D.C. Makes Headway on Several Longstanding Challenges to Child Welfare Reform

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) — While the District of Columbia is making some progress in reforming its long-troubled child welfare system, it is still falling short in a number of critical areas, according to a progress report released today by an independent court monitor.

The report, an update on court-ordered reforms that were spurred by the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, covers the second half of 2011. During that period, the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) made progress, most notably on the following measures:

  • Training new social workers. Standards required that 90 percent of newly hired direct service staff receive 80 hours of pre-service training. The monitor reports that 94 percent of staff completed that training during the period under review.
  • Providing timely access to health care services. CFSA previously achieved this standard and continued to improve upon it. The data revealed that in 99 percent of cases, children received timely access to quality health care services.
  • Finalizing adoptions more quickly. CFSA completed adoptions for 64 percent of children who were placed in an approved adoptive home within the last 12 months, compared to 42 percent during the first half of the year.

“It is heartening that District officials have made strides on some of the longstanding challenges that have haunted their foster care system,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, Executive Director of Children’s Rights. “We hope leaders at the Child and Family Services Agency continue to tackle other problems that still plague child welfare in D.C.

According to the report, CFSA missed the mark when it came to investigating child abuse and neglect. During the period under review, only 53 percent of the completed investigations met the performance standards — substantially lower than the 80 percent requirement. According to the report, for example, workers did not always contact or interview all necessary sources for information-gathering.

Improving the quality of investigations is a major focus of the agency’s 2012 Strategy Plan. The framework was initiated and submitted by new CFSA Director Brenda Donald, who took office on January 3 and was formally appointed on April 17. According to the monitor’s review, the new Strategy Plan outlines reasonable actions and timelines to achieve the court-ordered reforms.

“Throughout 2011, the absence of stable leadership further stalled reform efforts at the agency,” said Lowry. “The new CFSA director has been in place for six months, and we think it’s time to start expecting concrete results from her leadership.”

The monitor noted the urgent need to find permanent homes for “long-stayers,” especially for those in care for 25 months or longer. Only 28 percent of children in this group were adopted or safely reunited with their families during the period — far from the 40 percent requirement. The report also says that foster youth who haven’t been placed in traditional foster homes, mainly those between the ages of 18 and 20, tend to experience a pattern of unstable placements.

Today’s report was issued by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the independent monitor appointed by the federal court to track reforms required by LaShawn A. v. Gray, the federal class action lawsuit brought by Children’s Rights on behalf of thousands of children dependent on the District’s child welfare system.

In April 2010, the District’s attempt to be released from federal court oversight was rejected, and the District and then-Mayor Adrian Fenty were held in civil contempt of court. CFSA was ordered to not only fully implement the reforms outlined by the consent decree, but also to allocate significant new funds to support youth who have aged out of foster care.

Children’s Rights filed the LaShawn A. case in 1989. Following a 1991 trial on the merits and a finding by the court that the District’s child welfare system violated applicable law, a court-enforceable reform plan was negotiated between Children’s Rights and defendants and approved by the court in 1993. In the years that followed, the District made only minimal progress toward achieving court-mandated reforms, prompting the court to impose the extreme remedy of a federal takeover of the system’s management in 1995.

The District regained control of the beleaguered agency in 2000, after establishing the cabinet-level Child and Family Services Agency and committing to major reform. CFSA initially made some improvements, but then began to deteriorate, and 10 years later the District remains in violation of the court-ordered reform plan.

The full text of today’s report and a complete collection of materials related to the LaShawn A. reform class action are available at www.childrensrights.org/dc. For more information about Children’s Rights ongoing campaign to reform the D.C. child welfare system, please visit www.childrensrights.org/reform-campaigns/legal-cases/district-of-columbia/.