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Mom Jailed for Defending Kids

April 5, 2008 permalink

When Philadelphia mom Sharonda Sowell heard from social worker Danelle Cooper that her children were to be taken away, she defended her family by attacking the worker. The mother has been sentenced to twelve years under control of the police, the first four behind bars. At least she fared better than Bryan S Russell and Gene Valasquez who both died defending their families from social workers.

Columnist Jill Porter presents the story from the social worker's perspective, never seeing that there is any reason for the mother's actions. Sowell's neighbors seemed to understand the situation better when they refused to intervene to protect Cooper.



Posted on Wed, Apr. 2, 2008

Jill Porter: Justice is served, but too late for shattered social worker

By Jill Porter, Philadelphia Daily News, Daily News Columnist

THEY'RE OUT there every day, in dangerous neighborhoods, in volatile situations, trying to protect the city's most vulnerable children.

They should never have to fear injury or death while doing it.

That was the message sent earlier this month when a woman who had ferociously attacked a city social worker investigating a report of child neglect was sent to state prison.

The worker, Danelle Cooper, had hair pulled from her scalp; she was bitten, punched and bloodied - and she was terrified she'd be killed.

"Emotionally, it's still hard just to think about what happened to me," said the 10-year veteran of the city's Department of Human Services.

DHS has changed policies to better protect its workers.

And Common Pleas Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe sentenced Cooper's attacker to two to four years in state prison followed by eight years' probation. That's a serious sentence in a system often criticized for leniency.

Dembe declined comment on the March 19 sentence because of potential appeals that may come before her.

But Assistant District Attorney Dawn Holtz said that the message is clear: Attacks on city workers will be met with harsh consequences.

"It's really serious because these DHS workers - they go out there, they're not armed, they're out there trying to do something good, to make sure these kids are safe," Holtz said.

When Cooper arrived at the house on Chadwick Street in North Philadelphia last Sept. 26, she found a toddler and three other children unsupervised.

The mom came home drunk. When Cooper said that the children couldn't stay there under the circumstances, she expected the usual resistance.

"I've been cursed at, yelled at, called all kinds of names," Cooper told me. "You can usually de-escalate it."

But Sharonda Sowell went on the attack.

She punched Cooper in the face and bit her repeatedly; she pulled her hair so hard it came out of her scalp.

When Cooper fled outside, Sowell chased her and continued the assault while neighbors ignored Cooper's pleas for help.

Sowell, 31, pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated assault, terroristic threats and reckless endangerment.

Cooper was shattered. She was out of work for the better part of two months and still is gripped by fear.

She has an inside job now and no longer goes into the field to investigate allegations of abuse.

She's not sure she'll ever recover enough emotionally to go back on the street.

"It saddens me tremendously, because I enjoyed doing fieldwork and assessing children's safety," she said. "I'd never have thought I'd be the one who was not safe."

The attack understandably rattled workers at DHS, and the agency took it to heart.

After 5 p.m., social workers who go to a residence to investigate allegations of abuse are instructed to travel in pairs. They can refuse to go solo at any time if they feel threatened.

Through an arrangement with former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson, DHS spokeswoman Alicia Taylor said, the workers can also go to the nearest police district and ask for an officer to accompany them.

If they get into trouble in the field, their calls to police are given high priority, only one notch below an "assist officer" call, Taylor said.

"We're very sensitive to this issue and continue to work on increasing worker safety," she said.

Meanwhile, Danelle Cooper is grateful to her DHS colleagues for their support.

"The outpouring was tremendous. I got so many cards and flowers and food, it was just phenomenal."

She's also grateful to Judge Dembe for the sentence she imposed on Sowell and the message it sends.

"I think the public needs to know that we're out here, we're doing our jobs, we should not feel threatened, we should not be attacked," Cooper said.

"Clients should know there are serious repercussions to attacking a DHS worker or anyone who is in public service."

Cooper's still receiving counseling and continuing to recover.

"I don't think I'll ever put it completely behind me," she said. *

E-mail or call 215-854-5850.

Source: Philadelphia Daily News