By Carolyn Davis
Inquirer Staff Writer
A Mennonite group that arranges foster care for babies born to incarcerated women in Philadelphia would need to meet the same licensing and oversight requirements as any foster program, and have the children in its care monitored by the Department of Human Services.
Those are among the recommendations in a report the city Office of the Inspector General issued Tuesday, and are part of an agreement worked out between DHS and the Philadelphia prison system since DHS chief Anne Marie Ambrose learned of the Mennonite program last spring.
No children have been placed with the group since then, and that will continue until its members are formally certified as foster families in Pennsylvania.
The 31 children who as of last month were still with Mennonite families - mainly in Lancaster, Cumberland, and Lebanon Counties - apparently will be able to stay with them. The mothers of those children are no longer in prison and have agreed to allow the Mennonites to continue foster care.
"There's no discussion of retroactivity," Ambrose said.
According to a new prison policy, Riverside Correctional Facility social workers will help inmates find placement for their babies. If no relative can be found, DHS will be notified. The birth mother in most cases should still be able to decide who will care for her child.
If the Mennonite group goes through the state process to become a certified caregiver, "then we would have no problem with the Mennonites," Inspector General Amy Kurland said in an interview Tuesday.
Ambrose's concern triggered the inquiry into the long-running, informal Mennonite Caregivers Program, which says it has fostered 91 babies born to women incarcerated at the Riverside facility over 12 years. Forty-nine were returned to their birth mothers and 11 have been adopted by their Mennonite families.
"To allow children to be placed with an unlicensed social services agency, without any formal recordkeeping process or monitoring, put them at great risk," the inspector general's report says.
A Mennonite group member said she had not seen the report but had heard requirements were going to be imposed. "There are mixed feelings," said Carol Wise of New Holland, Pa. "It's disappointing to have our simple program closed, but there are times when we have really appreciated DHS's help."
The report describes how Riverside chaplain Phyllis Taylor and chaplains before her, along with the nonprofit Maternity Care Coalition's MOMobile program, pressed women to let the Mennonite Caregivers Program care for their newborns if no relative was available.
Taylor and MOMobile did so even though their contracts did not say they would help women make foster-care arrangements.
Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla let Taylor work beyond her contractual duties, the report said. But MOMobile staff continued to help women make foster-care arrangments even after repeatedly being told by the Riverside social work supervisor that they must stop.
Officials at the Maternity Care Coalition could not be reached for comment. An after-hours message left on Taylor's phone was not returned by press time. A prison spokesman said the relationships with the coalition and Taylor, both of whose work is otherwise well-regarded, was being examined.
One of the troubling issues with the foster program, the inspector general's report says, is that the contract does not hold the Mennonite families responsible for the well-being of children under their care.
While there were no proven problems in how the Mennonites have treated the children, the report cites one instance when Taylor was informed of alleged abuse and did not tell DHS, instead investigating it herself and concluding that the accusation was unfounded.
That is no way to investigate an abuse allegation, the report says.
"There have been no controls at all," Kurland said.
There also is not sufficient paperwork - prison and Mennonite records do not match - to determine how many children the Mennonites have fostered and all of their whereabouts.
Wise said she was unsure whether recommendations and policies also would apply in cases where the birth mother had been released from prison. City officials also did not have an answer to that.
Wise said the group had kept clear records and provided them to city investigators. Her group, she said, is talking with another Mennonite ministry outside Pennsylvania to develop a formal foster-care program that will meet city and state guidelines.
While she and other families are glad to work with DHS, Wise said, she mourned the loss of early contact with incarcerated pregnant women and the ability to develop an ongoing relationship with them. Helping the mothers is part of the Mennonite prison ministry along with helping the children, she said.
"That's the part that hurts," she said, "not being able to witness and be friends to these women."