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D.C. Still Struggling to Make Improvements to Foster Care, Needs Stable Leadership Now

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The District of Columbia is not making significant progress getting its long-struggling child welfare reform effort back on track — in large part due to the absence of permanent, stable leadership — according to a new independent monitoring report on the court-ordered reform effort spurred by the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights.

According to today’s report (PDF), the monitor has expressed serious concerns about a number of areas the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) has failed to show any meaningful improvement, and in some cases, has even begun to backslide. Among the most critical of these areas include slow progress improving outcomes for youth aging out of the child welfare system and the District’s poor efforts to engage relatives as potential homes for children in care.

Furthermore, the monitor concluded that “CFSA’s overall performance is still not achieving the outcomes expected by the Court’s Order, the community or its own standards for practice.” The report notes serious concerns about the lack of a permanent director for CFSA, which has been operating under the leadership of an interim director since May 2011.

“Unfortunately the District’s tepid performance over the last six months is not that surprising, given that CFSA is still without a permanent director,” said Sara Bartosz, senior staff attorney for Children’s Rights. “We are hopeful that Mayor Vince Gray will appoint a permanent CFSA director very soon to tackle these serious and persistent problems.”

Despite the overwhelming challenges that still lie ahead for District officials, the monitor’s report did note some amount of headway improving areas such as providing critical in-home services for more children and families, assessing the health of children before they enter foster care, and better collaborating with community-based programs to connect vulnerable families and teens with much-needed support.

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.