WASHINGTON, DC — Under the continued threat of contempt proceedings for violating the terms of a longstanding order to reform its dysfunctional child welfare system — and the possibility of a second federal court takeover of the system — the District of Columbia has agreed to contract external child welfare experts to develop and execute an emergency plan for swiftly reducing its dangerous backlog of child abuse and neglect investigations, finding permanent homes for children trapped in custody, stabilizing its badly weakened workforce, and addressing other persistent problems that have left thousands of children dependent on the agency at risk of serious harm.
A stipulated court order, submitted to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia today by the District and the national advocacy organization Children’s Rights, temporarily adjourns the motion for contempt brought by Children’s Rights against D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) officials in July 2008 — but leaves open the option of restarting contempt proceedings at any time if CFSA fails to make adequate progress.
Under the terms of the new order, CFSA must work with teams of child welfare consultants to reduce its backlog of more than 1,000 overdue abuse and neglect investigations to 100 by the end of the year, move dozens of children languishing in CFSA custody toward placement in permanent homes, recruit a permanent CFSA director, and fill vacancies throughout the agency’s workforce. The agency’s efforts to comply with the order will be reported on every month by an independent monitor.
“With this agreement, the District has finally recognized its desperate need for help in putting its child welfare system back on track so that more children do not face the grave consequences that too many have already suffered,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Unfortunately, the District’s recent history of allowing the system to deteriorate to this point does not inspire great confidence, and so we have reserved the right to return to court immediately on our open contempt motion if they cannot deliver on even the short-term commitments they have made.”
Under the new order, the District must contract the Public Catalyst Group — the leadership team that was responsible for advancing a major child welfare reform effort in New Jersey — to undertake an assessment of what must be done to bring CFSA into compliance with the original court order secured by Children’s Rights in the federal class action known as LaShawn A. v. Fenty. By January 15, 2009, the District must submit an action plan for 2009 detailing strategies and benchmarks for meeting the requirements of the LaShawn A. court order.
At the same time, the District must also:
- Reduce CFSA’s backlog of child abuse and neglect investigations open longer than 30 days (as of October 1) to 600 by November 15, 2008, and 100 by December 31, 2008 — and eliminate the backlog thereafter except in cases where there is documented good cause for keeping investigations open longer than 30 days, as verified by the independent monitor. CFSA must also fully implement and train its workers on a new child protective services hotline by December 31, 2008.
- Move dozens of children languishing in CFSA custody toward placement in permanent homes. The District must contract additional external consultants to lead impact teams in reviewing the status of 60 children who lack a plan for placement for legal, permanent families and 40 children whose permanency goal has been designated as adoption. The impact teams will assess barriers to permanency and recommend next actions for at least 30 of the children lacking plans for placement with permanent families. By November 15, 2008, CFSAmust contract a private agency with proven effectiveness in adoption practice to provide adoption services for at least 25 of the children with a permanency goal of adoption and without adoptive homes.
- Recruit 90 new placements for children by December 31, 2008, to meet longstanding placement needs.
- Recruit a permanent CFSA director and a qualified leadership team. The Public Catalyst Group will assist the mayor in recruiting the director, who will report directly to the mayor, and the independent monitor and plaintiffs’ counsel will be involved in the selection process.
- Reduce vacancies in case-carrying social worker positions from 58 to 35 by December 31, 2008.
The independent monitor who has been tracking CFSA’s compliance with the requirements of the LaShawn A. court order will issue reports on the agency’s compliance with the requirements of the new court order on November 1 and December 1, 2008, and January 15, 2009.
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 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 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.
The full text of the stipulated order and more information on Children’s Rights’ campaign to reform the D.C. child welfare system can be found at www.childrensrights.org.
MEDIA CONTACTS: Chris Iseli or Brooks Halliday // 212.683.2210