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Philadelphia Mayor Vows Girl Who Starved to Death in 2006 Did Not Die in Vain

August 5, 2008

PHILADELPHIA _ Vowing that the starvation death of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly would not be in vain, Philadelphia Mayor Nutter yesterday suspended seven more workers at the Department of Human Services and said “no child will again face the same fate.”

Speaking with obvious emotion, Nutter repeatedly excoriated the city workers involved in Kelly’s case, and he apologized to Philadelphians for City Hall’s failure to save the girl’s life. Kelly, who used a wheelchair and suffered from cerebral palsy, died in August 2006 at her mother’s fetid house on the city’s west side, despite 11 warnings to city child-welfare workers that the family was in trouble.

“It is appalling, it is outrageous. I am heartbroken,” Nutter said.

He said her death, first reported by The Inquirer in 2006, was one of the most tragic he had seen in 25 years in government. Last week, nine people were charged in connection with the case, including two DHS workers. A grand jury issued a scathing 258-page report slamming the agency’s heartless indifference to the child’s suffering.

Known for his unflappable demeanor, Nutter was uncharacteristically angry at the news conference Monday morning.

“I am fully, thoroughly and completely pissed off,” he said. If city employees had treated his child this way, he added, “I would kick their ass myself.”

The seven employees suspended Monday had oversight responsibility over caseworkers Dana Poindexter and Laura Sommerer, who were charged last week with child endangerment for doing nothing to save Kelly. The seven supervisors were named in the grand-jury report, but they were not indicted. None could be reached for comment.

Nutter said the suspended workers would be investigated by both DHS and city Inspector General Amy Kurland, a former federal prosecutor.

Though the workers will continue to be paid in the interim, Nutter said he had directed his administration to take “swift, decisive and appropriate action” once the investigation is complete.

The grand jury charged Poindexter and Sommerer with felony counts of child endangerment and misdemeanor counts of recklessly endangering another person. Poindexter is also charged with perjury.

Both waived their right to a preliminary disciplinary hearing at DHS yesterday, and will instead face a final hearing tomorrow, according to the agency.

Kelly’s mother, Andrea Kelly, is charged with murder, and the girl’s father, Daniel Kelly, is charged with endangering the welfare of a child. Also charged were Mickal Kamuvaka and Julius Murray, two workers at a private agency hired by the city to visit Kelly. The agency, MultiEthnic Behavioral Health, failed to make routine visits to the Kelly house but after her death fabricated documents saying workers had done so, according to the grand jury.

Kelly’s case came to light in October 2006, when The Inquirer reported on her macabre death and the budding murder investigation. The reporting followed a series of stories that examined the deaths of more than 20 children whose families had come to the attention of the department.

But even after the horrific autopsy photograph of Kelly’s ulcerated, emaciated body first made its way into the hands of officials, the caseworkers who so completely failed her remained on the job until last week.

When asked how that was possible, Nutter said in an interview that he was surprised to learn that the employees responsible for Kelly’s neglect had not been dealt with in 2006, when her death helped force the resignations of former DHS Commissioner Cheryl Ransom-Garner and her top deputy.

“It just seemed to me that whatever other personnel actions were going to be taken would have been taken at that time,” Nutter said.

Nutter was quick to dismiss criticisms by District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham that DHS suffered from an incurable culture of indifference and should be taken over by the state Department of Public Welfare.

“The Department of Human Services that’s characterized in the grand-jury report is from 2006,” he said. “There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that this department will turn around.”

Among those suspended Monday was a top manager, Pamela Mayo, who supervises about 700 of the agency’s 2,000 employees and is responsible for a budget of $500 million. The total DHS budget is more than $600 million.

Also suspended were Poindexter’s direct supervisor, Janice E. Walker, and her boss, Martha Poller, who allegedly failed to hold Poindexter accountable for not doing his job.

Poller admitted backdating data in the case, a practice she told investigators was commonplace, according to the report.

The other suspended DHS supervisors oversaw the work of Sommerer, who was assigned the Kelly family case in 2005.

Among them was Wesley Brown, who at the time was in charge of all open child-welfare cases in one of the city’s four social-service regions. He’s now in charge of intake at DHS, which screens all abuse and neglect reports to see if children or their families are in need of protective services or family programs.

In 2006, Brown supervised Valerie Mond, who oversaw Shawn M. Davis and Ingrid Hawk. The latter two oversaw Sommerer, who handled Kelly’s case and did not note the deplorable conditions she lived in despite family visits.

“Despite the exceptional nature of Danieal’s situation, not one supervisor gave her case extra attention or offered any guidance to Laura Sommerer,” the grand-jury report said. ” … Those responsible for checking on her safety seemed to think she must be fine as long as she was alive _ even if she was sitting alone in a stroller in a dark room all day, wasting away.”

Poller and Walker were in the chain of command over Poindexter, whom the grand jury report referred to as a “do-nothing” worker who kept the Kelly case at the bottom of a box filled with garbage next to his desk.

The grand jury faulted the lower-level supervisors for failing to read the Kelly file, discuss it, and raise concerns with workers.

For instance, Mond and Hawk admitted to the grand jury that they did not read Kelly’s case file before her death, the report says.

Ultimately the grand jury decided not to file charges against the supervisors.

“The actions or inactions of these supervisors might arguably be considered criminal,” the report said. “The grand jury has decided, however, to focus its criminal charges on those individuals who were most directly involved in Danieal’s neglect and death.”

But the report said it did not want to diminish their roles.

“A share of the stain of responsibility for Danieal’s death remains on their hands.”

___

(c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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