to talk up for him.


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