Bass Fishing For Answers

DHS scorecard raises more questions than it answers

(Photos from Left to Right) Is the current dismal report card a set up for future success?  Councilwoman Cindy Bass. (R) DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa. Photos courtesy of Phila.gov.

Last month, Councilwoman Cindy Bass had enough. She forced passage of a resolution to hold hearings on Community Umbrella Agencies. A title coined by the Department of Human Services for “kinship foster homes” that take in and care for our city’s most vulnerable children.   What sparked the councilwoman’s ire was the release of a city DHS annual report showing almost an across-the-board failure within this system of care.

The idea behind CUAs is spelled out at the beginning of the scorecard report. “The core principle of [the Improving Outcomes for Children effort] is that a community neighborhood approach to the delivery of child welfare services will positively impact the safety, permanency and well-being of the children, youth, and families involved with DHS. Now, four years later, seven organizations operate CUAs in 10 different regions throughout Philadelphia. In addition to case management for families accepted for service by DHS, CUAs engage with their communities with food pantries, parenting support groups, and holiday gift drives — among other activities.”

The report continues, “What’s working? We are thrilled that more kids are living with family in kinship foster homes. More kids are staying in their community of origin, and fewer youth are in residential placement — ensuring that kids are in the least restrictive environments.”

Sounds pretty upbeat; that is, until you read the report. Councilwoman Bass read it and had this to say: “I want to ask DHS to go back to the drawing board based on the information they issued to us … DHS rated the CUAs on a system of liberty bells versus a traditional grading and scoring system, which would have made it much more apparent that we are in deep trouble with the CUA system that we have in place.”

Bass also quoted a letter she penned to DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa: “I also found it troubling that Wordsworth Academy, which was closed last year after reports of a homicide and a decades-long history of sexual assault, was graded a ‘C’ on safety and a ‘B’ on supervision. If a child welfare agency can be rated average or above average despite engaging in gross incompetence, negligence, and misconduct, how can we have faith that these scores are telling the real story?”

In case you missed it back in April, the Inquirer exposé described Wordsworth as follows: “On the sprawling grounds of a former hospital on Ford Road, Wordsworth, a nonprofit, runs a variety of programs that aim to help children and families in need.…

Ranging in age from 10 to 21, the young people in Wordsworth’s care lived in a rundown facility and slept in rooms with holes in the walls, exposed wiring, broken light fixtures, and faulty heaters. There, records show, they were sometimes tended to by ill-trained staffers.”

Despite Wordworth’s “liberty bell” rating being perhaps a bit generous (and let’s ditch the bells from now on for a more comprehensive system that we all understand from grade school, say 1-100), the scorecard shows failure at almost all levels of the system, across all 10 CUAs. As Bass concluded in her letter to Figuero: “The bottom line is that if our CUA system was a student it would barely make it to graduation, much less prepared for college or the workforce.”

But that may be the best news for DHS Secretary Cynthia Figueroa. If your first annual scorecard is your worst annual scorecard — and these scores run across all agencies, at almost every level — then improvement over time is almost a foregone conclusion.  Releasing the scorecard for 2016 nearly one-third of the way into 2017 leads skeptics like us to sense that the scorecard might be rigged to insure success next October.

So, before Secretary Figueroa and her Department can show that they can competently oversee caring for one of our city’s most vulnerable populations, they must first defend the way they set the benchmarks against which they will be scored. They must defend their bell scoring in a public hearing for all to see. Only a rigorous review of how they scored 2016 can give us a true picture of success or failure in 2017. 

So, keep on asking the tough questions Councilwoman Bass.  Our most vulnerable kids deserve some answers.


Bass Fishing For Answers

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