January 8, 2009
A year ago, Banita Jacks was found living in a rented Southeast Washington rowhouse with the corpses of her four little girls. That discovery nearly derailed the District agency charged with protecting the city's children.
Yesterday, several child advocates said the Child and Family Services Agency has overreacted -- removing children from homes more readily than it did before Jacks's children were found.
The 41 percent increase in children placed in foster care in the first nine months of 2008, compared with the same period in 2007, is "a foster-care panic that cut a swath of destruction through families in the District," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
A professor who heads a student-run family law clinic said it has seen a large increase in the number of cases in which children are placed in foster care quickly, then returned to their parents within weeks or months because the cases were unfounded.
"For the children, it was an eternity, and some are likely to suffer for it for the rest of their lives," said Matthew Fraidin, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia law school.
Fraidin said his students represented the parents of such children as "Brian," 8, who was placed in foster care because an uncle who did not live with him allegedly beat him. And 7-year-old "Lamar," who spent three months in foster care until social workers debunked the report that his grandfather, who does not live in the same house, abused him. And "James," 15, who was placed with a foster family rather than with relatives after his stepfather died while his mother was jailed.
Fraidin said the placements were part of a "mad rush" to reduce a backlog of cases.
D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who has been involved closely with the agency since the Jacks case broke last year, said he stands behind the social workers' decisions and believes they followed proper procedure.
The agency was faced with a mountain of cases in which suspicions were reported after the Jacks case came to light. At its peak, 1,750 reports of abuse or neglect were awaiting investigation. Social workers went into overdrive and reduced the backlog to fewer than 100 cases by last month, an accomplishment Nickles has praised.
A year ago, after the Jacks girls were discovered, he said he "couldn't comprehend what happened" as he looked over the crumbling agency. Now, Nickles said, the agency is in better shape.
"We weeded out folks that
weren't committed to the kids and families," he said, referring to social workers who quit or were dismissed.
A consulting group that CFSA hired last year praised the agency's performance in the past few months and urged it not to backslide.
The "abatement of the crisis should not mean a return to business as usual," said the report issued by the Public Catalyst Group, which includes Kevin Ryan, who is credited with helping to reform New Jersey's state child welfare system when he was its commissioner.
The focus on breaking the backlog turned out to be a positive model for the agency, bringing the staff together and concentrating on outcome, rather than process, the consultants said.
Keeping that kind of focus and hiring a permanent director could help the agency improve more, the consultants wrote.