As DHS reforms, some families still struggle

Charles Mostoller

The lights were shut off in City Council while Clinton Lewis testified about his five-year battle to regain full-timecustody of his children.

The lights accidentally went out near the end of a six-hour hearing, and quickly went back on, butLewis, a 52-year-old truck driver, didn’t stop talking. He was at a hearing on ongoing reforms to the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS) so he could tell the agency’s commissioner how he lost custody of his sons, now aged 7 and 9.

“They tried to terminate my rights,” Lewis said. “My main thing is to get my kids home, because they need their parents.”
Due to confidentiality laws, DHS cannot confirm the status of any specific child.
But Lewis provided stacks of paperwork from DHS to back up his story. He claims he asked DHS to help his sick son in 2009 — and ended up losing custody of both boys.
Lewis said the grounds for loss of custody were “insufficient housing” due to damages to his home, despite the fact that he repaired it, he claims.
DHS Commissioner Vanessa Garrett Harley was in City Council to testify about reforms underway at DHS in response to the 2006 death of Danieal Kelly, a 14-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who starved to death while her parents were under DHS supervision.
Now, DHS contracts with 10 private agencies for child welfare services including case management, while DHS employees operate investigation hotlines and supervise the private agencies.
“The Danieal Kelly case, once it was discovered, made it clear the system was broken in many places,” Harley testified.
“Even under this system, could we have a Danieal Kelly case?” asked City Councilwoman Marian B. Tasco, chairwoman of the Public Health and Human Services committee.
“We could,” Harley acknowledged, but said the system is designed to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
Harley also fielded complaints from DHS employees and union leaders who criticized the news system of relying on private contractors, known as “Community Umbrella Agencies” (CUAs).
CUAs must be located near the area where the family they are providing services to lives, and subcontracts out work related to foster care and placement for children.
But some workers said that CUA staff are less experienced, that CUAs can refuse to take on certain cases, and staff at DHS are becoming demoralized and some are leaving their jobs as the agency reforms.
Harley responded by saying that CUAs cannot refuse cases, that problems with CUA employees are not systemic but just as likely as problems with DHS employees, and that the reforms are being closely monitored for their effectiveness.
Harley also said at the end of the hearing that she would review the case of Lewis and several other parents who testified at the hearing about their custody battles.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel now,” Lewis said after the hearing.

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