Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Philadelphia DHS Pyramid of Bulls**t

Fortunately, it’s no match for the Bar Graph of Reality:

For full details on time periods, methodology and sources
 see the NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index
The Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) is the Kellyanne Conway of child welfare. 

Under the leadership of Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, the agency has developed a fondness for  “alternative facts” – desperately spinning data (and recent history) in the hope that no one will notice the simple truth: Year after year after year, Philadelphia tears apart families at either the highest or the second highest rate among America’s biggest cities, even when rates of family poverty are factored in.  (Come to think of it, justifying the needless removal of children is something else Conway and Philadelphia DHS have in common.)

Yes, the most recent data show that, due to a slight decrease in removals in Philadelphia, and a big increase in Phoenix, Philadelphia is again in second place among the ten largest cities. Narrowed down to the five largest, Philadelphia is still #1. And what is consistent year after year is that these two metropolitan areas – Phoenix and Philadelphia -- consistently tear apart families at rates far above all the others.

Recently, I discovered that DHS had outdone itself, when I found something toward the end of the department’s most recent Quarterly Indicators Report.  It wasn’t entirely a surprise. Ever since Philadelphia journalists caught on to the city’s extreme outlier status, DHS has been in full alternative facts mode.  As I explained in a blog post in February:

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.”

What’s new is the visual.  Call it, the DHS Pyramid of Bullshit.  It looks like one of those classic “food pyramids” but it’s designed to reinforce the false impression left by the tweets. Here’s why the operative word is bullshit:

The basic number DHS doesn’t want you to know

For starters, nowhere in the pyramid does DHS ever tell us the actual number of times children are taken from their parents in Philadelphia each year.  So here’s the actual number for federal fiscal year 2018:


In fact, I have not been able to find the number of entries into foster care anywhere on the DHS website.  The figure is easy to find for every other community in the top ten – even for Phoenix.

How do we know the 2,718 figure is correct? Because every state and locality has to report entries into foster care to the federal government. And, though it takes awhile, the federal government makes these totals public.  That’s how Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children pulls together data for every county in Pennsylvania.  You’ll find the figure for Philadelphia in this report at the bottom of page 2.

So why won’t DHS even provide this one basic number?  Why won’t the agency tell the press and the public something as basic as “How many times a year are children taken from their parents in Philadelphia?” 

The answer, of course, is that the real number is so embarrassing – it shows how vastly out-of-line Philadelphia is with every other big city except Phoenix.

So instead, the Pyramid of Bullshit includes only the claim that children were removed from 739 families in City Fiscal Year 2018.  But even that makes no sense, since that would mean taking an average of nearly four children per family.  So some data seem to be missing.

Compared to what?

The other problem concerns what measure is used to compare the number of children removed from their homes.  The logical choice is to compare it to something objective.  So one should either compare entries to the number of children or the number of impoverished children in each community. 

With its fondness for "alternative facts," 
and its willingness to justify needlessly 
separating families, Philadelphia DHS is the
Kellyanne Conway of child welfare agencies
(Photo by Gage Skidmore)
When you actually do that, you get the Bar Graph of Reality that appears at the top of this post comparing entries into care to the number of impoverished children in each of the five largest cities.  You’ll find another Bar Graph of Reality for all ten big cities at the end of this post.  They show that Philadelphia is nowhere near “inline” with either the national average or other big cities – except Phoenix.

We think factoring in poverty is the fairer method, but in our NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index, we do both.  (For the record, if you don’t factor in poverty, Philadelphia is even worse, #1 in child removal instead of #2.) The Index also provides links to sources for all data.

But a key part of the DHS Kellyanne Conway act is to avoid using anything truly objective for comparison. So instead she offers the number of families reported as alleged child abusers and the number of families investigated.

But that figure is itself easily manipulated.  If, as Cynthia Figueroa reportedly does, you urge people to just use their “intuition” and report anything and everything and if, as Cynthia Figueroa seems to believe, every sports injury might be abuse and therefore should be reported, and if, every few years, as it is prone to do, the Pennsylvania Legislature passes a spate of new laws demanding an that ever more people report their intuition, then the number of reports and investigations will artificially increase.

In contrast, DHS can’t manipulate the number of children living in Philadelphia or the number living in poverty (though if DHS really wanted to curb child abuse and neglect, reducing the latter number would be a great way to start.)  So the logical comparison is the number of times children are thrown into foster care compared to the number of children living in poverty.

That’s reality.  The only way to change that reality is for Philadelphia DHS to stop needlessly harming so many children by consigning them to the chaos of foster care. 

And Philadelphia DHS could do it, too. If only what passes for leadership there would devote as much creativity to alleviating poverty and curbing needless removal as it did to crafting its Pyramid of Bullshit.

For more details about methodology see this earlier post.

For full details on time periods, methodology and sources see the
NCCPR Big City Rate-of-Removal Index