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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Families and social workers packed Philadelphia City Council chambers on Tuesday and concerns about the reporting of child abuse and custody battles were front and center.
Ever since laws were put on the books in Pennsylvania after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, calls about suspected child abuse have shot up.
In its wake, the Department of Human Services in Philadelphia, an agency that removes more children from suspected abusive environments than any other in the country, faced heavy criticism.
In one case, a family said their grandchildren were removed because of their daughter’s drug addiction. They haven’t been able to gain custody.
“We didn’t do nothing wrong. We’re grandparents,” said Jeffrey McKale.
Jeffrey and Virginia McKale have been battling for custody of their grandchildren for years.
Their daughter, Brittany McKale, caught in a drug addiction, had a document notarized, asking that her 5-year-old and 10-year-old sons be sent to her parents’ stable and healthy home.
That never happened. The red-tape barrier, they say, is the Delaware River.
They don’t have custody because they live in New Jersey.
“My grandchildren do not see each other often despite repeated requests to see each other during this difficult time,” said McKale, of Maple Shady, New Jersey.
A series of painful, angering accounts flowed freely in City Council chambers during a hearing on the city’s Human Services Department.
The hearing was triggered after City Councilman David Oh was investigated over a claim of child abuse. One of his children was injured during martial arts training.
“What happened to me was a peak behind the window and what I saw was not good,” said Oh.
The Republican councilman was cleared but the experience left a bad taste. It let loose a floodgate of complaints.
Figures from the department show that in 2018, more than 19,000 families were reported. In the end, children were removed from 700 families.
“I think the things that were upsetting to hear about today is the maltreatment that happens to kids once they come into the system,” said DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa. “And it’s something we’ve been aware of and reducing over time.”
The McKales’ story was the lightning rod.
Their daughter Brittany is now dead and the children’s own grandparents are unable to protect them from abuse in the system.
“My grandson was molested in a foster home. He should have been removed and checked out at a hospital,” said Jeffrey McKale. “And they left him there.”
The family claims Family Court Judge Joseph Fernandes granted an order to silence Virginia McKale from speaking about her grandchildren.
“The judge put a gag order on her and took away our unsupervised visits,” said Jeffrey McKale.
Eyewitness News attempted to contact Fernandes, but a woman who answered the phone said he would not comment on pending matters.
As for DHS, they do not comment on specific cases.
Quickly running out of resources, the McKales say their grandchildren will be up for adoption in the very near future.