Philly City Council passes resolution it defeated months ago, providing view of how things work behind the scenes

Pat Loeb
October 10, 2019 - 9:35 pm
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Philadelphia City Council Thursday passed a resolution it had defeated just four months ago, providing a glimpse into how things operate behind the scenes in the legislative body.

The resolution creates a special committee to examine child separations by the city Department of Human Services (DHS). It's a controversial proposal because Council already has a Children and Youth Committee (there is also a Child Welfare Oversight Board), and most councilmembers see their role in the child removal process as extremely limited or nonexistent. 
 
Sponsor David Oh first introduced the resolution in May. Council voted it down. 

But Oh reintroduced the resolution this month and encouraged parents who've lost custody of their children to come to Council to testify in its favor. Dozens showed up, and their emotional testimony extended the last few Council sessions by as much as an hour. 

The resolution still appeared unlikely to pass this week, so Oh placed a "hold" on the bill, which keeps it on the calendar for future consideration. Several sources said that created concerns that the parents would continue to come and testify every week until the resolution passed. 

Once Council was in session, Oh unexpectedly introduced a new version of the resolution, removing some inflammatory language that was in the original one. He asked for a suspension of the rules so the resolution could be voted on Thursday, even though it had just been introduced and councilmembers had very little time to review it.

During the session, Council President Darrell Clarke did not assume his usual post, leading the council session. Instead, he could be seen meeting with individual councilmembers. When the time came for a vote, the resolution passed unanimously.

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Afterward, Clarke denied the sequence of events was out of the ordinary, though he did say he was happy to have it resolved.

"We've been dealing with this issue for far too long and it's time to bring it to a head," he said. "You've been here, you've seen every week, individuals coming down wanting some action on this."

He conceded there were questions about the need for the committee but said he'd come down in favor of letting it form.

Other members said they changed their minds because of the new language in the second version, mainly changing the purpose of the committee from "investigating" to "examining" child separations.

They say the issue is worth examining because Philadelphia has the highest rate of child removal of any large city in the country.

DHS officials say that statistic is created by a number of factors they're working to address. They note there are a thousand fewer children in the system now than there were three years ago. They also point out that many people, including a judge, are involved in the decision to remove a child from a home.

"DHS is committed to supporting families. That’s why we have doubled down on prevention efforts, which have led to a decrease in out of home placements," a DHS spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "Parents' experiences are real and their voices are important. Given confidentiality laws, we are limited in what we can say, but understand that the complexity can create frustration. Our goal is to keep kids safe and reunify families as quickly it is safe to do so. The Commissioner’s Action Response Office is available for questions, concerns or complaints about an open Philadelphia DHS case. That number is 215-683-6000."

Privately, some councilmembers have said they were troubled by the timing of Oh's interest in the matter. He called a hearing to look into child separations last March, a short time after he took his own son to Children's Hospital with a broken collar bone suffered while Oh instructed him in martial arts, and the incident was investigated by a social worker. 

Oh followed up the hearing with the resolution to create the committee.

Oh denies that is his motivation.

"Mothers have been coming to me months and months prior to when I took my son to Children's Hospital," he said. "But at Children's Hospital, I experienced exactly what they're complaining about and so it was an affirmation to me that it's a systemic problem created by DHS."

Oh did not lose custody of his son, but he says he was investigated for what he called a false report that the injury was caused by abusive discipline.

Oh said the committee would hear again from many of the parents who've been testifying.

"Based on that," he said, "you can then talk to the people in charge about what they believe the policies are, the practices and procedures."

Oh concedes the committee will not be able to do anything to reunite parents with children who have been removed. 

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CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the source of a report Oh says falsely cited abusive discipline.