WASHINGTON, DC — Charging the administration of District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty with impeding the implementation of court-ordered reforms to the District’s dysfunctional child welfare system — and placing the administration’s desire to exit court oversight ahead of the safety and well-being of DC’s abused and neglected children — Children’s Rights renewed a motion late yesterday asking a federal judge to hold the District in contempt of court.
The motion came just days after the District asked the judge presiding over the reform class action known as LaShawn A. v. Fenty to approve a six-month plan leading to the end of court oversight despite the objections of the independent monitor appointed by the court to evaluate the reform effort, who has deemed the plan unacceptable.
Under the terms of court orders secured by Children’s Rights in the LaShawn A. class action, filed on behalf of all of the abused and neglected children dependent on the DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) for protection and care, the District is obligated to develop an acceptable annual plan for attaining all of the benchmarks for reform and outcomes for children and families mandated by the federal court’s 1991 judgment in the case.
In July 2008, citing the grave risk faced by children as a result of the District’s continued failure to meet the requirements of the LaShawn A. court orders, Children’s Rights filed for contempt. Subsequent negotiations resulted in a new court order mandating the implementation of an emergency plan to address immediate problems and — yet again — the development of a longer-term plan for reaching full compliance with the prior court orders in the case. Children’s Rights’ renewal of the earlier motion for contempt contends that the District’s new plan is unacceptable because it was not approved by the court monitor as required — and would fail to bring CFSA into compliance even if implemented successfully.
“Mayor Fenty and his administration are simply refusing to make a commitment to repair the District’s failing child welfare system and provide the protection and care that the city’s abused and neglected kids deserve and desperately need,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “It is difficult to imagine a clearer expression of contempt for the federal court orders requiring the District to maintain an adequate child welfare system than this latest attempt to shrug off court oversight by claiming a return from disaster as meaningful reform.”
The renewed motion contends not only that the new six-month plan proposed by the District fails to outline concrete steps and benchmarks necessary to meet all of the requirements of the earlier court orders in the LaShawn case, but also that the benchmarks it does propose are “desperately inadequate” to the task of meeting the needs for children dependent on the DC child welfare system. The motion cites several measures — including those related to health screenings for children in foster care — on which the District has proposed standards that are lower than CFSA’s current level of performance. On several others — including targets for reducing the number of different homes in which foster children are placed and increasing the number of placements available in the District — the District has simply proposed no benchmarks at all.
The motion also cites a long list of measures on which CFSA remains far out of compliance with the requirements of prior LaShawn A. court orders, including:
- Placement stability for children in foster care. CFSA is required to ensure that at least 50 percent of children who have been in out-of-home care for two years or more experience two or fewer foster care placements. According to an April 2008 report by the court-appointed monitor, the agency met that requirement for only 37 percent of these children. By November 2008, that number had slid to just 32 percent.
- Family and caseworker visitation. As of November 2008, CFSA was able to ensure important weekly visits between children and parents slated for reunification in only 36 percent of cases reviewed by the court-appointed monitor. Twice-monthly sibling visits were taking place in only 56 percent of the cases in which they were required, and twice-monthly visits between caseworkers and the parents of children slated for reunification took place in just 36 percent of the cases.
- Timeliness of adoptions. The LaShawn A. court orders requires CFSA to place children in pre-adoptive homes within nine months of the decision to designate adoption as their permanency goal. CFSA’s compliance with this measure was only 53 percent as of April 2008 — and had plummeted to 26 percent by November 2008. Additionally, CFSA is required to make all reasonable efforts to ensure that children officially slated for adoption have their adoptions finalized within 12 months of their placement in approved adoptive homes. CFSA’s performance on this measure was a dismal 10 percent in April 2008.
“The Fenty Administration has claimed that Children’s Rights has never been satisfied with the District’s performance, and that is true because its performance has never been satisfactory,” said Lowry. “What is truly astonishing is that Mayor Fenty would allow himself to be satisfied with a child welfare system that consistently performs so poorly, and that continues to leave so many of the District’s children and families without services and programs vital to their health and well-being.”
Children’s Rights filed the LaShawn A. class action 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 made only 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 nine years later, the District remains in violation of the court-ordered reform plan.
The full text of the renewed motion, and a complete collection of materials related to the LaShawn A. reform class action, are available at www.childrensrights.org/dc.