Parents, Social Services Implicated in Child Neglect
LYNN NEARY, Host:
I'm Lynn Neary and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll talk with a senior swimmer who competes on a Washington team for athletes who have to be at least 50.
But first, it's time for Behind Closed Doors, a conversation about subjects that are hard to discuss. And today, we focus on at-risk kids.
In Philadelphia, criminal charges have been brought against nine people in connection with the death of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly in 2006. Danieal, who suffered from cerebral palsy, starved to death. When she was found, her body was covered with maggot-infested bedsores. She was lying in a pool of her own feces and weighed just 42 pounds. Among those charged were Danieal's parents and two social workers for the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.
The charges came as the result of a lengthy grand jury investigation which calls the failures, in this case, a deeply-rooted problem within the city's child services agency. For an update on this story, we turn first to Elizabeth Fiedler of member station WHYY. Hi, Elizabeth. Thanks for being with us.
ELIZABETH FIEDLER: You're welcome. Hi.
NEARY: Elizabeth, first, fill us in on Danieal Kelly, who was just 14, and tells us what led to this terrible death?
FIEDLER: She was just 14 on July 31st. The district attorney, Lynne Abraham, here in Philadelphia, released the findings from a grand jury report which detailed the life of Danieal Kelly who was just 14 when she died in 2006, weighing just 42 pounds, as you mentioned, covered in bedsores, really laying in her bed full of her own feces. Very terrible conditions.
And the district attorney stressed that she wanted this report, though very disturbing, to prompt people within DHS, the Department of Human Services here, those folks who were charged with making sure her parents gave her the proper care and sent her to school and to the doctor, district attorney said that she wanted this disturbing report to really push - force these folks to reform the system.
Danieal Kelly was only 14 years old, weighed 42 pounds, had not been to school in years. Did attend school for a while when she was in Arizona but was living with her mother here in Philadelphia. And despite frequent calls from neighbors, requests from some family members that the Department of Human Services workers check in on her, these things did not happen, very basic things. In fact, the two Department of Human Services workers who are mentioned, who are charged in this grand jury report, it's really quite shocking the lack of action that they took. Not making regular visits to her despite requests from all these folks who said that little girl was living in really terrible conditions.
NEARY: Now, nine people were implicated in the girl's death by the grand jury. Who's facing the most serious charges?
FIEDLER: The most serious charges are reserved for her mother, Andrea Kelly, who faces murder, involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of the child. Her father is also facing endangering the welfare of the child, that charge, but Danieal Kelly was living with her mother at the time and had been living with her mother for quite a while, and the medical examiner determined that Danieal Kelly's cause of death was starvation, and as the district attorney mentioned when she released the grand jury report, basically, Danieal Kelly's mother did not feed her enough for her to live.
NEARY: Now this is not just the case of a child falling between the cracks because of the lack of resources in terms of what happened in the Department of Human Services. Questions have really been raised about what was going on in that home for a long time. As you mentioned, they were ignored. How did that happen?
FIEDLER: How did that happen? That is really the question that needs to be answered and that everyone here is trying to, sort of, struggling to find a way to make sure this doesn't happen again. It's really shocking. The failure to act occurred on so many levels.
The case worker - there was one case worker named Dana Poindexter, who's charged in this grand jury report, who had a large box in his office and just threw all of his mail from years and years into a case file, didn't - despite calls, just said that - determined that complaints about her condition and that of other children were unfounded, despite never actually having gone out to the home to check on them. Really shocking things.
And his supervisor, also - you know, it was case workers and then it was also supervisors, and it was the subcontractor, who, you know, was just - layers and layers of problems that have existed here at DHS, and this case just sort of illustrates it, unfortunately. A very, very tragic case.
NEARY: All right. And are steps already being taken now to address some of the problems that have been revealed by this case?
FIEDLER: They are already being taken, and actually, since Danieal Kelly died in 2006, there have been some changes and our mayor here, Mayor Michael Nutter, had a press conference shortly after - shortly after the grand jury report was released, and he stressed that the DHS of 2008 is not the DHS of 2006, which is true, certainly to some extent. He has appointed a new commissioner of DHS, Anne Marie Ambrose, who is very focused on children, who certainly has a very good reputation. She's worked for the state.
Whether she's going to be able to change the entire culture of DHS, as the district attorney said, is a huge question. There are so many employees. The system, while there are very good DHS workers, there are - the district attorney mentioned, you know, just a couple who don't do their job can really mess up the entire system and, you know, lead to very tragic cases like this. This has been happening for a long time.
They are reforms, safety assessments, sort of changes in the way that supervisors check on caseworkers to make sure things are actually happening. But it's going to take quite a while to fix this system.
NEARY: Well, one of the shocking things that came out is that these two social workers that we've been talking about were both still working right up until just when they were indicted, is that right?
FIEDLER: They were, and the new DHS commissioner, Anne Marie Ambrose, had a press conference, I believe it was the day after the grand jury report was released or perhaps that same afternoon. And one of the reporters said, why are these people still working at DHS? Why did you not do something? I mean, you know, this girl obviously died in 2006, and though the grand jury report had not been released, everyone knew or heard who her caseworkers were and sort of all of this, and she - she sort of - her eyes welled up with tears when she talked about Danieal Kelly, and she wasn't able to give any sort of answer as to why something had happened - you know, hadn't happened with these workers, why they hadn't been removed or something like that.
Now the cases that the subcontractors charged in this case, the cases that were handled - the DHS cases that they handled - have been reviewed and the cases that were handled by all these DHS workers have been reviewed. So it's important to point out that, you know, that they're taking steps to make sure this sort of negligence didn't happen in other cases.
NEARY: Elizabeth Fiedler is a reporter with member station WHYY in Philadelphia and she joined us from there. Thanks so much for being with us, Elizabeth.
FIEDLER: You're welcome. Thank you.
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