“First, Do No Harm”

Published: August 22, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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One of the most ancient and fundamental principles taught to all medical students.  Perhaps it should be a mandatory part of the legal curriculum as well.

Two years ago, 14-year-old Danieal Kelly, “…who suffered from cerebral palsy, wasted away in a squalid West Philadelphia row house while under her mother’s care and the supervision of the city’s Department of Human Services. She starved to death on a fetid mattress in a stifling room, her body covered with gaping bedsores…

“[Her mother] Andrea Kelly was charged with murder… Daniel Kelly, who authorities say abandoned his daughter despite knowledge of her mother’s neglect, was charged with endangering the welfare of a child.”

It’s easy to become frustrated and angry whenever we hear about another political or corporate scandal.  However, when children are affected by the behavior of adults that frustration easily turns to outrage.

In the case of Danieal Kelly, outrage has reached a new level.

According to a Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 13) story “Just one day after they were charged in the starvation death of their 14-year-old daughter, the parents of Danieal Kelly sued the city for failing to step in and save her.”

Brian Mildenberg and Eric Zajac (pictured above with their own lawyer between them), attorneys for Andrea and Daniel Kelly, “the parents,” of Danieal sued the city for not stopping, “the parents,” from abusing their own daughter!

The reaction from the city’s attorneys, and the public was immediate:

“It’s the definition of chutzpah,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Barry N. Kramer.

“The legal profession has hit a new low, and the attorneys who filed this suit should be disbarred,” wrote Joanna A. Majewski in a letter to the editor.

In an August 19th article, the Philadelphia Daily News wrote that “George Bochetto [an attorney for the attorneys] …insisted that the lawsuit, which they stress was filed on behalf of the estate of Danieal Kelly, was done to serve the parents’ other children, not to benefit the parents.

“‘If there’s a manner of obtaining for them compensation, some benefits to make their lives a little bit better, to help get them some schooling, some education, a decent home, then it is incumbent upon any lawyer to attempt to get that for them,’ Bochetto said.”

However, the story points out that “The wrongful-death suit filed in Common Pleas Court Aug. 1 lists as plaintiff: ‘The estate of Danieal Kelly by and through the administrators of the estate, Daniel Kelly and Andrea Kelly.’”

Sadly, the parents and lawyers are only the beginning of this nightmare.

On August 19, the Philadelphia Daily News reported:  “Department of Human Services Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose – following through on her promise to punish those involved in the starvation death of 14-year-old Danieal Kelly – yesterday suspended two middle-management DHS employees… Pamela Mayo and Wesley Brown.

“Mayo – who made $103,799 as DHS’ director of operations, Children and Youth Division – will be suspended for two dayswithout pay.

“Brown – who has been with DHS since 1975 and made $93,178 as a director in the Children and Youth Division – will be suspended without pay for 10 days.”

“Mayo testified that she didn’t even question DHS worker Laura Sommerer or her immediate supervisors after learning that Danieal had not seen a doctor during the 10 months that Sommerer managed the case. And Brown actually defendedSommerer’s performance, insisting that she had met the ‘minimum expectations for case management,’ according to the grand-jury report.”

In this case, the “minimum” would seem to have fallen below even Spanish Inquisitor Torquemada’s standards.

This inspite of a grand jury statement that said, “…actions or inactions of these supervisors might arguably be considered criminal.” [However] the grand jury decided not to pursue criminal charges against the supervisors, even though, the report concluded, “a share of the stain of responsibility for Danieal’s death remains on their hands.”

Of the roughly 3,500 ethics-related stories I have read in the last three years, I have never encountered one story with so many ethical failings:

  • The parents – failing to take proper care of their own daughter;
  • The Philadelphia Department of Human Services – failing not once, but several times to remove a child who showed clear signs of torture-like neglect for 9-10 months before her death;
  • The attorneys for the parents involved – for demonstrating what is without a doubt an uncommonsense of greed in trying to sue the city for the negligence of their own clients; and finally,
  • A grand jury – failing to pursue criminal charges against the DHS supervisors involved inspite of their own damning report.

When situations like this arise it’s difficult not to be dragged down by cynicism for a system that so completely failed one young child.

Although gratitude is not an ethical value, it can provide motivation for each of us to strive to become more responsible citizens in our communities to see that another Danieal Kelly does not suffer a similar fate.

As Indian model Nafisa Joseph once said, “The greatest injustice in the world is to bring a child into the world, and not be able to offer it peace.”


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