Ex-DHS staffer now at N.J. child agency

Posted: June 28, 2007

TRENTON - John McGee, who was fired from his high-ranking post at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services amid the uproar over the deaths of children under its watch, has landed a job at the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.

A spokeswoman for the New Jersey agency confirmed that McGee, the former deputy commissioner in charge of abuse investigations for DHS, was hired earlier this month as an administrator in the Division of Child Behavioral Health Services.

He is responsible for overseeing the placement of children leaving detention centers who can't be sent home and who are moved to facilities such as group homes and residential treatment centers, children and families spokeswoman Kate Bernyk said.

McGee, whose salary at DHS was $108,000, is making $95,000 in his new job.

Bernyk said "there were no concerns" in hiring him.

"We talked to several child advocates in the area and government officials in Philadelphia and we are happy to have him on board," she said.

McGee could not be reached for comment. A woman answering the phone at his Trenton office said he was on vacation.

A spokesman for Mayor Street, who fired McGee in October while asking DHS Commissioner Cheryl Ransom-Garner to resign, did not return calls for comment.

Street ousted the pair, saying "we think we can do better," after The Inquirer published an investigation that highlighted the failings of an agency that had promised changes after the death, three years earlier, of a toddler under its supervision.

The newspaper focused on three child-death cases in which relatives and neighbors told of danger signs that DHS caseworkers had missed or discounted.

A panel that Street convened in November to review DHS later revealed that 52 children whose families were known to the agency died between 2001 and 2006 and that "a number of those fatalities could have been prevented."

Bernyk said McGee, who is fighting Philadelphia officials in court for benefits he says the city still owes him, landed at the New Jersey Department of Children and Families after submitting his resumé and going through several interviews. She said he was hired with Commissioner Kevin Ryan's blessing by behavioral health services director Vernita Blocker.

Frank Cervone, whose Philadelphia agency finds legal help for abused children, served on the panel. He said McGee's hiring in New Jersey should cause no alarm.

"The panel revealed many leadership problems and so, in a sense, John has to share in some of the responsibility in that," Cervone said. But he added, "It would really be unfair to finger any one person for DHS' problems."

Cervone said he had always found McGee, who he said was liked and respected within child-advocacy circles, to be "thorough and responsive" and praised him for his "solid social work skills."

"I'd support his continued work in this business," Cervone said.

McGee has joined another agency with a troubled history. New Jersey's Department of Children and Family Services was established last year as part of a massive plan to overhaul the beleaguered Division of Youth and Family Services, which was accused of failings similar to those in Philadelphia.

The new department houses what was DYFS and the behavioral health division that employs McGee.

Tiffany Ellis, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Office of the Child Advocate, which acts as a watchdog for the department, said her office could not comment on McGee's hiring because it was "not too familiar with him."

But, Ellis noted, the hiring was approved by Ryan, a former state child advocate who has been credited with putting child-welfare reform on track.

"We can only trust he's bringing in the right people for the job," Ellis said. "And we'll be working with them along the way to make sure they're doing that job well."

Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 609-989-8990 or jmoroz@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer John Sullivan contributed to this article.

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