Slain Toddler’s Sisters Sue The City; Claim DHS Neglected Their Safety

October 15, 2003

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on October 15, 2003.

Lawyers representing the three sisters of slain toddler Porchia Bennett filed a federal lawsuit against the city yesterday, alleging its child-protection agency let the girls fall through the cracks.

The suit claims the city, the Department of Human Services and three DHS workers violated the sisters’ civil rights by closing the Bennett family case file.

The city agency did so after the girls were illegally removed from a Salvation Army shelter by their mother, Tiffany Bennett, in 1999 and then were missing. It was later learned that the Bennetts remained in Philadelphia after they left the DHS-approved shelter.

“She was findable. They had to look,” said Bennett attorney Nadeem Bezar, during an afternoon press conference. He noted that Tiffany Bennett had been using state and city aid as well as medical and welfare benefits.

“If DHS had not closed the file, the Bennett family would have been located before minor plaintiffs [the sisters] sustained injury,” according to court papers. “By closing the file on the Bennett family, defendants intentionally, knowingly, recklessly and with deliberate indifference, exposed minor plaintiffs to a real, substantial risk of serious injury, which harm in fact occurred.”

The suit, assigned to Judge Berle M. Schiller, demands a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages. It also requests that a new DHS system be put in place so missing families can be found.

Porchia Bennett died of suffocation, starvation and repeated beatings on Aug. 17. She was found wedged between a mattress and a wall in the South Philadelphia apartment she shared with her three sisters, her aunt, Candace Geiger, 18, and Geiger’s boyfriend, Jerry Chambers, 31. Geiger and Chambers have been charged with her murder.

“Since the tragic death of Porchia Bennett, DHS has conducted an internal review of policies and procedures regarding the searching of missing families and the closing of cases when families are unable to be located,” said DHS spokesman Ted Qualli in a statement.

The agency and the Police Department formed a search team on Sept. 15 to re-examine 309 closed cases involving evasive or transient families accused of abuse and/or neglect.

Qualli later said by phone that DHS workers are in the first phase of that review.

He also said that the city Law Department will handle “this litigation” on DHS’s behalf. Milton Velez, special assistant to the solicitor and spokesman for the Law Department, declined comment.

The suit was filed on behalf of Jonathan Irvine, the family court-appointed guardian of Alexus Bennett, 10, Aliyaha Bennett, 7, and Priscilla Bennett, 4.

According to the lawsuit, when the surviving sisters were taken to the hospital the day Porchia died, the girls were found to have old and new welt marks to the backs of their knees and back, allegedly from an extension cord. Alexus had a skull fracture as well.

The girls have been in temporary foster care in Philadelphia since the slaying, said Bezar.

Besides the city and DHS, also named in the civil action suit are DHS Director Alba Martinez, DHS worker Iris DeJesus, former DHS worker Yolanda Grant, and DHS supervisor Patricia Wilson.

Calls placed to DeJesus and Wilson were not returned.

Cathy Scott, president of the union that represents DHS social workers, defended the agency employees.

“We’re extremely concerned about the lawsuit because there is absolutely no basis to sue any of our members over this issue,” said Scott, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 2187. “A worker who follows the department protocol should in no way be liable for a lawsuit.”