District of Columbia Falls Short on Investigating Child Maltreatment Allegations, Report Finds

While Reform Effort Shows Progress, Some Findings ‘Should Be of Great Concern’ to Child Welfare Officials, Says Children’s Rights

(New York)–The District of Columbia’s Children and Family Services Agency (CFSA) has struggled to conduct quality investigations into alleged child abuse and neglect and has fallen short of meeting other court-ordered mandates, according to the latest report from independent monitors tracking the status of the District’s child welfare reform. A status conference to discuss report findings will be held Monday, July 15th at 10:00 a.m., at the Federal Courthouse, 333 Constitution Avenue, NW.

The progress report, covering July-December 2012, reviews the court-ordered reforms spurred by LaShawn A. v. Gray, the federal class-action lawsuit brought by national advocacy organization Children’s Rights. The report, issued by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, is the second since Brenda Donald became CFSA director 18 months ago.

During the review period, Washington, D.C. reached four mandated standards for the first time. CFSA increased efforts to identify and locate known relatives in situations when children had to be removed from their homes, and offered pre-removal “Family Team Meetings” to help make relative placement more successful. The agency also facilitated more visits between siblings who were placed in separate homes, and provided the minimum 15 hours of training to new foster parents.

However, serious concerns remain. Caseloads for investigative social workers continued to be excessive, which, the monitors noted, almost certainly has had “a direct impact” on aspects of their work. Only 62 percent of abuse and neglect investigations were found to be of acceptable quality, well short of the 80 percent benchmark. Workers initiated investigations rapidly enough only 75 percent of the time, rather than the required 95 percent. And for the last two monitoring periods, the number of maltreatment investigations to be completed on time has steadily declined.

“Quick, thorough and effective investigations into alleged maltreatment are one of the most recognizable hallmarks of a well functioning child welfare system,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director for Children’s Rights. “Improving these investigations should be a top priority for CFSA leaders, who have expressed a desire to get the District’s reform effort back on track.”

The monitoring report raised other issues. CFSA has failed to find enough permanent homes, through reunification, adoption or legal guardianship, for children who have been in foster care for more than 12 months. Forty-five percent of children who had been in care between 12 and 25 months were to have permanent homes by Sept. 30, 2012, but only 28 percent received them; a mere 19 percent of those in care for more than 25 months had permanent homes, rather than the mandated 40 percent.

Children’s Rights also expressed concern about the high number of children who had already experienced four or more placements and had been moved to a temporary placement within the last 12 months. This figure spiked in early 2012, from 133 children to 472–and while the number has declined during the most recent monitoring period, the current figure of 411 is “problematic,” according to the monitors.

Other important measures have been on the decline. Fewer children are receiving full medical and dental exams within 30 days of entering foster care, and fewer foster youth age 18 and over have plans to prepare them for adulthood. All of this comes at a time when CFSA is changing its practices to ensure that smaller numbers of children enter custody in the first place. According to the report, “The number of children in care has declined 29 percent since 2010 and has continued to decline during this six month monitoring period, from 1,601 children on July 31, 2012 to 1,430 on December 31, 2012.”

“It seems that, with fewer children in care, it would be easier for CFSA to meet all of their needs, yet this clearly is not the case,” said Lowry. “This is the time to redouble efforts to make sure no vulnerable children are falling through the cracks, including those who don’t enter foster care. While plans to keep children with their birth families are critical, they can leave kids at risk unless implemented with adequate services and oversight.”

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 reform, 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.

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/reform-campaigns/legal-cases/district-of-columbia/.