Criminals who sue dept.: the case of Danieal Kelly

The old joke is that chutzpah is defined as the case of the orphan who kills his parents and then begs the court for mercy because he’s an orphan.

A pair of Philadelphia parents, however, may redefine the idea for all time.  Danieal Kelly, who suffered from crippling cerebral palsy, was 14 when she starved to death in a West Philadelphia rowhouse, covered in bedsores, weighing just 42 pounds.  Her mother, “Andrea Kelly was charged with murder on July 31. Daniel Kelly, who authorities say abandoned his daughter despite knowledge of her mother’s neglect, was charged with endangering the welfare of a child.” (Three friends of the mother were charged with perjury for lying to a grand jury; four social workers were also charged with felony endangerment, which will no doubt screw up incentives further for over-reacting child protective services everywhere.)

The parents responded as any parents would, and sued the city, the state, city and state agencies, and four social workers, blaming them for Kelly’s death, and seeking damages for “love, tutelage, companionship, support, comfort and consortium” as well as the “economic value of her life expectancy”–which couldn’t possibly be anything other than the taxpayer-funded disability benefits.  Public outrage has caused the lawyers, Brian Mildenberg and Eric Zajac, to substitute other parties as plaintiffs so that there is no direct hint of Daniel and Andrea Kelly profiting, but the underlying appallingness of the suit remains.  (Julie Shaw & Catherine Lucey, “Lawsuit by Danieal’s parents called ‘disgusting'”, Phil. Inquirer, Aug. 13; Nancy Phillips and Kia Gregory, “Danieal Kelly’s parents sue the city”, Phil. Inquirer, Aug. 13; John Sullivan and Craig R. McCoy, “Nine indicted in fatal neglect of girl”, Phil. Inquirer, Aug. 1; ongoing Inquirer coverage).


  • I think there’s reasonable room for disagreement here as to whether criminal charges are appropriate against the slothful social workers. It seems worth noting, though, that the primary social-worker defendant here had previously been suspended three times for poor work performance, yet his conduct appears never to have changed. Empirically, this weighs against the theory that imposing sanctions on social workers for poor performance will lead them to a countervailing excess of zeal in the future.

  • Whenever an attorney says that their client’s complaint isn’t about money (as was claimed here), it is always about money.

  • If there is a court-appointed trustee for the dead child’s estate, wouldn’t mandatory joinder of the parents as defendants be appropriate? If so and they lose, can we expect the parents to then sue their original attorneys for malpractice? I haven’t thought this through, but I’m not sure I’d put it past anyone who sued DHS under these circumstances, whatever the protestations that it’s “not about the money.”

  • For Tom T:

    How exactly were the social workers slothful?

    Why wasn’t the child in school? She had a bedridden illness. Could the social worker call up medical records to verify the claim? Probably not without a court order. Could the social worker check the child for bedsores? Probably not. And we have to be cautious of claims of bedsores. Such claims are used to rile juries and profit lawyers.

    No one expects traffic lights to be perfect. We are satisfied when traffic lights mitigate accidents. The best we can expect of social workers is mitigation of child abuse. Perfection is beyond us.

    As Ted points out, there are real costs to state intervention in family matters. Policy should not be driven by an occasional tragedy.

  • William, read the grand jury report.

  • @4, there are bedsores, and then there are bedsores. There is absolutely no question that Danieal’s bedsores were appalling and an obvious cry for immediate medical attention. The photo on page 18 of the grand jury report is nightmarish.

    @1, I agree that a bureaucracy as ossified and unionized with do-nothing jobs as that in Philadelphia in 2007 isn’t going to be especially responsive to suspensions when there’s no real threat of adverse job action and supervisors are indifferent about competence. Criminal sanctions for social workers, however, really imbalances the incentive structure. (I have no objection to charges of perjury or fraud, assuming that they are factually well-founded.)

  • See also the Bochetto & Lentz law firm press release linked here, arguing that attorney Brian Mildenberg “should be applauded for courageously” filing the suit.

  • To those of you attacking the lawyers involved in the Danieal Kelly case, please be advised that you really ought to learn all the important operative facts before you make your hackneyed observations and attacks on the lawyers involved. Did you know, for example, that the Register of Wills required the minor child’s estate to be initially brought in the names of the parents? So it was not chutzpah or the lawyers’ greed that began this legal action, but the requirements of the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure, the Register of Wills, and the laws that apply for any action to be brought against the child welfare agency and the City of Philadelphia under which it operates. Lyn Abraham, a lawyer herself, undoubtedly knew when she made her inflammatory charges against the lawyers that this is the way it had to be done. The parents were removed and a trustee was appointed by the Court at the earliest possible time, also governed by the rules and laws the lawyers must follow to protect the worthy beneficiaries, Danieal Kelly’s neglected and disadvantaged brothers and sisters. It’s the usual case that those least affected by the crime or neglect and abuse attack the lawyers who are virtually the only ones in society standing up for the victims. The victims and those closest to the victims are not denouncing their lawyers. The workers at Children and Youth responsible for forging records to reflect proper supervision of the child where it did not occur will not be brought to account without lawyers. The City of Philadelphia will not clean-up its act with regard to proper funding and supervision of Children and Youth without lawyers to bring it to account for the victims of its mismanagement and neglect. The finger of blame should not be directed at the lawyers and those who stand behind them, the victims, but rather at those responsible for this tragedy. And don’t blame the technicality of the rules for some supposed outrage that is not happening where the parents were removed from the lawsuit at the earliest opportunity afforded by the law.

    Irving L. Abramson