As a former social worker at the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS), I’ve witnessed firsthand the challenges faced by those on the front lines of child welfare. Transitioning from investigating reports of child abuse and neglect to advocating for my former colleagues as a union official has only reinforced the urgent need for change within our system.

Philadelphia’s DHS plays a critical role in safeguarding the city’s children. However, it’s clear that the agency is struggling to meet the demands placed upon it. With over 33,000 reports of child abuse received in FY23 alone, and only 182 social workers available to address them, the sheer volume of cases overwhelms the system.

Social workers in the Child Welfare Operations division routinely find themselves working well beyond their scheduled hours, often into the early hours of the morning, due to staffing shortages. Imagine the toll this takes on both their professional and personal lives. I recall countless nights spent escorting abused children to hospitals, knowing that I would not get home until 2 a.m. and be required to report back to work at 9 a.m. for a court hearing. DHS social workers are the first responders to reports of child abuse and often interact with victims before the Police Department responds. The police have the important job of arresting offenders but DHS social workers are tasked with the job of assuring immediate safety of the victims.  

Compounding this issue is the alarming number of vacancies within DHS. With over 186 positions unfilled, the agency struggles to onboard enough social workers to keep up with the workload. To make matters worse, DHS has resorted to pulling staff from other divisions, many of whom lack recent experience in investigating child abuse cases. This haphazard approach not only compromises the quality of service but also jeopardizes the safety of vulnerable children.

The consequences of DHS’s staffing crisis are evident, as highlighted by local news agencies. Tragic incidents stemming from understaffing serve as a stark reminder of the urgent need for action. The time for change is now.

As a union official and former social worker, I propose three concrete steps to address this crisis:

  1. Residency Waiver: DHS should seek a full residency waiver to expand its pool of potential hires beyond city limits. By removing geographic restrictions, we can attract qualified candidates from neighboring areas, enriching our workforce and easing recruitment challenges. Philadelphia is the only county that has residency mandates for social workers.
  2. Flexible Work Arrangements: In light of the Mayor’s recent directive regarding a return to office, DHS must prioritize flexible work arrangements for its employees. Remote work options and flexible schedules not only promote work-life balance but also make DHS a more attractive employer in a competitive job market. Montgomery County is actively poaching experienced social workers from DHS highlighting that they have hybrid work.
  3. Caseload Caps: To ensure the quality of service provided to children and families, DHS must establish strict caseload caps. By limiting the number of cases assigned to each social worker, we can ensure that every child receives the attention they deserve.

I urge the public to join me in advocating for these changes. Our most vulnerable children deserve better, and it’s time for city leaders to prioritize their safety and well-being.

Gabe Li is Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME Local 2187 DC47.

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *