Lessons from the basement

Posted: November 03, 2011

By Frank P. Cervone

So how did this happen? I've heard that question a hundred times, and asked it more than a few times myself, in the weeks since the horrors of the Tacony "dungeon" were revealed. How did a convicted murderer get custody of children? Did the Philadelphia Department of Human Services know about the years of abuse and neglect allegations against Linda Weston?

Unfortunately, we might never know. Child-welfare or "dependency court" proceedings are generally closed to the public - for some good reasons. Confidentiality can protect children and families.

The Pennsylvania Constitution, however, calls for proceedings to be public unless a court finds the parties would be harmed as a result. That principle is not observed as often as it should be. When confidentiality protects bad practice by lawyers, judges, and others, it does more harm than good.

I myself can say little about the details of the Weston case, because a lawyer might lose his license, or a child-welfare worker her job, for disclosing information about child-abuse investigations or proceedings. This almost airtight lock on information tends to leave the public doubtful and even cynical, and that's unfortunate, because we all have a stake in these cases.

Dependency cases focus on whether a child is being abused or deprived, and on the services and supports that can help. They do not usually assign guilt as the criminal courts do. Rather, they attempt to answer the question: "What does this child need, and who will provide it?"

Judgment call

Does criminal history matter? Of course. Does it render one ineligible to care for a child? Only sometimes.

In a standard custody case such as a dispute between parents, the court is required to consider whether each parent has been convicted of a crime of assault or injury. A crime against another adult that's not clearly related to a parent's ability to provide for his children is unlikely to affect a custody determination. The same is true when DHS charges a parent with abuse or neglect: Parenting capacity is a key issue.

While there are restrictions on who may be a foster parent, ex-convicts cannot - and should not - be disqualified. A criminal record might not say much about one's ability to parent. With several hundred thousand children involved in dependency court proceedings nationwide - many with parents who have criminal records and other shortcomings - this becomes one of many hard judgment calls.

So what can be done to prevent cases like the one in the news? More cooperation among agencies would help. News reports suggest that police and DHS had been interacting on the Weston case, though they were frustrated by Weston's tactics and perhaps their own communication breakdowns. Philadelphia is a leader in collaborative investigations of child sexual abuse, but many cases of serious abuse and neglect are still investigated separately by police and child-welfare officials, or by only one of the two.

Substantial gaps

We also need more people to recognize that we're all our children's "keepers." Did the folks who lived around this family notice anything? Did anyone call DHS?

From our experience in other cases, we would expect that some suspicions in the case were investigated, and that some of the investigations could have been more robust. What can a community do when the system seems to be falling short? In 2002, a legislative study group I chaired recommended a statewide children's ombudsman to receive and review citizen complaints.

With a modest investment of funds, such an office could improve accountability, trust, and efficiency. More than half the states have such an office.

In recent years, DHS has increased its quality-control efforts with such measures as random file reviews, data analysis, and in-depth examinations of cases. Yet in Philadelphia and across the state, substantial gaps in child protection persist.

It's not that more children should be removed from their parents. Indeed, recent declines in the number of children in foster care are welcome. But we have to make sure we are getting to the children who really should be removed, while also investing in prevention services where they can make a difference.

A 1998 legislative report called for an independent statewide review of how the system responds to reports of abuse and neglect. Today, that review is still needed.

Is the Weston case about the unpredictable inhumanity of a few bad actors or the persistent failures of the child-protection system? It could be about both. Child-welfare courts and professionals are expected to separate the wanton abuser who should never care for a child from the troubled parent who can put supportive services to good use. It's the hardest part of a difficult job.

Frank P. Cervone is executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates. He can be reached at fcervone@advokid.org.

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