A Thousand Cuts
August 1, 2008
The state, to serve and protect our children:
Two Philadelphia social workers were among nine charged yesterday in the death of a Danieal Kelly, a 14-year-old girl who starved to death in 2006, her body eaten by bed sores to the bone.
Unveiling a blistering grand jury report today [PDF], District Attorney Lynne Abraham blasted the city’s Department of Human Services as an indifferent and callous agency that had let Kelly die needlessly.
Drawing gasps at a news conference in which she showed a photograph of Kelly’s bloody, emaciated corpse, Abraham urged the state to take over DHS – a call that was not embraced by state officials.
The grand jury report contains just one photo of Danieal after her death (be forewarned: it’s horrifically graphic), but even it cannot convey the full horror of what this young girl must have suffered, not only at the hands of her mother, but through the wanton neglect of Philadelphia’s DHS and the private agency it contracted to provide services she never received.
This may be the worst example I’ve seen of the state’s failure to perform even the minimal duties expected of it: to guard the safety of its citizens. If it fails—fundamentally fails, at every level of responsibility—in even this basic endeavor, how can anyone argue it is competent to manage our health, our children’s education, or the economy? And keep in mind, this isn’t an issue of strained resources or overwhelmed caseworkers—the DHS in Philadelphia is well-funded and staffed, and doesn’t even provide services directly to clients. It simply decides if action is warranted and then refers cases to private agencies to provide the actual services. Yet it failed even at what amounted to button-pushing.
It’s true that in Danieal’s case, a private agency demonstrated callous indifference towards her plight, even as it was busy forging paperwork and bilking taxpayers for nonexistent services rendered. But it could get away with it because its customer, the Philadelphia DHS, was complicit in its crimes. One administrator even admitted to the grand jury that falsifying and backdating reports was common practice at the agency.
This isn’t an isolated incident. You can’t find no less than nine adults, four of them social workers, responsible for a person’s death and assume this was a tragic exception to the rule. As the grand jury wrote in its report:
The fate of a sweet and promising child depended on the willingness of a number of particular adults to do the bare minimum of what they were supposed to do. Danieal’s mother, her father, DHS employees, the agency that contracted with DHS to provide services for Danieal and her family – these make up a rather large cast of characters. Yet, had just one of them performed their duty or done their job, Danieal would be alive today. The combined criminal negligence that transformed the little girl in the school portrait into the shriveled corpse in the autopsy photographs was so callous, so cruel, and so relentless, it constitutes nothing less than homicide.
Indeed. If I could, I’d charge every one of these people, with the possible exception of Andrea Kelly’s friends, with murder. And even her friends are morally if not legally culpable when they knew how badly Danieal was suffering and didn’t say a word about it to anyone.
Not that it would have made any difference, given how the city handled the case. The maggot-infested bedsores covering Danieal Kelly’s body aren’t the only things that have rotted to the bone.