Fenty Welcomes Deal on Child Welfare Reforms

Date: 2008-10-07

Fenty Welcomes Deal on Child Welfare Reforms

October 7, 2008
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post

A court agreement signed by the District's child welfare agency will help continue reforms and rebuild the damage suffered in one of the agency's most tumultuous years yet, city officials said today.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said the agreement "reflects hard work and constructive effort by both the District and Children's Rights Inc.," a national advocacy group that brought a motion of contempt last summer against Fenty (D) and the city's Child and Family Services Agency.

"The protection of the District's children is extremely important, and my administration is committed to stabilizing the child welfare agency and hastening reform efforts," Fenty said, adding that the agreement "will allow us to further advance our efforts to strengthen the Child and Family Services Agency." Fenty formally announced the agreement, which was signed yesterday, during a news conference today at the Wilson Building.

According to the agreement, the Child and Family Services Agency must reduce its swelling backlog of investigations open longer than 30 days, move dozens of children toward adoption and find replacements for this year's exodus of social workers.

By Oct. 15, the agency also must hire the Public Catalyst Group, the consultants credited with reforming the New Jersey child welfare system, under the stipulation order signed by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan.

The court order puts the brakes on a motion of contempt brought in July by Children's Rights that could have returned the agency to federal receivership. Children's Rights may restart the contempt motion at any time.

"This is a solid, reasonable plan with the potential to improve outcomes for the children and families CFSA serves as well as the agency," said Roque Gerald, Interim Director of the Child and Family Services Agency.

The agency emerged from receivership about eight years ago. In less than a year, the agency has been thrust in the middle of two high-profile cases involving deaths of children known to the agency. In January, authorities found the bodies of four dead girls in their mother's home. Last week, Maryland officials found the bodies of two girls in the freezer of a woman who said had adopted the children from the District.

"With this agreement, the District has finally recognized its desperate need for help in putting its child welfare system back on track," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, which has been involved in a federal lawsuit against the agency for nearly 20 years. "Unfortunately, the District's recent history of allowing the system to deteriorate to this point does not inspire great confidence, and so we have reserved the right to return to court immediately on our open contempt motion if they cannot deliver on even the short-term commitments they have made."

D.C. Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles had a different take, saying Children's Rights finally "got much more realistic" about those short-term commitments.

Nickles had complained that Children's Rights wanted to set targets that the agency could not hit, given the increased volume of calls and the exodus of social workers this year. "I didn't want to commit the city to failure" and, ultimately, receivership, Nickles said.

After a weekend of negotiating, "we have an agreement that we can meet," he said. With the help of the Public Catalyst Group, "over the next eight, nine, 12 weeks, we can do it."

The contempt filing came as the agency began drowning in neglect and abuse calls in January, after Banita Jacks was discovered living in Southeast Washington with the decaying corpses of her four daughters and after officials realized that no one had made contact with her despite calls to a child abuse and neglect hotline.

That surge in neglect and abuse reports led to a fourfold increase in calls. Meanwhile, morale was crumbling at the agency after Fenty fired the six social workers associated with Jacks's case, prompting an exodus of almost 25 percent of the agency's social workers.

Over the summer, two more children died while the agency was investigating reports about them, and the confidence Children's Rights had in the system plummeted.

For months, the agency was failing to meet benchmarks set by the court monitor appointed in the wake of the Lashawn v. Fenty case, filed on behalf of District children by Lowry's group.

At a court hearing last month, the city and Children's Rights agreed to draft a plan to help the agency recover from this year's surge in investigations. In the courthouse hallway after the hearing, Lowry and Nickles argued about specifics of the agreement. Lowry wanted to pressure the agency to knock the backlog down; Nickles didn't want unrealistic goals that would set the agency up for failure.

Two weeks later, they came up with the stipulated order signed yesterday.

The agreement was in the works before last week, when the bodies of the two girls were found in a freezer in Maryland. The discovery was made after a third child escaped from the home of Renee Bowman, who had adopted the girls from the District's foster care system.

The clock starts ticking now on the court agreement, and by next Wednesday, the city must have a contract signed with the consulting group headed by Kevin Ryan. Ryan has a reputation among child welfare workers because of the improvements in New Jersey. Ryan's group will report to Fenty and the city administrator, according to the court order.

The group will work with the court-appointed monitor and Children's Rights to find a permanent director for the agency, according to the court order.

The two sides agreed that the backlog of investigations open longer than 30 days will be reduced to 600 by Nov. 15 and to 100 by Dec. 31. As of Friday, CFSA had reduced the backlog of investigations to 980 -- down 44 percent from the peak of 1,759 in mid-June.

They also agreed that the 23 percent social worker vacancy rate will be slashed to 15 percent by Dec. 31 and that the Child Protective Services hotline staff will receive training on a new phone system, also by Dec. 31.

And officials are required to make big strides in the area of adoptions, finding homes for 25 children while making plans for permanent homes for 40 more. They are to focus particularly on the District's unique problem of older youth still in the system, who are traditionally more difficult to place in adoptive homes.

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