A boy cuts class to stay home and protect his mother from domestic violence. Another loses his father and then his grandfather, both murdered. A teenage mother needs a home. It is what Renata Cobbs-Fletcher sees daily as the new president of Northern Children's Services, the care provider at the Hogwarts-looking campus in Roxborough.

To many residents of Roxborough, Northern — as those who work there refer to it — is an enigma. Some get a peek after they go in to vote once or twice a year. A few know its conference room from neighborhood civic association meetings. Others will tell you that MTV's "The Real World" built the playground (which is true). Beyond that the place is mostly a mystery.

Cobbs-Fletcher wants to change that. "We are a great community resource and filling and important need," she said.

Since 1853, and for the last 95 years at its present location, Northern has been part of Philadelphia's child welfare system. The needs of children haven't lessened, but the ways the city addresses those needs have changed.

Cobb-Fletcher's position involves serving about 3,000 people a year. Northern was established as an orphanage, but today only 28 mothers and their children actually live on campus. "The system" now seeks to limit the congregate care of kids and keep them in family settings through foster care or adoption.

Building

The towering building sits atop Ridge Avenue in Roxborough. (Timothy Weaver/for NewsWorks)

A kid can wind up in the system for anything from truancy to serious neglect and abuse. Northern attends to them in schools, in aftercare and summer camps, and at home. Sometimes they get "wrapped" in all three. Services range from school supply drives to residential life services designed to help with parenting.

There are 5,594 children currently in child protective custody, according to the city's Department of Human Services. Of these children, 80 percent are in foster care homes, leaving 1,120 in congregate care at places like Northern.

Northern is a microcosm of the child welfare system in Philadelphia. Some children come into contact with that system briefly, but others' needs persist. One mother recently out of family foster care at Northern has been in the system since she was five. All of the challenges facing the city's system and its children in need can be seen through the campus in Roxborough, but Cobbs-Fletcher beams at the success on the Ridge.

"Northern is a jewel," she said at a reception introducing her to the community at the end of June. "This environment has incredible healing properties. It's a sanctuary."

"It's a steep learning curve, but a good learning curve," she said of her time on the job so far.

A system in flux

Some of the challenges at Northern are unsurprising. The budget impasse in Harrisburg is a threat, but money is always an issue. Northern has been developing partnerships with private organizations like IKEA and Toshiba to help develop alternate sources of support.

"There is high pressure to show impact, but fewer resources available," said Cobbs-Fletcher.

The economy tanked in 2008, which not only strained state and city budgets, but family budgets as well. Following the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2011, new rules for people working with minors resulted in higher numbers of reported instances of abuse. More kids were entering the system, right as it was being overhauled.

In 2006, 14-year-old Danieal Kelly died with cerebral palsy, covered in filth with maggot-infested bedsores. The city was shamed into action. Then-Mayor John Street established a commission to study and propose recommendations to fix a broken system in which lax oversight could lead to such a tragedy.

Two years later, the city decided it needed to address three main issues.

  1. There was too much distance between DHS' headquarters on Arch Street and the kids in the system throughout the city,
  2. There was too much reliance on congregate care, where children lived in group homes or other institutions
  3.  The DHS was contracting with too many outside service providers (around 300).

A plan for "Improving Outcomes for Children" was hatched, where community umbrella agencies located throughout the city would be responsible for case management and subcontract for services in adoption, foster care, and behavioral health, while DHS would retain responsibility for oversight and investigations. Wherever possible, children would be kept in family settings.

Northern Children's Services joined Tabor Children's Services to form Tabor Northern Community Partners, the CUA for Northwest Philadelphia. It puts Northern at the forefront of finding foster homes for kids in Northwest Philly as part of the effort to reduce congregate care. It's not an easy task.

Kia Butler, director of foster care at Northern, said she gets 15 to 20 referrals a day, but has only been able to place about a dozen over the last six months.

Cobbs-Fletcher calls changes in the child welfare bureaucracy and the financial landscape "disruptive forces," but feels up to the challenge.

"We have a really well-trained staff able to address individual needs," she said. "Every trauma is unique."

Looking ahead

As part of the Improving Outcomes for Children initiative, Northern said they created a new compliance office, generates more documentation, increased the frequency of visits, keeps precise case notes, and pays special attention to staff concerns.

group

Renata Cobbs-Fletcher speaking to community members (Timothy Weaver/for NewsWorks)

Northern wasn't involved in Kelly's care before she died, but it was a wake-up call for everyone in the city. "We have to know we are doing an effective job," said Cobbs-Fletcher. "As we enter a new era of social services it is important for Northern to be at the lead of being adaptive and innovative."

That also means being creative. Cobbs-Fletcher is interested in doing trials of new wellness programs centered around aspects of mindful meditation, food and self-care.

She also wants to make Northern less of a cloister. The people that live at Northern are neighbors with everyone else in Roxborough. They live, work and go to school with everyone else. Cobbs-Fletcher would like to open up the campus, invite others to the after school program and special events.

"I want to continue and grow and build on the good work we are doing," she said.

This is part one in a series that looks at the people of Northern Children's Services.