Judge: Political patronage led to neglect death of disabled Philadelphia teen under city watch

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Political patronage contributed to the starvation death of a disabled Philadelphia girl under the city's watch, a federal judge said Thursday in sentencing a social-services contractor to 17 1/2 years in prison.

The city paid Michal Kamuvaka's politically connected firm $1 million a year to ensure that its neediest families got specialized attention.

Company workers assigned to the chaotic home where 14-year-old Danieal Kelly was wasting away in a wheelchair were supposed to ensure she and her siblings had proper housing, schooling and medical care.

But after 10 months of supposed twice-weekly visits, Danieal, who had cerebral palsy, was still not enrolled in school and had not been seen by a doctor. By the time she died in the sweltering home in August 2006, she weighed 42 pounds and had maggot-infested bedsores.

City audits of Kamuvaka's company, MultiEthnic Behavioral Health Services, were "laughable," since the firm got a heads up weeks in advance to get its paperwork in order, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell said Thursday.

Dalzell doubted that even a whistle-blower, had one stepped up, could have interested the city in the contractor's failings.

"It was patronage — plain and simple," Dalzell said. "It was a deal, and nobody was taking this seriously" within the city's Department of Human Services.

Case worker Julius Murray made just 10 visits, not the 46 noted in records dummied up on orders from Kamuvaka after Danieal died, Dalzell found.

"Here was a woman with a doctorate in social work who ran the operations of an agency so lackadaisically that, in the words of one of her colleagues, 'It was just a matter of time' that one of her charges died," Dalzell said in giving Kamuvaka the maximum term and revoking her bail.

Later Thursday, Dalzell sentenced another company co-founder, Solomon Manamela, to 14 years for his role in the fraud. Manamela, a 52-year-old political refugee from South Africa, faces deportation when he gets out.

"Part of me died (after Danieal did)," Manamela, who oversaw training, told the judge.

Kamuvaka, 61, came to the U.S. from Liberia on a college scholarship, and went on to earn a Ph.D. and become a beloved mentor to social-work students at Lincoln University, several of whom spoke on her behalf Thursday.

She and co-defendant Earle McNeill, 72, formed the company in about 2000 to bid on the city contract. They had no other clients, and their primary experience was with adults and addicts.

"McNeill was, by whatever magic, indeed able to win the ... (contract) in the summer of 2000, notwithstanding the reality that (the company) had no experience whatever in dealing with 'at risk' children," Dalzell wrote in a recent opinion.

Even after Danieal died, the judge said Thursday, Kamuvaka visited an ally at City Hall, a DHS program director, in an effort to keep and even extend the $3.7 million, multiyear contract.

Then-acting Health Commissioner Carmen Paris soon ordered a coroner not to release the grim autopsy results, the coroner testified at Kamuvaka's trial this year. But it was too late. Investigators — and the public — were becoming aware of the case. Paris resigned in 2008, days after a 258-page county grand jury report on Danieal's death accused her of interfering with the investigation.

"It took a lot of people to kill this little girl," said Dalzell, who faulted MultiEthnic, City Hall and the school district, which also made a home visit.

But the blame starts, he said, with the girl's parents. Her mother, Andrea Kelly, is serving a 20- to 40-year state sentence after pleading guilty to third-degree murder. The girl's father, Daniel Kelly, was accused of abandoning his daughter and faces child-endangerment charges.

Kamuvaka and Murray also still face a November trial in state court on involuntary manslaughter charges.

In all, nine MultiEthnic employees were convicted in the federal case — Kamuvaka, Manamela and two others at trial and five others through pleas. McNeill was previously sentenced to 7-1/2 years. The two others who went to trial will be sentenced Friday.

"I don't think anybody should think of Dr. Kamuvaka as an evil person," defense lawyer William Cannon argued. "This situation certainly got away from her, there's no denying that. But that she would be indifferent to the situation that enveloped Danieal would just not be accurate."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bea Witzleben said the case is not one where children fell through the cracks. The Kellys, and other families ill-served by MultiEthnic, were identified by the city and assigned help.

"She (Kamuvaka) asked for this responsibility. She was given it and paid for it," Witzleben said. "There was hope for that child to have a decent life."