Ronnie Polaneczky: DHS slashes number of kids in its care by fostering new ideas

Rashan Clarke, 18, bounced around in foster care from age 3 months until he aged out of the system.
Rashan Clarke, 18, bounced around in foster care from age 3 months until he aged out of the system. (RONNIE POLANECZKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF)
Posted: March 13, 2012

BEFORE WE marvel that there are 30 percent fewer Philly kids in foster care or delinquent placement today than three years ago, let's marvel that Rashan Clarke survived the system at all.

From the age of 3 months until he aged out of foster care last year, Rashan, 18, bounced from placement to placement. A few of his caregivers were well-intentioned, he says, but those relationships were short-lived. Mostly, he endured abuse or neglect by people who were supposed to protect and care for him.

"Too many of them are just in it for the money. They don't care about you. I ran away a lot," says Rashan, who also did time in a juvenile center for assault - a result, he says, of his anger at being so thoroughly unwanted.

"Once I got old enough to protect myself, I stayed in my room with the door locked, so no one could hurt me," he says.

Now on his own, he has a supermarket job and stays with friends while he tries to find a permanent home. The thing is, if the Department of Human Services had worked to keep Rashan with kin or in his own neighborhood long ago, he might be better off today.

For too long, admits DHS Commissioner Annemarie Ambrose, foster placement in Philadelphia has been used as a first-time response to family crises instead of as a last resort. Indeed, Philadelphia has the highest rate of foster placement in America, beating out even Los Angeles and New York in the number of children removed from their families. The outcomes can be especially miserable for those who age out of the foster system and wind up back with family anyway.

"They have to try to rebuild relationships, because placement cut their ties to family. They're like strangers. It's heartbreaking," says Ambrose, whose department meets regularly with Rashan and other former foster kids to learn how DHS can improve services to families in jeopardy.

The good news is that DHS has slashed the number of children it removes from families. In 2005, 6,482 children were removed. By the end of 2011, the number had dropped 35 percent, to 4,182.

In its place, the department is focusing on providing services to children and families right in their communities.

Ambrose says the cost of placement is about $150 per day, compared with $50 per day to keep the kids at home.

Meaning it's cheaper to help a family stay together than it is to rip it apart. And the long-term consequences are better for all.

"By reducing the number of kids in placement, you strengthen the community and create stronger safety nets for families," Ambrose says.

Importantly, DHS has also reduced out-of-state placement of children in both foster and delinquent care: In 2008, 250 kids were sent out of state; currently, there are fewer than 60.

"When a child is out of state, it's harder to monitor their care," she says. "You can't do visitation or family therapy and talk through problems in a way that helps you arrive at a good, long-term solution. By offering supportive services in the community, we can work through those issues in better ways."

Although she lauds city Behavioral Health Commissioner Arthur Evans and Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty for working with DHS to create alternatives to removing a child from the family, she concedes that she and her colleagues still have work to do. About 25 out of every 1,000 children under DHS care are in placement, well ahead of the 18-per-1,000 rate of the second-highest city, Los Angeles.

But the downward trend is notable enough that a frequent DHS critic was encouraged when I asked his take on the reductions.

"This is certainly better than it used to be," says Richard Wexler, head of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

"If you're going to take a child out of the home, then the least harmful option is almost always placement with a relative. The worst option is an institution. And the worst institution is the one out of state.

"Therefore, within the context of taking away children, DHS is not doing as badly as it once did. But Philly still has a long way to go."

No argument there.

But good news is still good news. Just ask the Rashan Clarkes of the city.

Email Call 215-854-2217. Recent Blog: Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

comments powered by Disqus