Children’s Rights Moves to Hold District of Columbia in Contempt of Court

WASHINGTON, DC — Citing the ongoing failure of the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) to meet the performance standards of a court-ordered reform plan in the federal class action brought on behalf of both the approximately 2,500 children in CFSA custody and thousands more reported for abuse or neglect, national advocacy group Children’s Rights today filed a motion of contempt against the Mayor of the District of Columbia.

In a motion filed with Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, attorneys for the plaintiff children in the lawsuit, known as LaShawn v. Fenty, assert that the District has failed to comply with court-ordered requirements related to child protective services and the delivery of foster care, adoptive and health services to children, and note a marked decline in CFSA performance during recent years. Because CFSA has failed to take necessary remedial action over an extended period of time, despite knowing of the problems, Children’s Rights is asking the court to find the District in contempt.

“The chronic failures of this agency to do its job — to timely and completely investigate reports of abuse or neglect of children and to protect and properly care for children once they enter state custody — are the result of deteriorating management and lack of oversight starting at the highest level,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “A federal court order, numerous child fatalities and resulting public scrutiny have not compelled the District to make the necessary changes; a contempt motion is the only recourse left for the children whom CFSAis required to protect.”

The contempt motion highlights several ongoing failures at CFSA, including:

  • A dangerous backlog of open child abuse and neglect investigations. The District is required by the court-ordered reform plan to complete all investigations of alleged abuse and neglect within 30 days. As of April 2008, the court-appointed monitor in the case found CFSA meeting that requirement in only 17 percent of cases. As of July 7, CFSA had a backlog of 1,690 investigations that had been open for more than 30 days. That’s up from a low of 89 such cases just a few years ago.
  • CFSA is failing to move children quickly into permanent homes. The District is required to place every child in an approved adoptive placement within nine months of assigning the goal of adoption. In November of 2007, the court monitor found CFSA meeting this requirement in only 30 percent of cases. That same year, the number of adoptions completed dropped to 132, from 196 in 2006.
  • CFSA too frequently moves children between temporary foster homes. The reform plan mandates that half of all children who have been in CFSA custody for 24 months or longer experience two or fewer foster care placements. In April, the monitor found CFSA meeting this requirement for only 37 percent of children, down from forty percent in November of 2007.
  • CFSA is failing to provide children with essential health care services. The District is required to provide all children with medical and dental examinations within 30 days of their entry into foster care. In November of 2007, the monitor found only 59 percent of children had received medical screenings and fewer than 10 percent of children had received dental screenings during the required timeframe.
  • CFSA is failing to ensure basic training of frontline caseworkers. The District is required to ensure that foster care caseworkers, both city-employed and privately employed, receive at least 80 hours of pre-service training before carrying active cases. In November of 2007, the monitor found CFSA met this requirement for only 52 percent of new workers.
  • CFSA is failing to make required contact with children in their foster care placements. For all children experiencing a new foster care placement, the District is required to ensure weekly social worker visits within the first 30 days and twice monthly thereafter. As of April 2008, CFSA made only 65 percent of required visits.

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 federal law, a court-enforceable reform plan was negotiated between Children’s Rights and defendants in 1993. 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 the District remained in violation of the court-ordered reform plan. Today, the agency’s steadily declining performance threatens to undo what progress has been made.

Defendants in the case now have the opportunity to file a response to the contempt action, at which point the court will determine next steps. Should Judge Hogan make a finding of contempt, the court together with the parties will then consider the appropriate remedy to correct the persisting problems.

Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210