We took good care of those kids,” Elizabeth Buie says. “Every morning, me and my husband took turns, one of us helping them get ready and the other one of us cooking full breakfasts — eggs, hash-browns, waffles and pancakes.”

The Fight to Keep Families Together in Child Welfare

Pairing families with social worker and parent advocates to help navigate the system has shown promise. But in Philadelphia, problems persist with racial bias and disregard for families.

Story by Steve Volk

Illustrations by Dylan B. Caleho

Published on

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series that highlights the uphill battle many families face in navigating the Philadelphia child welfare system. These articles are part of “Our Kids,” a project of the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative that examines the challenges and opportunities facing Philadelphia’s foster care system. See also Part Two, “In the Push to Keep Children With Kin and out of Foster Care, Are Families Heard?

Broke in Philly Our Kids logo

For Elizabeth Buie, “her great-grands” provided daily joy. Each school day, she and her husband woke to dress, feed and send them off.

Then, in November 2018, while simmering gravy for dinner, one of the kids clattered into the stove and splashed a dollop of sauce onto his back.

Buie, who worked as a nurse in Harrisburg back in the 1960s, removed the boy’s shirt and treated the burn with ice, Neosporin and a bandage.

Her granddaughter Anita, the children’s mother, already had an open Department of Human Services case, based on a report alleging possible child abuse. The department left the kids in Anita’s care, living with Elizabeth in a multi-generational household. But about two months later, DHS received a further allegation that the boy had been burned and never taken to a doctor. Several days later, her caseworker turned up and removed three kids into foster care.

Elizabeth Buie only saw them once afterward. “It’s horrible,” she said. “The worst feeling of my life. And all over an accident.”

She doesn’t understand why they were removed, or why they haven’t been placed with another family member. Her son, Bert, volunteered. Still, the children live with strangers.

“Sometimes if I tell people what happened,” says Elizabeth Buie, “they don’t believe it.”

Such skepticism is common among people who lack direct involvement in the child welfare system and don’t experience its flaws. “I think people are generally not familiar with what happens in these cases,” says Kara Finck, director of the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic at Penn Law. “They just don’t know the reality, which is that parents and families are routinely disrespected, disregarded, and denied a voice in court.”

Families such as the Buies live with knowledge of the rough treatment families in “the system” receive because they have experienced it. Increasingly, advocates across the country are calling for the child welfare industry to re-imagine itself as a service that strengthens and defends families, instead of tearing them apart.

The System Isn’t Working

Over the last decade or two, calls to reform or even upend the child welfare system have gained momentum. While many youths with experience in foster care lead successful lives, a disproportionate number suffer negative, long-term consequences. The American Academy of Pediatrics describes youth in foster care as a group with special healthcare needs, ticking through a long list of physical and mental conditions linked to stress, including asthma, depression, anxiety and more. A U.K. study published last year showed youth who spend time in foster care with strangers experience long-term health conditions twice as often as youth placed with kin.

There is also an increasing understanding that the child welfare system has exceeded its mandate. The media traditionally reports that child removals occur for “reasons of abuse and neglect,” yet nationally only about 15 to 18% of cases stem from abuse. The category of neglect also usually describes circumstances arising from economic hardship, and rarely any willful withholding of a child’s needs. As a result, child welfare experts such as Penn’s family law professor Dorothy Roberts, have endorsed renaming the child-welfare system the “family regulation” or “policing” system for investigating women such as Buie, not only for abuse but for whether they meet some more subjective middle-class standard of care.

“I think what it comes down to is that it’s a system that doesn’t value families,” says Shereen White, a former attorney in the Philadelphia Public Defender’s child advocacy unit, representing kids in dependency cases, and current director of advocacy and policy at the nonprofit Children’s Rights, “particularly families of color.”

This June, the American Journal of Public Health published an eye-popping study that tracked more than 500,000 children born in California in 1999, determining that about half of the Black children and Indigenous children in that cohort were subjected to a child welfare investigation before turning 18. Earlier studies had shown that Black families are more likely to be investigated when seeking treatment for accidental injuries, compared to white children with more significant injuries. Black families are also more likely to be separated for “failure to supervise,” a phenomenon often known among white families as having a “latchkey kid.”

In response, experts have called for at least a 50% reduction to the number of youth in foster care, and Philadelphia has made significant improvements, reducing the foster rolls by 29% since June 2017, according to DHS’s most recent budget documents. They have also increased the percentage of youth in kinship care (placed with family or family friends instead of strangers) from about 48% in 2017, cresting 50%, well-beyond the national average. But within the scope of Philadelphia’s dysfunctional child welfare system, say critics, these improvements are too small.

According to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a nonprofit industry watchdog, Philadelphia is still the fourth most aggressive big city in the country, removing youth from homes experiencing poverty at a rate about twice that of cities such as New York and Chicago. Philadelphia has also failed to fully embrace kinship care, falling short of the 65% or more found in Allegheny County (home to Pittsburgh). And there are further signs that the city isn’t as committed to improvement as they claim.

The city’s Department of Human Services (DHS) is spending more than $1 million per year on an ambitious effort to connect youth in foster care with family. In more than a decade of financing the program, however, they have never bothered to track the program’s results.

That program’s co-creator, child welfare expert Kevin Campbell, frames reducing the overall number of youth in care and increasing the percentage of kids placed with kin in moral terms. “The data could not be clearer,” says Campbell. “Children do best when they are kept in their homes. But when that is really not possible, they do far better with kin than strangers. Any agency that does not organize their decision making around this understanding is hurting kids and families.”

Campbell’s assessment puts the onus on child welfare workers to place more kids with their families, and it’s curious that an agency like Philadelphia’s, with a stated commitment to increasing kinship care and demonstrable success in doing so, still appears to be half-stepping. (Part Two in this series looks more closely at how the internal dynamics of caseworkers and the courts impede reforms.) But another approach, already showing strong results, simply provides parents with better means to defend themselves.

An Advocacy Innovation Comes to Philly, by Way of New York

Finck recalls her first experiences in New York’s dependency court as a surprise.

“There was no depth,” she says. “It really surprised me how little detail was provided, how little evidence, and the extent to which the court acted as a rubber stamp for what the caseworkers wanted.”

Motivated by what she saw, Finck helped start a new model in New York to support families, known as holistic or interdisciplinary family defense. Parents receiving holistic support receive a qualified, committed attorney and a social worker who both work for them. They also get a peer-parent advocate, who contended with an investigation of their own.

If the system performed as it should, this new model would have made little difference. But families who were provided wraparound services saw far better results, without compromising child safety: A 2019 Children and Youth Services Review paper shows that children with parents supported by this New York defense model spent an average of four months less time in foster care. Families with multi-disciplinary representation were 43% more likely to be reunited in the first year after separation than families who had only an attorney to represent them, and 25% more likely to be reunited in the second year.

The practice also had a dramatic effect on kinship care. Children of clients with a holistic defense were permanently released to family twice as often in the case’s first year, and 67% more in year two. Today, most families in New York receive holistic defense services. The effort requires additional up-front spending, but according to the Children and Youth study full implementation across New York City would yield at least $40 million in savings.

The model is catching on in other locations, including New Mexico and California. Philadelphia has also launched its own small but growing program, operated by Community Legal Services. “It’s necessary,” says Finck, who has spent the last nine years working in Philadelphia. “The problems we saw in New York are the same problems we’re seeing here.”

Currently, most Philadelphia families are represented in dependency court by so-called “wheel attorneys,” lawyers appointed by the court to families who cannot afford private counsel. These court-appointed attorneys receive low flat fees, which incentivizes lawyers to take on high caseloads to compensate for the poor compensation. As a result, they also aren’t incentivized to make every effort because working harder for an individual client won’t yield any more money.

Data released by CLS shows that Philly youth who are served by their holistic defense model, with these better compensated and more committed lawyers, are less likely to enter foster care in the first place, return home in half the time, and enjoy kinship placement rates of a staggering 77%, crushing the city’s current numbers. CLS, however, represents only about 10% of the city’s child welfare cases (only a small subgroup of that 10% receives the full holistic defense with the peer parent advocate). DHS indicated in a recent budget presentation that it would be increasing its funding for the program. But for now, the program’s true potential can best be seen in hearing the stories of Philadelphia families who are going without it.

A Family Fights to Stay Whole

Bert Buie quit his job and retired in April 2020 from work he loved as a longshoreman on Packer Avenue, to care for his niece’s children. He painted a bedroom, installed new bunk beds and, he says, did everything the caseworker asked in order to become a kinship parent. But still he waits, while the kids live with strangers.

“They keep telling me they’re working on it,” he says.

His niece, Anita, was accused of child abuse by the father of one of her kids during a custody dispute; she denies the accusation. The Department of Human Services investigated, decided to leave the children in Anita’s care, and tasked her with various parenting courses and mental health-related programs.

Such “services,” note family advocates, also include greater ongoing scrutiny. For Anita Buie, that oversight led to problems when, in November, 2018, one of her boys found a lighter at her mother’s house and burned a hole through his own pants, causing a small burn to his leg. That same month another boy got burned in that more significant cooking accident at her grandmom’s. In both cases, Anita Buie wasn’t there. Her elder family members handled the wound care themselves. In the findings of fact, filed in court documents by the city, the second-degree kitchen burn was described as “healing well.”

Still, these incidents precipitated the January 2019 removal of her kids, and this year the termination of her parental rights, cutting off all of her ties to her children. “It’s one of my boy’s birthdays on Friday,” she moaned during an interview at one point. “And I cannot even talk to him.”

According to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a nonprofit industry watchdog, Philadelphia is still the fourth most aggressive big city in the country, removing youth from homes experiencing poverty at a rate about twice that of cities such as New York and Chicago.

Interviewed by phone, great-grandmother Elizabeth Buie sounds indignant and aggrieved. “It was an accident!” she says. “And I cared for that burn! I really still cannot even believe this is really happening.”

Elizabeth Buie and her husband had no opportunity to become kinship parents to those great-grands. One of the “incidents of abuse” had occurred in her home. She has also been prevented from visiting the kids, though she did tag along to one of Anita’s visits, where a caseworker told her she could remain but not touch the children.

“How can you tell me that?” she says, remembering the incident. “How can you tell me I cannot hug my own great-grands that I cooked for and fed, and dressed and got to school in the mornings? How can anyone tell me that?”

Buie recounts the love the children enjoyed in her home. “We took good care of those kids,” she says. “Every morning, me and my husband took turns, one of us helping them get ready and the other one of us cooking full breakfasts — eggs, hash-browns, waffles and pancakes.”

Hearing all this, attorney Erin Miles Cloud, co-director of the Movement for Family Power, an organization touting total abolition of the child welfare system, says: “I can’t imagine any act more violent. Think about it: Is this really the society we want, where we inflict this kind of pain on children and families?”

The fate of Buie’s kids, the opportunity for them to maintain meaningful and healthy connections to the people who loved them, depends on the child welfare system’s ability to perceive and act on the nuances of particular cases. But when Elizabeth Buie, convinced she was being wronged, trekked to family court to present her story to the judge, she was not allowed to speak. “They told me I had no standing,” she says.

The strong defense offered by the New York model, however, can change this — giving families such as the Buies a greater opportunity to be heard.

What a Stronger Defense Would Mean

In total, 10 families were interviewed for this story — each of their situations unique in its details, but all of which returned to the same general theme: The system had damaged them, their children and families, without giving them a fair chance to advocate for or defend themselves.

Bridget Powell and her family spent five years trying to get a niece placed with family, including her brothers, citing state law that “reasonable efforts” should be made to keep siblings together. Powell herself has become a kinship parent, so she clearly wasn’t the problem. Yet she never persuaded DHS to make the placement.

Cynthia Mitchell, a 49-year old grandmom, has been denied any opportunity to provide kinship care to her daughter’s kids, denied visitation rights also, because of a now 17-year-old aggravated assault charge, for which she served a sentence of two years probation. She tried to get some kind of audience with DHS, saying “I walked, faxed, and emailed in testimonials from the community, describing who I am now. But no one ever responded.”

Talea Griggs describes her entire case as unfair, originating with an accusation made by an ex, who said she assaulted him. Griggs denied the accusation, and that case was subsequently withdrawn. Placing her kids with family, though, was her best option “till my situation could get straightened out.”

The way she tells it, the few months since then have been a morass. Her kids were placed with a sister in Glenside, Pennsylvania, then removed because the caseworker claimed they could not be registered in a new school system. A brother in Philadelphia, meanwhile, where the kids were already enrolled, stepped up to take them, but was denied placement, for reasons such as too little ventilation in his home, a paintball gun that was counted as a “firearm,” and the kids would not have enough bedrooms.

A DHS spokesperson stated in an email that the agency has sought waivers, in some cases, of non-safety requirements, on behalf of kin.

Children of clients with a holistic defense were permanently released to family twice as often in the case’s first year, and 67% more in year two. Today, most families in New York receive holistic defense services. The effort requires additional up-front spending, but full implementation across New York City would yield at least $40 million in savings.

Photo by Photogi from Pixabay

Griggs also has documents showing that the kids didn’t actually attend school in Philadelphia for more than a week after they were removed, raising additional questions about why they were placed with strangers. And at least as egregiously, the city appears to have ignored a court order that would have allowed their grandmother to be considered to care for the kids.

Griggs’s mother, who wants to be referred to using the initials R.A. to protect her anonymity, would have taken the children in at start of the case. She was told, however, that she couldn’t because she had a protective services report against her from more than 20 years earlier.

R.A., it turns out, is one of thousands of people in Pennsylvania who have been placed on the child abuse registry without cause or sufficient notice. In R.A.’s case, a child had thrown a toy, striking her daughter in the head, way back in 1998, probably causing someone at the hospital to file a report that never even yielded an investigation. R.A. only learned that her name was on the registry in 2015, after a background check to clear her for work as a home health aide. She quickly challenged the record, which a judge ordered expunged. But the report, almost six years later, was still used to deny her kinship care of her grandkids.

“It’s very simple,” says Attorney Janet Ginzberg, who oversaw many cases like R.A.’s at CLS. “The report should not have been used against her.”

The Department of Human Services does maintain a phone line for families to call with complaints. Sometimes families report that they called the line, and no one called back. The Griggs say they called, too, but got almost no reaction. In what could be a coincidence, after a list of questions about Griggs’s case was emailed to DHS, she was assigned a new caseworker and supervisor. Someone from the complaint line also emailed, to suggest this change in workers should satisfy her. Later, someone from the case manager’s office complained to Griggs that she called the complaint line at all.

All the parents involved in the cases described in this two-part series agreed to waive their privacy rights, so that Next City could review their case files. But DHS responded to a request indicating the parent’s agreement by stating that the agency will “not discuss specific cases.”

Reporting on dependency cases is notoriously difficult. Dependency courtrooms are closed to the press and public, ostensibly to protect the privacy of children, though the larger if unintended effect is that the public remains in the dark about the court’s workings. Even when transcripts from hearings are obtained, they are generally of such little depth that they might only capture fragments of the case. Still, the families in this story presented documents when they could to back up their accounts. For instance, reading through the Judge’s orders that gave custody of Talea Griggs’s children to DHS, backs up Griggs’s sense of confusion about why the agency has taken her children at all.

“The child is without proper care or control, subsistence, education as required by law,” reads the court document, “or other care or control necessary for his physical, mental, or emotional health, or morals.”

To a mother whose children were well fed, not sick, and attending school, the order can’t help but confuse. Is the problem “care,” “control,” “morals” or some other reason(s) in the vague multiple choice selection listed? The courts move too fast to put such things on paper.

Having People on Your Side Who “Get It”

In the face of such blockages, the interdisciplinary family defense model offers a reliable countermeasure—and would certainly aid the Griggs.

The peer parent advocate and social worker provide crucial emotional and practical support. “Losing your children is deeply traumatic for the kids and their parents,” says April Lee, a peer parent advocate at CLS in Philadelphia. “I’m able to say to people, ‘I’ve been through this’ and be that support for them to express their emotions.”

The value is easy to see: Lee can hear parents’ stories and truly commiserate, then offer practical advice on the steps they must take to get their kids back. “Being able to say to them, ‘These are the hoops you have to jump through,’ as many times as they might need to hear it when they’re dealing with so many emotions, is really important.”

The dedicated social worker is a help in working with case managers. “It’s incredibly helpful to have that social worker for the parent to speak with,” says Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney at CLS’s family advocacy unit, “someone whose sole job is to hear the parent out, and serve as a kind of interpreter for what might be asked of them by the caseworkers. There are a lot of rules and jargon and if you have not encountered it before, it can be very confusing.”

The removal of Griggs’s children from their aunt’s house, for instance, might have been averted by the holistic defense. A social worker assigned to aid mom and her family would likely have been in dialogue with the caseworker, heading off concerns and keeping the family apprised of needed paperwork, permissions and deadlines.

The most dramatic component of the holistic defense model, though, is the quality of lawyering families receive. The low fees those court-appointed attorneys receive force them into taking on high caseloads to earn a living, and this limits how much energy they can spend on any single case. Court staff also urge speed, say family attorneys, as a hedge against their own lengthy case lists, and can punish zealous parental attorneys for clogging up their schedules by calling their cases last, causing them to lose a day waiting in court.

“The system operates with a kind of ruthless efficiency,” says Finck. “Because caseworkers are generally overworked, with big caseloads, and the courts have overloaded dockets, a lot of times speed and efficiency become the overriding value, rather than helping families… and exploring these cases in real depth.”

Philly dependency court judges hear an average of 15 or more cases per day, leaving judges and court staff with just 20 minutes to hear each case across an eight-hour shift. This can cause even private attorneys, eager to stay in the judge’s good graces, to keep their witness lists and range of issues tight.

Talea Griggs has used two attorneys thus far — a wheel attorney and then a private attorney she hired — but according to her, neither lawyer brought up placement with kin as an option or the flagrant disregard of R.A.’s expunged record in court.

“I think, strategically, a lot of attorneys will look at reunifying the parent with their child as the ultimate goal,” says Sarah Katz, a Temple law professor who directs the Family Law Litigation Clinic. “So they don’t fight over placement [with kin], in an effort to kind of pick their battles and avoid taking up too much time. But obviously that leaves families with no recourse.”

Attorneys at CLS, which runs Philly’s small-scale version of the holistic defense model and is known for fighting every case vigorously, take a different tack.

“The parent is the client,” says Creamer, at CLS. “But placement is important to the client, obviously, and we can absolutely call family members as witnesses to help contest it. And we do.”

The Buies, too, might have been helped by this, pushing back against the villainization of Elizabeth Buie or perhaps bringing Bert Buie to the witness stand. What the record shows, however, is that Anita Buie and her family never really stood a chance, as a system supposedly built to keep families together and place kids with kin whenever possible, all too often demonstrates more dedication to expediency than compassion.

This story continues in Part Two, “In the Push to Keep Children With Kin and out of Foster Care, Are Families Heard?

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Steve Volk is a Stoneleigh Fellow and an investigative solutions reporter with Resolve Philly, a nonprofit journalism organization committed to collaboration, equity, and community voices and solutions. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Philadelphia, Discover and the Washington Post Sunday magazines. 

Dylan B. Caleho says: I’m a comic artist and illustrator living out of Philadelphia. I make art to tell stories, and to spark conversation. I want my art to be explained through the images only, and for the words to come secondary. If I’m able to tell the narrative without words then I’m doing my job right.

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