The Deluge

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

A small boy is dead by his mother's hand. Joseph Wallace, age 3, had been in foster care. But on Feb. 16, 1993, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), along with the state's attorney's office and the public guardian, came into Juvenile Court and recommended the boy be reunited with his mother. Amanda Wallace had a history of mental health issues: She had set herself on fire, tried to disembowel herself, eaten batteries and drank drain cleaner. She dispensed with her son by hanging him.

Now, The Chicago Tribune, the Windy City's paper of record, is on a mission. It had already begun a series titled "Killing Our Children"; the Wallace death sends it into a frenzy. In two years and more than 100 stories, the paper pans the entire Illinois child welfare system, particularly bemoaning a law that it claims emphasizes family reunification over child safety. The coverage will eventually garner numerous prizes, including a Pulitzer for editorial writing.

But the Tribune's coverage has another consequence: It throws the Illinois system into disarray. "Nobody wants to be on the front page of the newspaper," a child welfare expert from Northwestern University tells The Chicago Reader in a 1995 story. "Workers, judges, attorneys are all making decisions based on whether something will come back to haunt them personally and professionally." The foster care population in Chicago shoots up 30 percent in 14 months as terrified workers remove more and more kids from their homes; the city's emergency homeless shelter fills with children. DCFS is overwhelmed. And although this isn't the best measure of a system's success, there is an increase in child abuse fatalities.

The Reader asks Ben Wolf, an attorney for the Illinois ACLU, whether the Tribune's coverage made child welfare in Chicago better or worse. His answer: "Unquestionably worse."

There goes the phone.

Jim Butler has been sitting at his desk, trying to respond to a reporter who had the temerity to ask him, on what is arguably the busiest day of the year, why social workers are so damn busy. Butler, 54, is an affable guy, the kind who greets complete strangers enthusiastically. After some initial shock, he does his best to field the question. "You can be sitting here doing this paperwork," he explains, "and then the phone rings because Billy's truant. That blows you out of the water." He is just saying "the phone rings" when the phone does, in fact, ring.

"DHS," Butler says.

He's about to be blown out of the water.

The reason Butler, and indeed, all of DHS, is so busy is that social workers have been ordered to conduct "safety visits" with every family on their caseloads. Normally, workers visit a family a minimum of once every three months, but this last month and a half they've been told to see everyone, and today, Dec. 20, is the last day to do it. The visits are part of DHS's response to a recent series of articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer questioning the agency's competence. It's not clear that the series has made things better.

Butler, despite only being at DHS 10 months, has actually already been called out in the paper: One of the stories was about a teen in his caseload who was wanted for murder, and was running from the law. A private agency contracted to provide services to the boy had claimed, rather implausibly, that it had been visiting him regularly, including on a day when the police raided his home. Butler was overseeing the case; he'd already discovered the discrepancy and reported it to his supervisor, he says. But when the Inquirer called him it was a Friday after 4 p.m. He was out, didn't get the message and when the story ran on Sunday it simply said he "did not return a voicemail left at the office."

Around DHS, having your name in the paper is treated as generally analogous to losing a grandparent: People call to express sympathy but expect you to be OK. And, emotionally, Butler is. His schedule is another matter. He has already completed the safety visits for his 22 cases, but this afternoon, he'd been planning on conducting one for a colleague, in South Philly. Now he has to reconcile conducting the visit and investigating the report he's just received.

It's about one of Butler's clients, whom we'll call Mr. Davis. Butler regards Davis as a good caretaker: All five of his children live with him in a clean, if crowded, row home in Mantua, he works and he's capable. He's fine. But the caller was reporting that the mother of Mr. Davis' 14-month-old baby was living in his home. This would not be fine, because the mother has a history of mental health and neglect issues; in fact, she has five other children, by other men, nome of whom are in her care (and all of whom, for Butler, are part of this one "case"). Butler isn't sure she's a threat to the kids in the house, but she damn sure shouldn't be living there. He wonders whether she really is.

"My suspicion is Mr. Davis put his girlfriend out, and she's just trying to get him in trouble," Butler says.

He knows, however, that he has to do the investigation. He decides to go to Mantua, then do the safety visit afterward. It will be another late night.

"The last thing you want to do is wait on it," he explains. "Like, oh, she called me yesterday and something happens to the kid tonight."

Butler pulls a van to a stop across the street from the Davis home just as dusk is enveloping the city. Davis, a black man in his early 30s, is outside considering the engine of a maroon minivan; the baby, all bundled up in blue with a tiny winter hat, is with him, and a line of kids of various sizes stand like an opened-up Babushka doll on the porch. The family is headed to a Christmas party.

"I need to talk to you," Butler tells Davis.

The whole crowd shuffles in through the door of the row home. Inside, Davis confirms to Butler that he has indeed put his girlfriend out. Butler is checking the home — both for basic functionality, like flushing toilets, and for signs of female occupation — when all of a sudden a grown woman walks past him.

"Excuse me," Butler says. "Who are you?"

The woman gives him a name. It is similar, but not identical, to the name of the woman he is checking for. What's more, she looks like, but not exactly like, the mother, whom he met once, months before.

She gained weight, he thinks.

They go back and forth: He asks for ID, she says she doesn't have any. He asks who her children are, she confirms the ones in foster care, but denies any relation to the baby. She also says she doesn't live here. And Davis backs her up on all of it. Meanwhile, she is vaguely defensive.

"What do you want to know all this for?" she asks.

Finally, she gives Butler an address, in North Philly.

"If I was to go to this address at 10 tonight, you would be there?" he asks.

She says she would.

Back in the van, Butler decides she was, in fact, the woman he was looking for. He's less certain she lives in the home. "If I was gonna bet my job," he says, and then pauses a long while. "I'd say she lives here." What troubles him most is that Davis lied to him. Now he has to figure out what to do about it. The only real disincentive at a social worker's disposal is removing children from their guardians, and Mr. Davis has been doing really well — it seems drastic. Still, when Butler gets back to the office, his supervisor points out that if the woman is living in the home, she could easily run off with the baby. DHS Let Kidnapper Remain in Home — wouldn't that make a great headline?

"If we find out that's her, and he lied," his supervisor says, "then I'm not comfortable with that baby staying there."

The DHS administrators knew the story was coming: They'd spent several weeks answering (and, at the advice of city lawyers, not answering) questions from the Inquirer. The Friday before the first front-page missile rocked the agency, one of the reporters, Ken Dilanian, called an administrator and told him, "You're not going to like it, but you can call me up on Monday and yell at me."

They didn't like it.

The story, which ran Oct. 15 under the headline, "Bury Your Mistakes," turned on three Joseph Wallace-like deaths in which DHS had missed danger signals. But it went much further: It argued that DHS talked about cases when convenient, but hid its errors behind a veil of confidentiality laws; it frequently, and favorably, quoted Richard Gelles, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and a vocal critic of DHS; and it trumpeted the fact that, between 2003 and 2005, "at least 20 children died of abuse or neglect after coming to the attention of DHS" — a number that caused considerable discontent at the agency, because it included two children who hadn't been born when DHS closed their families' cases. (This means the agency could have investigated, and closed, a truancy report in 1998 and seemingly been held accountable for the death of an infant in 2004, though when Dilanian went on WHYY's Radio Times he said he had not intended to imply that.) Probably most damaging, the story attacked DHS for failing to make significant changes in its procedures for investigations after the well-publicized death of Porchia Bennett. There were state-of-the-art guidelines for investigating child abuse reports that the agency had not implemented, the Inquirer said.

It should not be considered an irrelevant point here that Mayor John Street has named every year of his administration "The Year of the Child." With another chunk of his reputation in peril, the mayor summoned Commissioner Cheryl Ransom-Garner and her top deputy, John McGee, to discuss the story. Both administrators had been with DHS for decades, had come up through the ranks, and been through publicity storms before. For the first four days after the story broke, they sat through meetings with the mayor figuring he'd help them weather the onslaught. But late Thursday, Street got fed up. According to the Inquirer , the mayor ran out of patience because, while staring at gruesome photos of deceased children, "He kept hearing that the rules were being followed."

On Friday, Oct. 20, Street held a press conference announcing that Ransom-Garner had resigned and McGee had been terminated (sources say McGee got on the bad side of Managing Director Pedro Ramos during meetings; the city then attempted to block him from collecting accumulated leave time and post-retirement medical coverage). The news did not go over well at DHS headquarters. After receiving an e-mail informing them of the resignation, people stood around their cubicles in shock; before long, union stewards were stalking the halls of the building, arranging a walkout. At about 2:30 p.m., workers dropped everything and marched to City Hall, where they gathered outside the mayor's office, chanting, "We want Cheryl!" and "Cheryl is a scapegoat!" while politicos watched, bewildered. After about a half-hour, they headed down to the street and blocked off the traffic circle at Dilworth Plaza.

"If I saw other people do it, I would think they were crazy," says Gaston Cummings, a supervisor in the Sex Abuse Unit, recalling the walkout. "That day my own anger scared me."

It was, frankly, an astonishing sight. It's rare enough to see people protest the ouster of their boss, but people in a giant bureaucracy? Ransom-Garner was a popular commissioner: she had been a social worker, and was believed to be sympathetic — and empathetic — to the challenges of the job. But there were two other reasons for the emotional response that had little to do with her personally.

The first was that DHS workers were taking the Inquirer story and its political fallout as an indictment not of an administration, but of their work. In addition to "Cheryl is a scapegoat," they used the walkout to chant "Do Our Job" and "Report Who We Save," and complained to reporters about the general challenges of, say, ordering career criminals to remove their children's clothes for inspection. The mayor didn't help matters when he told the Inquirer that social workers should not be treating children "like a paycheck"; nor did the paper when it quoted a local public health official saying, "My hope is that they would walk out and just keep walking" — a quote it loved so much it used it as the ending of its big Sunday story.

The second reason was that DHS workers were made deeply uncomfortable by the violation of their bureaucratic procedures.

"We have a chain of command, and the chain of command, I felt, was disrespected," says a social worker named Avery Taylor. "Any disciplinary action that should have occurred — and I'm not saying any should have occurred, because I don't know the specific cases — but it should have respected the chain of command. ... If the top is being forced to resign, it seems to almost emasculate those underneath, as if they have no power, as if their efforts are fruitless."

Bureaucracies depend on rules, and this is especially true when life and death decisions are made — it's why soldiers follow orders. In social work, there's really no way to ever know if you've done "enough" on a particular case. As workers observe all the time, they don't sleep under the same roof as their clients, and something can always go wrong on their watch. Rules that say "visit a child within 24 hours," or "visit a child once every three months," allow them to go to sleep in their own beds at night knowing that, should something go wrong, it won't be their fault. And yet here was Ransom-Garner, having come up through the organization and followed all the rules, being fired. It disturbed the very psyche of the agency.

On the same day as the commissioner's resignation, the two lead Inquirer reporters, Dilanian and John Sullivan, went on WHYY's Radio Times . They observed that, if the rules don't work, it's the boss's job to change them. Many DHS workers question whether stricter rules would have made a difference in the cases the Inquirer highlighted — in spite of their adherence to existing guidelines, they think investigations tend to be a matter of instinct. But perhaps the reporters' point explains the tragedy of Ransom-Garner and McGee: They spent their adult lives working their way up an agency where the bureaucratic procedures are articles of faith, and when they got to the top, and were exposed to the political and policy winds outside, they were quickly swept away for being overly doctrinal. A mass of followers is lost in their wake.

The walls of 1515 Arch St., where DHS is headquartered, are adorned with posters that picture DHS workers with children, and the slogans, "We are Dedicated. We are DHS," "We are Innovators. We Are DHS," and also "We Are Strategic," "Committed" and "Builders of Family Bonds. We Are DHS." The decorations were part of a campaign launched by Ransom-Garner's predecessor, Alba Martinez, to give the staff a sense of professional identity. They had become just another familiar part of bureaucratic routine when, in late October, Acting Commissioner Arthur Evans, and his deputy, Joseph Kuna, moved in.

Evans, who was quickly the subject of a luminescent profile in the Inquirer (the story ended with the quote, "He's the man"), had kept his job as director of the Department of Behavioral Health, the city's provider of mental health care. He had no experience in child welfare, but was a man of great humble charm: He introduced himself around the office respectfully, almost apologetically, and began by collecting thoughts from anyone who would give them. Kuna, a straightforward, life-long public servant, had been on vacation when the Inquirer story hit and returned to bureaucratic pandemonium. The situation Evans and Kuna inherited was, of course, volatile, and grew more so by the day. Politicians, eager to prove their commitment to children, had descended upon DHS like vultures. The mayor appointed a review panel, City Controller Alan Butkovitz, City Council, and state legislators all promised hearings, the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW) launched a review of child deaths, and a federal grand jury was assigned to investigate whether federal dollars were misused. Meanwhile, the Inquirer was turning up more horror stories. Out in the field, said supervisor Lynn Carter, "We have families now not letting workers in, saying 'you can't come in. You kill children, we don't want you here.'" DHS had to prove itself. Over his first few weeks, Evans constructed an extensive action plan, including directives to conduct reviews of any private contractor that had a child die in the previous five years, establish a newly empowered ombudsman and take a close look at recommendations that came out of agency death reviews. In October and November, however, the aspect of the plan that would have the most impact came by direct order of the mayor: the safety visits.

The process did not begin smoothly. After being instructed to begin visiting all their clients, workers were told to stop, because the administration wanted to create a special form for the visits. Then the form it concocted was 18 pages long. The union considered this an unacceptable work increase. "In one word," union rep Rita Urwitz says the union told the new commissioner, "No."

Working together, the union and administration created a 10 page form. But the shifting orders (and wasted visits) made the workers feel like they were being told to hurry up and slow down at the same time.

"Every few days they come up with something different. It's been very stressful," says one supervisor. "And everything needs to be done yesterday."

Chaos was not the only way the visits affected morale. The administration was selling the visits as a way for DHS to vindicate itself, but some workers felt their work was being second-guessed. As for the usefulness of the checks, workers were torn. Amy Parylak, a social worker with the Sex Abuse Unit, observes, "Any time you go out and see families, [you get] peace of mind." At the same time, the visits and the paperwork were forcing people to put other work to the side. When Jim Butler had a conflict between a safety visit and an investigation, he chose to stay late and do both; someone with a kid to pick up from school might not have done so.

A few weeks after the Inquirer series began, the new administration at DHS was actually fairly well-liked. Evans and Kuna had ingratiated themselves and, by engaging workers individually, earned their trust. "This was something that was thrust upon him," one supervisor said of Evans. "I don't blame him." But the overall environment was toxic. The day before Thanksgiving, DHS gave its workers a long-planned gift: a calendar, jointly produced by the agency and the Mural Arts Program. On the inside cover was a photo of Cheryl Ransom-Garner. A deep depression set in.

There was another problem. DHS policy is that removing children from their families is a last resort (this is in spite of the fact that Philadelphia "places" a comparatively large number of kids, the result of long-standing cultural norms among social workers). But the Inquirer stories had largely focused on cases in which the agency had not removed children from dangerous homes. This raised the possibility that workers would overcompensate by unofficially shifting toward a more aggressive placement policy.

Just what constitutes a necessary placement is perhaps the central, most controversial, and most basic question in all of child welfare. Should child-welfare agencies focus on preserving families, or putting children in foster care? This much is clear: Removing a child from his or her family is traumatic for both parties, and removals done in moments of panic are even worse, because they overburden an unprepared system. You do not want an unintentional spike in your placement rate.

The new administration was not seeking a change in placement policy. "It's not going to happen at the management level," Kuna said in December. "Placement should be the last option for a kid." Supervisors were divided on the matter. At a union meeting soon after the resignation, one rep advised her people to not "expose ourselves to any danger," recalls Gaston Cummings. By this, she meant, when in doubt, remove the child. The comment set off a tense debate, and on the way home from the meeting, Cummings took up the discussion with his wife, who is also a supervisor at the agency.

"Either we [do] good practice or we don't," he remembers her saying. "If we do, we cannot abandon that."

Technically, the couple was talking about placement policy. But what they were really asking themselves was: Should we pay any attention to the Inquirer?

Circumstances ended up answering the question for them. The unintentional policy shift began in the community. People were calling in more reports of abuse. "The number of reports to us have gone up dramatically," says Kuna. "The whole community [has] become hypervigilant."

Hotline workers began referring things they never would have referred before for investigation — one worker from the multidisciplinary team found herself investigating a cat scratch. And workers began deciding to, as several put it, "err on the side of caution."

Amy Parylak, of the Sex Abuse Unit, felt the pressure. Parylak is an up-and-coming worker much respected by her superiors. In the midst of the Inquirer storm, she caught a case involving a 21-year-old mother, Hakima, who was living in a family shelter with two daughters, one 5, and one 3 months. Hakima was schizophrenic, and the 5-year-old's grandmother was accused of sexually abusing her. But the woman was out of the child's life, the shelter gave Hakima medication, and with a little help, she was a competent mom.

One day, the 3-month-old got sick, and Hakima took her to the hospital. She stayed through the weekend, going off her meds in the process; by Monday, she'd been accused of smoking weed in the bathroom, and making dangerous comments, such as "Is my baby dead yet?" "Stop that kid's crying" and "I don't want to see that baby."

Parylak knew that if the mother got back on her medication, the 5-year-old, at least, could go back with her.

"You know she loves the kids," she said. "Do you send the kids back, or do you play it safe? If I send them back, and something happens, I'd be fired."

She considers placement "a last resort, because that's traumatizing for that kid," but in this case, she decided, "I'm not going to take a chance." She placed both children with Hakima's relatives, where they would remain until a court hearing.

It's certainly possible Parylak made the right call. But throughout the agency, workers were making the same decision. "There has been a drastic change in climate," says Katherine Gomez, an attorney at Community Legal Services who represents parents in Family Court. "An overreaction."

First-time placements went up 26 percent in the three months surrounding the Inquirer investigations (the most significant spike coming afterward, in November), and placement of children age 5 and younger — the demographic the paper had focused on — spiked 47 percent. Early numbers from December reflect a similar trend, with first-time placements up 27 percent, and under-5s up 62 percent.

The lanky man walks into City Council chambers lugging a suitcase, then proceeds to pull out a pile of folders and hand one to anyone who will have it. He seems like he's come to the wrong place to promote a show. In fact, within a couple of hours, he will be giving a council subcommittee a riveting performance.

Richard Wexler is the head of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, an advocacy group headquartered in Virginia. Formerly a journalist, he covered child welfare until he decided that all the literature being produced unwisely advocated removing children from their parents. He still has the gimmicky tendencies of a journalist — he has a catchy nickname for everything, and can tell the same stories four times without ever changing a word — but these days he dedicates his time to advocating family preservation.

Wexler had come to Philadelphia because he had heard its story — this story — before. He had heard it in Arizona, in New York City, in Cleveland, in Florida; he had even written The Chicago Reader story about the effects of the Tribune's coverage on child welfare on Illinois, quoting the lawyer who said child welfare was "unquestionably worse" in the wake of the series.

The story goes like this: A newspaper uncovers a tragic child death, then builds up a sense of righteous anger as it further investigates a child welfare agency's failings. The agency is thrown into chaos — sometimes, a ritual sacrifice of the agency head is performed — and a panel, which Wexler calls an "obligatory blue-ribbon commission," is appointed. Many agencies have workers perform safety visits, which Wexler calls a "glance and grab," and the placement rate spikes. He calls the whole process a "foster care panic," and insists it has consistently left children less safe than before.

Wexler knew the pattern so well that he had predicted one of the Inquirer's stories before it was written. After the first story, Wexler wrote the paper a letter warning, "Beware the National Model Worker story." Frequently, he wrote, after a paper publishes a harsh investigation of an agency, a reporter embeds with a social worker and writes a story about how hard his or her job is. But the paper rarely gets a typical worker. In Seattle, both The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer followed the same social worker. The Inquirer's version was published on Sunday, Dec. 3, under the headline "A Daunting Fight in DHS Trenches." It followed two workers through difficult days in the field; one of the workers, Shamah Ellis, explained to City Paper that her unit had been picked by the union "because we had a low caseload."

Wexler does not blame newspapers, entirely, for this phenomenon: The political reaction plays a big role. But he had reached out to the reporters and editors assigned to the DHS beat in an attempt to influence their coverage — he would have liked, for instance, a story on a parent who felt her child had been wrongly removed. "The answer to the problems of journalism is more journalism," he says. Some staffers engaged him via e-mail, but the paper never quoted him in a story. Asked about Wexler's accusation that the paper has shut out his point of view, Trish Wilson, who has co-edited the DHS series, says, "We certainly are not trying to advocate a position about the best way to take care of children." But by the time Wexler came to town, he'd developed a catchphrase about the paper. "The Inquirer is absolutely right when it crusades for a more open child welfare system," he said. "But so far, I've found nothing in Philadelphia to be more closed than the minds at 400 N. Broad St. [the Inquirer's headquarters]."

There is an important distinction between what is happening in Philadelphia and what happened in, say, Chicago. For several months, the Tribune explicitly campaigned against family preservation and in favor of foster care. The Inquirer has done something different.

In its initial story, the paper advocated greater openness and more rigorous guidelines for investigations. Since then, it has presented a wide-ranging set of pieces that included some impressive reporting, including the unearthing of one private provider, MultiEthnic Behavioral Services, which appears to have been delinquent on numerous assignments, and which DHS was taking its bureaucratic time getting rid of. But to social workers, the message has not been: "Stop Placing Kids." It has been: "DHS Sucks."

The word "fail" and derivatives there of have appeared an astounding number of times in the Inquirer's series, and the paper has labeled DHS both "troubled" and "long-troubled." "What the Inquirer is trying to do is be an advocate for taxpayers," says Wilson. At DHS, the reportage has left the impression that the Inquirer is out to make them look bad because it makes a better story. In December, people in 1515 Arch joked that a bad story had to be on the way, because the Pulitzer deadline was in January.

It's true that the Inquirer has not given its readers any comparative context for its DHS reporting. Measuring child welfare is difficult: Fatalities are not a good indicator because, thankfully, there aren't enough of them to take a meaningful statistical measurement; one event that claims three lives could create a huge rate spike. But when focusing on the fatalities on DHS's watch, the Inquirer might observe that Philadelphia's rate is not abnormal. A better indicator, the re-abuse of children after a report, finds Philadelphia below Pennsylvania's average, according to state data. Even Gelles, an expert the Inquirer has relied on heavily, says "DHS is not remarkably better and not remarkably worse than most."

Asked about this, Ken Dilanian says, "The public deserves to understand how Philadelphia's child welfare fits into the national context. DHS has been unable to shed any light on it at all. It's an extremely difficult thing to figure out, and the Inquirer continues to pursue it."

With the Inquirer facing layoffs, the entire exchange has conjured the darkly humorous image of two massive, wounded beasts thrashing away at each other for dear life. But the Inky can't be expected to not report problems, and has still been more responsible than papers in other cities in considering the policy implications of its reporting (one editorial even cautioned, vaguely, against a foster care panic). So why does Philadelphia appear to be reacting the same way Chicago did?

Wexler has a theory, which he calls the "Tribune template." He argues that the Inquirer has triggered a sort of Pavlovian response from the public: "Overt bashing of family preservation is no longer necessary," he writes in an e-mail."After more than a decade of Tribune Template news coverage at the state and local level, there is almost a conditioned-reflex response.Report that children are being left in dangerous homes despite repeated warning signs, and offer no other context, readers and politicians will fill in the blanks, and you'll get exactly the kind of foster care panic they got in Illinois."

Gelles, a foster-care advocate and Wexler's nemesis, says it's a little simpler than that. When you have stories about one type of error, he says, there will be "an effort to reduce that particular type of error." The Inquirer has chosen to focus on fatalities, and, in the last few years in Philly, those appear to have happened largely to children in their families' homes; should the Inquirer run a story on dangerous foster placements, Gelles believes, the trend will reverse itself. In fact, he believes this is next for Philly.

"When you see a big bump in foster care placement and they're not done carefully, potentially something horrible will happen in foster care," he says. Wexler objects — he thinks social workers are only punished for failing to remove children. But the salient point is, negative coverage, political turmoil and organizational chaos were plenty disruptive to DHS, even without the Inquirer picking a philosophical side.

The woman Jim Butler met in the Davis house was, in fact, the 14-month-old baby's mother — but she did not live there. At least, she doesn't live there anymore.

After checking a court order to make sure the woman was allowed to have contact with her child (she was), and checking the North Philly address she gave him (vacant), Butler decided to just go back to the house, and then go back there again and again.

"They don't know when I'm gonna show up," he says.

He also drilled home to Davis that "if she walks off with this baby, we're descending on you like the worst of World War II." Now, he says, "It's never gonna be 100 percent. ... [But] have I made that house safer because I went out there and looked? I would say absolutely."

Butler is a deeply unpretentious man. He dresses for work in the absolute minimum to meet business-casual expectations, and generally exudes a working-class demeanor. So it's a little surprising when, explaining his actions in the Davis case, he says this: "Are you familiar with the concept of panopticism? Watching without watching?"

Met with a blank stare, he continues, "That's what prisons are built on. ... The whole idea was the guards could be on that tower, and you never knew if they were watching you. I think Michel Foucault [wrote about it]. It's the same thing with DHS."

When the question that Wexler put to the Chicago attorney is thrown back at him — did newspaper coverage make child welfare better or worse? — Wexler echoes his subject's answer. "Unquestionably worse," he says. "Because on top of all the problems DHS had, now [they] have to cope with turmoil, demoralization and with the fact that there was a spike."

Gelles agrees. "An agency that's gone through that much change in this period of time has got to be worse off," he says. "The Inquirer has disrupted the culture" and the firings "lopped off the experiential leadership." The ensuing chaos, Gelles believes, "will last through the next mayoral election. Nobody wants to do anything until next year. In that environment, you try to survive, or cover your ass, or both."

Oddly, more optimism can be found inside DHS. Yes, things have been bad: Morale is low and the workload is insane; all the signs from Chicago and Cleveland and New York are here. But the new commissioner has inspired confidence, and people inside the system say the placement spike may be slowing (although City Paper did not see any numbers to that effect). More importantly, people have hope that all the attention being paid to child welfare — in particular, they mention the mayor's panel — will bring some much-needed intellectual (and, they hope, financial) investment.

"All the politicians are committed to demonstrate how dedicated they are to kids," Kuna says. "You should be able to come back in 2009 and see the institutional changes that they've put in play."

The Inquirer has climbed atop a watchtower. This may not have done much for social workers, but they still have hope that policy-makers, subjected to the same scrutiny, will make child welfare stronger.

For now, though, the system struggles. On a recent Friday, Hakima sits in Family Court, awaiting a hearing that will determine whether her children can come into her care. Her 5-year-old daughter, all dolled up in denim and with barrettes in her hair, is ecstatic to be with her after two weeks in an aunt's house. She is latched as if glued to her mother's leg. During a pretrial hearing, she had complained, "I want my mom," and "What's mom doing?"

Hakima's social worker, Amy Parylak, now feels it is safe, at least, for the 5-year-old to go back with her mother. But with the children placed, the decision is out of her hands. She'll go into court, and, along with a child advocate and a parent advocate, voice her opinion to the judge. She knows from the pretrial hearing that the child advocate opposes returning any children to Hakima. "With all that's happening..." she says, trailing off.

Hakima is wearing a pink Rocawear jacket. Her face is young, her comments straightforward. As her older daughter hovers beside her, she explains that she has agreed to leave her baby with a relative, in the hope that her 5-year-old can come back with her.

"I'm in a shelter," she says. "She [the older child] go to school. My baby, she be with me."

As for the placement of her children, she says softly, "It helps that they're with my family." She looks forward to getting her own place, which she expects to have after three months in the shelter.

After a long wait, Hakima and Parylak are called into court. The children stay outside with their aunt. The 5-year-old sits eagerly at first, and then, her mother's disappearance taking longer than expected, begins to drift off. She can't possibly fully grasp what's going on in the courtroom in front of her, but as she dreams, people debate her future: Should she be allowed to live with her mother? Her social worker and child advocate have weighed in; so have the mayor, the City Council, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the dean of the Penn School of Social Work and Richard Wexler. And yet, no one really knows the right thing to do for this little girl.

(doron@citypaper.net)

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