EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series that highlights the uphill battle many families face in navigating the Philadelphia child welfare system. These articles are part of “Our Kids,” a project of the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative that examines the challenges and opportunities facing Philadelphia’s foster care system. Read the first story in this series, “The Fight to Keep Families Together in Child Welfare.”
As Anita Buie frames it, the child welfare system was like a tidal wave that swept in and took her children, her voice cut off by the roaring water.
Buie had an open case with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services when, in November 2018, one of her kids suffered an accidental burn at his great-grandmother’s house. The incident led to the removal of three Buie children that had been living there in a multi-generational household.
Buie, since coming into DHS’s oversight, had been tasked by caseworkers to get help with parenting, her mental health and substance abuse. She reports that she had shuttled through treatment programs for some time, till she found one “that fit.”
The problem, however, is that parents and families in this situation face a ticking clock. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed during the Clinton administration, mandates a rush to “permanency,” presuming that children who cannot be reunified with their parents in a 15-month time frame should be moved toward adoption.
Buie, though, had maintained her hopes, collected letters of support from the counselors she had worked with, and looked toward her court date for validation. “Going to court was something I looked forward to, to make my case,” she says. “But every time I got in there, it was just like, no one was hearing me talk.”
During an October 2020 hearing, Judge Allan Tereshko cut Buie off repeatedly, then told her attorney, “You’re done. You had an appropriate amount of time” — before turning on Buie herself: “You’re asked a question and you give a 20-minute answer that’s got nothing to do with the question that was asked of you.”
What is striking, however, is that the transcript shows something else entirely. Across 12 pages of testimony, Buie tries repeatedly to answer the questions asked. Her average statement prior to finishing or being interrupted is 11.3 words. And her longest response is a cogent 87 words, which at an average speaking rate would take about 34 seconds to utter.
All told, Tereshko interrupts or speaks over Buie 22 times.
“It’s very common for parents to get a very limited chance to speak,” says Karissa Phelps, a former Stoneleigh fellow at Temple’s legal aid office, who recently finished a two-year project that examined kinship care and the dependency courts. “The courts are the forum where they’re supposed to be heard, but that often doesn’t happen.”
“This sort of thing happens every day,” says Kara Finck, a Penn Family Law professor. “Routinely, it’s the caseworkers who are afforded the greatest opportunity to talk.”
To correct this problem, advocates have offered up solutions, including a model to better-defend families (See Part One, “The Fight to Keep Families Together in Child Welfare.”) But some worry the bias against families is too deeply rooted to be rolled back by incremental reforms.
“I think these abuses against families, particularly families of color, are what the system was built on,” says Erin Miles Cloud, a former attorney in New York’s dependency courts and co-founder of the Movement for Family Power, which advocates for the abolition of the current child welfare system. “Which is why we believe, ultimately, we need to tear it down and do something new in its place.”
In the face of this, adopting new policies such as New York’s holistic defense model, or following good policies already on the books, says Miles Cloud, are “good intermediary steps.”
The real issue, though, runs deeper — into the hearts and minds of the people who operate the system as it stands.
DHS, Defending a Broken System
This April, a hearing took place on alleged abuses committed by dependency court judge Lyris Younge, who faced judicial discipline after it was revealed she verbally abused parents, prevented them from speaking and had parents arrested illegally, for contempt without cause.
Younge received a six-month suspension, a probationary period lasting till the end of her term in 2026, and will be barred from serving in Family Court, but the sanctions hearing that determined her fate revealed parents and families are still viewed as second-class citizens.
Repeatedly, as Younge’s victims recounted her abuses, the panel of judges on the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline allowed Younge’s attorneys to portray them as bad parents or bad people. “Didn’t your kids miss an average of 20 days of school,” Younge’s defense asked one parent about a case that revolved around truancy, as if excessive absenteeism should deprive a person of due process. In this, the hearing proved eerily reminiscent of sexual assault cases in which female victims are themselves put on trial.
Later, two DHS staffers even testified — not on behalf of the parent victims, but for the wayward judge, who they said they’d never witnessed behaving inappropriately.
Shirlana Dash told the panel she worked in dependency courtrooms, providing information on DHS policies and procedures, and described Younge as “respectful,” “compassionate,” “fair” and “stern if she needed to be.”
One of the judges on the panel then asked Dash to relate how other DHS employees had reacted to the case against Younge. Such a question was, in legal terms, a surprising solicitation of hearsay, allowing Dash to speak for an entire agency of people not on hand to verify her testimony. The answer, though, was telling.
“We thought it was strange,” said Dash. “We’ve never seen… any behaviors from Judge Younge that we’ve not seen from other judges on the bench.”
Dash clearly intended this observation as a defense of the judge, but her words inadvertently indicted the entire system and revealed some discomforting truths.
“Lyris Younge was the worst judge,” says one family lawyer, who wanted their name withheld to prevent retaliation in court. “But not, like, by a mile.”
Sarah Katz, who directs and teaches the Family Law Litigation Clinic, where her students serve clients in family law matters in Philadelphia courts, agrees: “This is not a one-judge problem. It’s a system-wide problem.”
The very idea that two DHS staffers had testified on behalf of a judge that a judicial discipline panel found guilty of “blatant,” “inexcusable” and “egregious” misconduct is itself a case in point.
Judges and caseworkers generally feel themselves to be on the same side, say family advocates, not just in the mission of “child welfare” — to protect children — but in very practical terms, to protect themselves.
Tragic child deaths spark massive scandals if that child victim was previously “system involved,” with either previous reports to DHS or an ongoing case. Media outlets that routinely spend little to no time covering the child welfare system suddenly provide daily coverage, poring over previous judicial decisions, hunting for people and institutions to blame. Case workers have even been charged with crimes, including four in Philadelphia indicted after the 2006 starvation death of Danieal Kelly, and four in Los Angeles after the 2013 beating death of Gabriel Fernandez.
This fear creates a troubling dynamic throughout the child welfare system: The majority of families coming through the courts don’t face any allegations of abuse in the first place, yet system professionals view each as a potential existential threat — not only to children but to their own professional reputations and careers.
That sense of threat, though, is usually one-dimensional: Workers fear a tragic incident in which a child is abused. But they don’t fear needlessly disrupting families, even though the damage of such an act can itself be tragic and life-long.
As an example, consider the recording that a mother not identified in this story played for me, of a phone call with high-level management at DHS. The call is long but in the most pivotal section a supervisor admits: We might have screwed up. Way back when this started, we should have put the child with family and we didn’t. But what can we do now? The child has been in a stable placement, and doing well where they are, for a long time.”
The admission was significant. In failing to place the child with family, the agency had torn a hole through that family that will never be healed. And given the data on how much better kids do when placed with kin, the child may actually suffer physically, mentally and emotionally from that wound for the rest of their life.
The consequence for DHS, though, is shattering: Nothing.
“There are lots of examples, right or wrong, of caseworkers being suspended or fired for failing to remove a child from a home where they were later abused,” says Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. “But I’ve been researching this for more than 30 years, and I’ve never run across a worker who was disciplined for removing a child when it wasn’t necessary.”
From a caseworker perspective, placing kids with kin is harder than putting them with a stranger. “The foster parent has already gone through the licensing process,” with the house and parent both already vetted to meet every requirement, says Sharon McDaniel, president and CEO of A Second Chance. But according to McDaniel, “We walk the family through it,” saying they have a culture of “licensing kin in, rather than licensing them out,” to help them come into compliance.
The Younge case was unusual precisely because it did hold a member of the child welfare system to account for mistreating families. But it also didn’t spark the kind of pervasive coverage that a child death does, to question how the system functions as a whole. And so the public remains largely in the dark about a different kind of child abuse.
“The most coverage you see of the system,” says Finck, who helped found the pioneering family defense model that is working well in New York, “are these outlier cases, in which a child is tragically hurt or killed. Those cases should generate a lot of coverage, but what gets missed is that there are these daily tragedies occurring in court, every day, in which families and children also get hurt.”
Pittsburgh’s Kinship Lesson for Philadelphia
In February of this year, a city attorney admitted that the Buie children had to be moved out of their foster placement because of “inappropriate discipline and lack of supervision.”
In other words, the Buie kids appear to have been placed in a foster home in which they were abused — “inappropriate discipline” ringing as a possible face-saving euphemism for whatever occurred.
The new placement created an opening in which Buie’s attorney might have sought a placement with family instead. Her judge, though, Allan Tereshko, wouldn’t hear it: “The responsibility for placing the child in accordance with the law is on the Department of Human Services,” he said, “and they must do family finding and comply with other requirements under the law. The mother may offer suggestions to the Department, but… I’m not going to enter into the fray. The Department has the burden. The Department has the responsibility.”
Reviewing this same section with several different family law attorneys, including Finck and Katz, the reaction was the same: Tereshko had indicated that he would simply trust DHS, refusing to act as a check and balance on a government institution with incredible power.
Miles Cloud, of the Movement for Family Power, notes Tereshko’s admission of partiality, is something she also heard over the years in New York. “Multiple judges had said basically the same thing to me, behind closed doors,” she says. “They said, ‘I trust the caseworkers.’”
The entire series of events breaks great-grandmother Elizabeth Buie’s heart.
Elizabeth Buie had been the daily caregiver to the children when one of them received an accidental burn in her home. She treated it herself, with her past experience as a nurse to guide her.
“Those children never went hungry,” she says of the daily care she provided, citing the bacon, eggs and waffles she cooked, “and they knew they were loved.”
Even now, their great-uncle, 55-year old Bert Buie, waits to take them in: “We tried to express to the agency that it doesn’t have to be this way,” says Bert Buie. “We’re a family, and we can take care of our own.”
The children’s mother, Anita Buie, does appear to face a host of challenges. What she has of her case file, which she shared for this story, is thick, documenting episodes in which she denied needing services and was verbally hostile to caseworkers. She was required to take anger management courses, and faced a pair of 2020 arrests, for burglary in one case that was withdrawn and terroristic threats in another that remains open. The questions, for an overburdened child welfare system, are enormous: At what point is it appropriate to give up on a mom?
But these existential questions apply to a child’s extended family as well. In so many of these cases, family can provide support so that a child is still there with the people who have loved them longest and most; and so that any mom or dad, going through a tunnel of hard times, has an opportunity to emerge on the other side and step back into the lives of their kids.
Philadelphia has made big strides in placing kids with kin, an option that results in far better long-term outcomes for youth. Kinship placement rates are now topping 50%. But there are places doing better, including Allegheny County, which is pushing up near 70% for the Pittsburgh area.