Thursday, May 16, 2013

With almost 92 percent of all housing units built before the 1978 federal ban on lead in residential paint and 27 percent of families in the city living in poverty, Philadelphia ranks among the top U.S. cities for prevalence of children with elevated blood lead levels. Some owner-occupants and landlords may defer routine maintenance and care in lower-income housing, leading to property deterioration and peeling paint.

A new study published May 16 in the American Journal of Public Health finds that Philadelphia’s specialized Lead Court has been more effective at reducing the number of lead hazards than any pre-court strategies by mandating compliance with orders to remediate the hazards.

The study finds that following the establishment of the court in 2002, most properties were remediated within one year of the initial failed home inspection, and the time to compliance was significantly reduced. The analysis also finds that compliance was eight times more likely after the court was established.

The use of a specialty court for this purpose is a novel and innovative law enforcement strategy. Only two other similar courts are known to exist nationally, in Chicago and Mahoning County, Ohio. To date, no other study has analyzed this type of enforcement strategy.

The study, “Public Health and Law Collaboration: The Philadelphia Lead Court Study,” was conducted by Carla Campbell, MD, MS and colleagues at Drexel University and from other organizations. The authors conclude that a dedicated Lead Court could be replicated by other cities with similar health code enforcement challenges.

“The act of appearing before a judge in a court of law seems to be a very good incentive for many property owners,” explained Campbell. “The formalized process, which included educating judges and establishing standardized forms and systems, has been a very good solution for Philadelphia. It could be adopted in other cities where conditions are similar.”

In Philadelphia prior to 2002, all lead remediation efforts fell to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health with little success. Some efforts were made to enforce orders through the Philadelphia court system, but these typically ended with a judge ordering the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to complete the remediation work. Ultimately, an inventory in April 2002 noted a backlog of 1,400 properties where remediation work had been ordered but was not carried out.

The Philadelphia Lead Abatement Strike Team Program was founded by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, in conjunction with Philadelphia’s Managing Director’s office, in 2002 in response to the community concern about failure to remediate identified lead hazards. A number of local advocacy and community-based organizations also lent support to reform efforts.

In November 2002, the dedicated Philadelphia Lead Court was established through a partnership between the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, the Office of the City Solicitor and the Court of Common Pleas. The court was created specifically for cases involving non-compliance of owners in response to remediation orders issued by the Department of Public Health.

The study published May 16 is supplemented by a study published on May 3, 2013 in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law that analyzed interview responses from 15 experts from the Philadelphia’s law and public health departments, and the local judicial system. These experts agree that creating a specialty lead court that establishes a systematic and consistent process for dealing with violations, and providing incentives to remove the hazards, has helped significantly with enforcement of local health codes.