Thursday, February 14, 2019

Child Welfare in Philadelphia: Disingenuous dissembling from DHS

We're not the only ones who have noticed that, when it comes to foster care,
Philadelphia is an extreme outlier.

The word is out.  Story after story about Tuesday’s hearing before the Philadelphia City Council about the child welfare system in that city noted that Philadelphia takes children from their families at the highest rate among America’s big cities.

So the city’s Department of Human Services is getting desperate.  In an attempt to counter that fundamental fact, they’ve resorted to a remarkable exercise in disingenuous dissembling.

Toward the end of this post, I examine DHS’ misleading claim, word by word. (Those who don’t need a recap of the actual data can skip down to the section at the end called “DHS’ statistical stunt.”)  But I’d like to begin by reviewing the facts and explaining the sources and methodology in some detail.

First, DHS’ fanatical rush to foster care has not been documented only by us.  Consultants hired by DHS itself said it too.  In this report they write that:

other large urban child welfare systems also have high rates of children in poverty, but do not experience out-of-home care rates even approaching those of Philadelphia.

The response from DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa was a bit bizarre. In a tweet, she admitted that DHS is an extreme outlier when it comes to the number of children trapped in foster care on any given day, but noted that this is not the same as the number of entries into care over the course of the year.

But that still leaves a lot out.

While it is possible to be an extreme outlier in placement and not removals, it is very rare. For example, when comparing statewide rates of removal, of the ten states with the highest rates of placement eight of them also are among the top ten in rates of removal.

But of course that isn’t enough.  You do, indeed, have to look at the actual data for entries into care to determine rates of removal.  And to make the comparison fair, it’s necessary to compare big cities to big cities and to factor in rates of child poverty.  That’s exactly what NCCPR did.

How we found the data for entries:

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children publishes a report each year with comprehensive data for every county.  They use data that states are legally required to report to a federal database.

For the report on Philadelphia, take a look at the table toward the bottom of page 2. It’s labeled “Children Entering Foster Care, All Entries into Foster Care During the Year.”  This screenshot shows an excerpt:

 Though it's a big hard to read in the screenshot, the figure for 2017, the most recent year available in the federal database is 2,888.  In other words, during 2017, children were taken from their families in Philadelphia 2,888 times.  That’s not an estimate.  That’s not a percentage.  That is the actual number the State of Pennsylvania gave to the federal government – presumably after getting it from DHS.  

The data for the number of impoverished children living in Philadelphia come from the census bureau.  Here’s a link to those data, and a screenshot excerpting the numbers for Philadelphia:

Divide the number of children removed by the number of impoverished children and you get 26.7 removals per thousand impoverished children in Philadelphia.  Here’s how that compares to some other major cities:

For full details, results for other cities, and sources, see the
NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index.

Some have argued that removals should be divided by total child population.  We disagree. But, for the record, when you use that measure, Philadelphia looks even worse.

You can see exactly how Philadelphia compares, and the sources for all data here.

DHS’ statistical stunt

So here’s what DHS is claiming, according to a tweet from the agency: “Last year of 19,325 families reported, 3.8% had children removed due to safety.”  In a tweet of her own, Figueroa claimed that “Philadelphia’s removal rate is inline with the National average and other big cities.”

To understand the statistical stunt DHS pulled, you have to parse this word by word.

If 3.8 percent of families reported had children removed, that means children were removed from 734 families.  But unless every family reported to DHS has only one child, that’s NOT the same thing as saying only 734 children were removed.  So ask yourself: Why won’t DHS even give a figure for the actual number of children?

But even at an average of two children removed per family that wouldn’t equal 2,888. 

I have some theories about how DHS may have further fudged the figures to leave out certain categories of entries into care.  I’m not going to include them here now, because at this point they are only theories.  But I would be glad to discuss them with any journalist who would like to try to get straight answers from DHS.

Meanwhile, I’ll stick to the part that involves no speculation. This is fact: The actual number of removals is at least 2,888.  When compared to the number of children living in poverty that gives Philadelphia has the highest rate of removal among America’s largest cities.