Why it shouldn’t take one death to call out ailing welfare system

A 3-month-old boy was found dead Feb. 6 in a Kensington house that was warmed only by space heaters. The boy, identified as Juan Ash, likely died from hypothermia. There were nine other children living

A 3-month-old boy was found dead Feb. 6 in a Kensington house that was warmed only by space heaters.

The boy, identified as Juan Ash, likely died from hypothermia. There were nine other children living in the unheated house. They were supposedly being monitored by Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services. But this baby is only one of many children who died while under the care of DHS.

One abused or dead while under the care of Philadelphia’s child welfare system is one too many. It shouldn’t take a death for people to realize the problems with the system and to demand that they be fixed.In August 2003, 3-year-old Porchia Bennett was found wedged between a mattress and a wall in the bedroom of the South Philadelphia home where she lived with her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend. This little girl’s death spurred outrage against DHS, which was supposed to have been monitoring Bennett and her three sisters.

Two months later, four boys, weighing collectively 136 pounds, were found in a Collingswood, N.J., house. A caseworker from the state’s Division of Youth and Family Services visited the home 38 times without reporting any problems.

All four boys had rotting teeth, lice and distended bellies. This renewed anger against DYFS, which was supposed to have been cleaning up its act.

According to the “Philadelphia Inquirer,” 25 children under the care of Philadelphia’s DHS have died in the past three years. In January 2006, a woman plunged her 11-week-old son into hot water, threw him down a flight of stairs and beat him with a mop handle.

Last September, a man beat his 19 month-old daughter to death after she unplugged his video game.

“DHS has seen and provided services to hundreds of families and done a good job,” William Haussmann, executive director of Tabor Children’s Services, a private non-profit child welfare agency, told this reporter.

This should be acknowledged, as well as the fact that it’s the children’s caregivers that abuse and kill children and not the people working in these systems. Though the workers should still be held accountable because they failed to protect these children.

New Jersey’s problems, according to the “New York Times,” include too few case workers to handle the large number of cases, an ineffective abuse hotline, slow investigations of allegations and no consistency in dealing with complaints.

Unlike Philadelphia, the New Jersey system is reportedly doing better, after being forced in 2003 to pay $4 million to defend DYFS against a civil suit brought by the advocacy group Children’s Rights Inc.

Philadelphia’s problems, according to Haussman, include money not being spent, the agencies trying to do the same work and unclear expectations of what the system is actually supposed to accomplish. DHS is conducting an internal investigation in hopes of improving. Why did it take dead children to get to this point?

“This is a death-driven system – the only time there [are] significant changes is when there is a cluster of deaths,” Haussmann said. Haussmann said that people don’t pay any attention until the clusters of deaths appear, then people express outrage at the failings of the system.

If 25 children died in Philadelphia in a three-year span, imagine how many children are being beaten everyday.

It shouldn’t take starved, beaten, children or lawsuits to get us to notice that there is a problem.

The deaths of these children aren’t only on the heads of their caregivers, but also on those of the social workers who failed to see that their charges were in danger.

Just as we all have to accept a certain level of responsibility for failing to notice the faults of the system that was created to protect the weakest members of society.

Ashley Helaudais can be reached at

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