March 28, 2018
The stately, stone twin house on a hill in Germantown was 125 years old, and Emmalee and Jason MacDonald basked in visions of starting, and raising, a family there.
A wall of windows lets the sun into a spacious, open kitchen, which was cool considering Jason’s background in the food industry. And it had a wood-burning fireplace, a flagstone patio, marble countertops, a huge basement, four bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms.
They bought it in 2012. A pair of children would soon follow. Things were going according to plan, but five years in, their dreams turned to the sort of nightmares that consume a family’s every waking moment.
Instead of savoring their home on West Price Street, they’ll soon post a For Sale sign out front of the house they no longer occupy.
Who's to blame for their dream falling apart? The City of Philadelphia, the MacDonalds say, which dragged them into court and painted them, in legal documents, as slumlords – even as they worked night and day to ensure their home was safe for their two young sons.
Stories about childhood lead poisoning are nothing new in Philadelphia, an old city with old homes and walls covered in old paint.
Realtors know it to the point of saying buyers and sellers accept it as the local norm. That reality prompted the creation of a Lead and Healthy Homes Program in the city Health Department which issues reports like the one titled “Lead-Free Kids: Preventing Lead Poisoning in Philadelphia” while serving as a clearinghouse of related information.
The program's primary aim to protect children from getting lead poisoning which, in homes featuring lead paint, is most commonly acquired by ingesting paint chips or breathing in lead-laden dust.
The program presents itself as one that helps families facing such problems in the homes they own or, more commonly, rent. City health officials maintain they provide that assistance, though say they could use more personnel to do it more effectively.
But the program did just the opposite for the MacDonalds as they grappled with concerns about whether their son – whose name they wanted left out of this story – suffered the sort of developmental challenges that could afflict him for life.
“The lead problem in Philadelphia is serious and it is overwhelming. The city government absolutely has to be involved and have a process for addressing lead poisoning in children,” explained Emmalee, a tax accountant. “But there has got to be a better way."
To start, the city needs to ensure residents actually receive notifications from the program about expectations and deadlines, the MacDonalds said. And residents need to be able ask questions of lead-program staff who have knowledge of their cases. The MacDonalds say none of that happened; the Health Department countered that officials had difficulty getting responses from the MacDonalds.
“I would not be surprised if all the time I spent documenting and escalating our case did nothing, even though many people seemed to be appalled by it," Emmalee said. "The Lead and Healthy Homes program misrepresented themselves as a ‘helpful’ program, but they were far from helpful.”
Emmalee MacDonald documented the family's case with painstaking commitment.
Her timeline starts on April 6, 2017 and doesn’t miss a detail or an opportunity to share recommendations about how the city can do better.
It starts on the day they received results from their son's two-year well visit to the pediatrician. The toe-prick blood test found substantially elevated levels of lead. The results were, as required, promptly reported to the city.
Emmalee and Jason thought back to the one-year well visit, when traces of lead were found. To them, that red flag should’ve started a conversation.
"Had we been provided simple educational materials and information regarding resources to protect him," Emmalee said of her son, “we likely could have prevented the significant exposure that occurred once he was mobile and getting around the house.”
“The lack of urgency on the city’s part caused approximately three-weeks-to-a-month delay in our overall ability to address the problem.” – Emmalee MacDonald
They didn’t, so they had to wait a year to figure out that their old house featured underlayers of lead-based paint and/or dust. (Lead-based paint was outlawed in 1978.)
They wanted to get to work remediating the problems quickly but their calls to the Lead and Healthy Homes program went unreturned for more than a week, as evidenced by mobile phone records.
They moved out of the house a week after receiving those results. “We realized there was more we could do to make the home safe and prevent further exposure," Emmalee said.
“We were very anxious to get started in making our home safe, but were extremely overwhelmed and had no idea what type of service the city might be able to provide,” she continued. “The lack of urgency on the city’s part caused approximately three-weeks-to-a-month delay in our overall ability to address the problem.”
Around that time, Jason took a lead-renovator certification course so he could help restore the home to safe condition for the children.
A lead-program caseworker finally reached out, and wanted to know why the MacDonalds didn’t wait to hear from her before getting to work. The answer is simple: the couple says they grew tired of waiting.
The couple agreed to meet the caseworker in Germantown on April 21, where they were handed three pamphlets ("5 Things You Can Do to Prevent Lead Poisoning," "Possible Sources of Lead in Your Home" and "Foods that Help Prevent Lead Poisoning") that contained information they'd already by then learned on their own.
“The city inspector was still not finished with the inspection at 2 p.m. and explained she would have to come back because she ‘had already worked late the day before and wasn’t going to work late again,’” Emmalee recalled.
Eventually, the caseworker's report would say the MacDonalds were out of compliance. But they were told “that we should not get too alarmed, that (the case worker) knew it would take us quite some time to address all the issues in the report,” Emmalee said.
The couple says it never received notification – as the city claimed it sent – that they had to eliminate all the lead-based hazards within 30 days. Even if it had, they would have just blown it off as they were told to do by the caseworker.
Jason, along with professionals they'd hired, worked tirelessly through June 20, 2017. Bathtubs were reglazed. Rooms encapsulated to keep lead dust contained. HVAC vents replaced. Radiators painted and fitted with new covers.
Their son’s lead levels were receding, which offered a modicum of relief.
After moving out of the West Price Street home, they went to live with a relative in Allentown. Three months later, they took an Airbnb in Mt. Airy to be closer to work and medical professionals, eventually racking up $5,400 in rental bills.
“We are not slumlords that are ignoring this problem. We are parents doing everything we can." – Emmalee MacDonald
Meanwhile, an “unable to contact” notice was left at the Germantown home, even though the family had told the city they no longer were living there. (City health department officials said it's unusual, but not unheard of, for a notice to be left at a home.)
The MacDonalds say their follow-up emails were met with silence. Not even knowing they were on a deadline to get the work done, they were told an “extension” would be requested on their behalf.
At another meeting at the house, the lead-program caseworker handed Jason a business card that served as a recommendation to use a roofer.
“Performing a quick search of Facebook, it became clear that (the roofer) was her boyfriend,” said Emmalee, handing over a photo of the smiling couple.
Then came August 24, 2017.
Jason was finishing up a day’s work at the house that still held promise as a place they could raise their family. Wearing a respirator, he was about to vacuum the porch, when he was served papers. The couple was being taken to court by the city. The civil complaint filed against them essentially compared them to bad landlords who endanger tenants.
“We are not slumlords that are ignoring this problem. We are parents doing everything we can,” she said. “We are not endangering our child. Quite the contrary. We spent countless amounts of time and money on this process to ensure that our home is as safe as possible for our children.
“As a person who’s proud to call Philadelphia home and has chosen to lay roots here with my children rather than move to the suburbs, I was sorely disappointed by the lack of support we received through this process, but more so by the fact that the city actually caused us much more distress all while we have been trying to do everything we can for our family.”
Things were about to get worse.
The case of the City of Philadelphia vs. Jason and Emmalee MacDonald was filed in Common Pleas Court on August 23, 2017.
It threatened that a lien could be placed on the property if they didn't "provide lead-safe alternative housing for tenants" and a $300 daily fine for each day the conditions weren't corrected.
“To date, defendant-owners have failed and/or refused to abate the conditions within the required time," the complaint read. "The condition … presents a serious and immediate health hazard.”
This infuriated the couple. They’d taken the onus of working to make their home safe despite a nascent city agency’s inability to communicate with them in a constructive, timely manner.
"All it takes is one gram of dust to contaminate a room. That’s a sugar packet at a diner." – Jason MacDonald
“Every day was like a fire that had to be put out. It was just devastating,” Jason said during a recent interview in the Price Street dining room. "All it takes is one gram of dust to contaminate a room. That’s a sugar packet at a diner, for reference. We’ve never had to do anything so challenging. I don’t know what else we could have done.”
The Health Department maintains the family could have done a better job responding to their requests.
"After we came out and did the initial testing, we weren't getting the responses we needed from them," said James Garrow of the Philadelphia Department of Health, noting MacDonalds declined an offer of a grant in lieu of remediating the site on their own.As the legal case hovered over them, the couple spent the fall caring for their children, fixing the home and appearing in a City Hall courtroom to get their side of the case on the record. They wanted the city to drop what they considered to be a bogus case or, at a minimum, allow them to get their response on the public record.
“It’s completely taken over our lives,” Jason said. "It totally didn’t need to get escalated to this point.”
"It was pretty obvious that they just pulled facts out of a stack of papers and filed the complaint." – Matthew Monroe, the MacDonalds' attorney
Emmalee reached out to City Council members, including Blondell Reynolds Brown's office, and city officials for help, with some degree of success. The fact that their case was a topic of discussion in City Hall offered some measure of comfort.
Before an October 11 hearing, they hired an attorney. It had become too much for them to handle alone.
That hearing was supposed to close the case. Before it could happen, though, a city-mandated cleaning team was to give the home a thorough scrubbing to help it pass lead contamination tests.
“We thought the worst that would happen would be the cleaning team not showing up,” Emmalee said back in the fall. “Nope. The city topped it. They showed up, said they couldn’t do the job and left. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.”
To Matthew Monroe, the MacDonalds' attorney, the case was about getting the city to admit that the couple did everything they could to protect their children and remediate the issues. The complaint, he said, "treated loving parents no different than they'd treat a slumlord taking money from a poor family while doing nothing to make the property safer." And there were factual errors in the document, he maintained.
"They were talking to Health Department officials who told them they were going above and beyond," Monroe said. "It was pretty obvious that they just pulled facts out of a stack of papers and filed the complaint."
His ultimate goal was getting the city to stipulate that the MacDonalds weren't negligent parents, but the city "just wouldn't do that." He presumed that's because doing so would be an admission that their sworn documents were faulty.
"We live in a city where some insane proportion of houses have lead paint. Lead poisoning is a fact of life, and we're working hard to remediate it, but it's everywhere." – James Garrow, Philadelphia Department of Health
"It's clear to everyone that the facts in the petition were wrong," he said. "From a policy perspective, how can they go back and say 'We dragged these people into court because we couldn't get our paperwork straight?'"
At that October hearing before Judge Nina Wright Padilla in Courtroom 446 in City Hall, Emmalee asked for the chance to address the court.
She explained how their two sons – ages two-and-a-half and eight months at that point – had not been inside the home since the time of the diagnosis. (The younger child showed no elevated levels).
Padilla responded that it’s “great” that they’re “ahead of the game.” The lead-program attorneys then objected to Emmalee being able to make a statement at all, but she was given the chance to proceed – briefly.
She spoke about the “devastating news” regarding their son, and about the frustration related to the city's lack of response in those early days.
The prosecutors objected again. Padilla honored their request, stating that she “just wants the children to be safe,” as if the MacDonalds didn’t want the same.
They were in and out of court within five minutes, with a continuance granted. Jason was incensed that the judge cut Emmalee off as if she doesn't want the children to be safe.
A few weeks later, the home passed a follow-up test and Monroe filed a response to the city’s complaint. He wanted the action to be dismissed with prejudice.
The attorney noted that the home seller didn't disclose lead-paint hazards, the couple did not get the notifications the city said they had, that lead-program officials “knew (the MacDonalds) were doing everything in (their) power to remediate the lead hazard” and that the city knew the children weren’t in danger because they hadn’t been living at the property.
November would bring resolution, but not total victory.
The case would be dismissed with prejudice, but all that means is that the MacDonalds' response would be part of the formal record.
“I’m just sad about this whole ordeal,” Emmalee said. “Philly, the city I loved, did this to us. I feel like the city failed us and I’m not sure what to do with all these emotions. We have the means to make changes, to leave the environment. I’m sure that the majority of people that this is happening to don’t have those means, and that makes me angry.”
It even got under their attorney’s skin, who rued the "adversarial process."
Emmalee and Jason MacDonald will soon put their once-beloved house on the market. They're frustrated. They've spent tens of thousands of dollars on remediation and attorney's fees.
They are currently renting a townhouse in Roxborough as they ponder the future.
“Even though we spent a ton of time and money remediating and making the home as safe as possible, we just don’t know how we’d feel living there,” Emmalee explained. “Ultimately, we felt like this was the best thing to do. The whole ordeal has been so draining that we’re just trying to determine what we want our next steps to be.”
Emmalee still hopes the city will take her recommendations to heart, considering that she's been on the other side.
“There’s got to be a better way,” she said.
Garrow, of the health department, conceded that he wished they had substantially more personnel to get out there and help families.
"We live in a city where some insane proportion of houses have lead paint," he said on Friday. "Lead poisoning is a fact of life, and we're working hard to remediate it, but it's everywhere."
The MacDonalds' son has seen his lead levels continue to drop, though it remains above the threshold for concern. His speech development, while still delayed, is improving.
Neither is entirely comfortable with their story being told extensively and publicly.
It could impact their son's privacy.
It could scare off potential buyers, even before they read about it in the property disclosures.
Still, they said they wanted to speak publicly in an effort to draw more attention to an important issue.
“If they don’t at least use us to make sure this doesn’t happen again, I will be so upset,” Emmalee said.
Garrow understands their plight.
"This is a horrible thing and it must be terribly scary for them," he said. "I have three kids and I couldn't fathom what they've gone through."
After that October hearing, Jason MacDonald fired back at a city that turned his family’s lives into a horror show for the better part of a year.
He brought a 3M lead-testing kit to the courtroom.
After the judge stifled his wife’s pleas to be heard, he walked out into the hallway, reached into his suit jacket pocket and removed the swab.
Then, he found a section of broken paint along the Lead Courtroom’s door jamb and swabbed.
When the area turned pink, indicating the presence of lead, Jason just shook his head.
The courtroom that hosted so much of their family's pain was exposing visitors to potential lead poisoning.
"I just feel like it was a huge waste of time," Emmalee said last week. "The city spent all this time on the case, and I don't feel like anything was actually accomplished."
Coming Thursday: PhillyVoice returns to City Hall with a lead-test kit to determine if the city abides by its own Lead and Healthy Homes program. What we found raises questions about whether City Hall visitors have been exposed to lead contamination.