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July 13, 2021

MOVE victims' remains returned to Africa family, city begins investigation

The city launched its six-month-long investigation into the circumstances of the mishandled remains

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MOVE bombing remains returned to family Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

The remains of the victims of the 1985 MOVE bombing were returned to the Africa family after their mishandling was brought to light earlier this year.

Decades after the 1985 MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia, the remains of the 11 deceased victims were returned to the Africa family.

Last April, Mayor Jim Kenney learned that then-Health Commissioner Thomas Farley inappropriately approved the cremation and removal of the MOVE victims' remains in 2017 without notifying the family. 

The city medical examiner's office held onto the remains in the decades since the bombing and notified the health department of their existence, which caused an uproar in the community.

"The remains are finally free to move and cycle in the life with Mama," Janine Africa, a MOVE member, told WHYY. "That’s what we believe in, that everything goes back to Mama."

Mama is the collection of elements of nature, or what other people would call "God," she said.

They went to Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia, which coordinated earlier this year to take custody of the remains, Janine said. The remains were buried by a tree in Bartram's Garden, where the late MOVE member Consuewella Africa wanted her ashes scattered.

Following the news of the MOVE victims' remains being found, Farley resigned. Philadelphia officials announced Monday that they are searching for a new health commissioner and launching an investigation into the mishandling of the MOVE bombing victims' remains.

The city finalized its investigatory team and is officially beginning the probe, which is expected to last six months. Attorneys Robert Heim of Dechart and Keir Bradford-Grey of Montgomery McCracken, who are leading the investigation, met with both the Africa family and city officials earlier this month.

To find a permanent health commissioner, Kenney said the city is working with DSS Global, an international executive search firm that specializes in multicultural recruiting and diverse leadership talent.

"Our next health commissioner should have extensive experience working in public health, leadership and working with diverse, underserved communities, as well as a demonstrated commitment to advancing the department’s health equity agenda," Kenney said. "It’s an incredible opportunity to double down on everything we’ve learned from the pandemic to improve health outcomes in all corners of our city."

Interviews for the position are set to start later this month. 

The city is also working on improvements to the medical examiner's office. They partnered with independent investigators to create an advisory panel of experts in the field to better understand current practices and review best practices.

Officials say the goal is to develop written policies and procedures using a racial equity lens and later become accredited through the National Association of Medical Examiners.

The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University both apologized for housing the bones of an unidentified MOVE bombing victim in the Penn Museum for decades.

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