Federal Court Holds DC Mayor Fenty in Contempt for Child Welfare Failings; District Must Fully Implement Reforms

WASHINGTON, DC — The federal judge presiding over a long-running Children’s Rights class action seeking the reform of the Washington, DC, child welfare system today handed down a ruling that holds the District and its mayor, Adrian Fenty, in civil contempt for failing to comply with the requirements of federal court orders mandating widespread improvements in care and protection for abused and neglected children — and denies motions by the District seeking the end of court oversight.

Today’s ruling (PDF) resolves more than a year and a half of legal wrangling during which Children’s Rights asserted that the District continues to fall short of court-enforceable benchmarks for reform — including provisions requiringD.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) to reduce the number of times children in foster care are bounced from one foster home to another, improve visitation between children and parents slated for reunification, and reduce the long periods of time children eligible for adoption wait for adoptive homes.

District officials claimed that they had complied with the court order sufficiently to be released from court oversight;U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, in today’s ruling, disagreed.

“Although the District’s child welfare system has improved drastically from the dismal state it was once in, the defendants have yet to deliver a fully satisfactory child welfare system,” wrote Hogan in the 45-page opinion. “While the consent decree is not a permanent intervention, supervision must persist until the defendants demonstrate that the District reliably satisfies its responsibilities.”

The ruling holds the District in civil contempt for failing to implement a satisfactory annual strategy plan approved by the independent monitor appointed by the court to monitor the reform effort. The court also specifically holds Mayor Fenty in civil contempt for failing to consult with the monitor and Children’s Rights before appointing a new director of the CFSA, a stipulation that was explicitly agreed upon by all parties in 2008. The court will schedule a hearing at which it can impose remedies or sanctions.

Additionally, the ruling denies the city’s attempts to terminate the consent decree, and the federal court’s oversight, within one year. Judge Hogan describes the city’s actions as “unacceptable,” and notes that the “defendants have not illustrated any [measures to buttress reform], at least not in a manner that inspires enough confidence to support a conclusion that the agency’s progress is ‘durable and self-sustaining,’” as the District has previously argued.

“Today’s ruling affirms what we have been saying since we first went to court to get these reforms back on track in July 2008,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “It is time for Mayor Fenty to stop trying to find a way out of court oversight and commit himself and the District unequivocally to fixing persistent problems and maintaining a child welfare system that truly protects the thousands of abused and neglected kids who depend on it.”

Children’s Rights filed the class action known as LaShawn A v. Fenty 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 in 1993 and approved by the court. In the years that followed, the District only made minimal progress toward achieving court-mandated reforms, prompting the court to impose the unprecedented 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 began to deteriorate and, 10 years later, the District remains in violation of the court-ordered reform plan.

Children’s Rights filed a motion for contempt in July 2008 that resulted in a new plan to address serious problems atCFSA – but renewed its motion in January 2009 after District officials asked the judge to approve a six-month plan that had been rejected by the independent court monitor. The motion charged the administration with impeding the implementation of court-mandated reforms and placing the District’s desire to escape court oversight ahead of the safety and well-being of the city’s abused and neglected children.

The full text of the court’s decision and a complete collection of materials related to the LaShawn A. reform class action are available at www.childrensrights.org/dc.