DC Mayor Seeks to Undermine Child Welfare Reforms, Advocates Charge

WASHINGTON, DC — The administration of District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty is attempting to undermine the authority of the independent monitor appointed by a federal court to oversee a long-running effort to reform the District’s dysfunctional child welfare system, according to a new brief filed last night by Children’s Rights.

Children’s Rights, which secured a court order in 1991 requiring the comprehensive reform of the system, filed the brief in response to the District’s motion last week seeking approval of a six-month action plan leading to the end of court oversight — despite the objections of the court monitor, whose approval of the plan is required by an earlier court order.

According to Children’s Rights’ brief (PDF), the District’s action plan fails to satisfy the requirements of earlier court orders mandating specific benchmarks for reform — and its motion to approve the plan not only lacks a viable legal rationale, but also paints a “disingenuous” picture of the current performance and capabilities of DC’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).

“Mayor Fenty has allowed the District’s child welfare system to spiral out of control on his watch, utterly failing to exercise the leadership necessary to fix its problems and maintain a system that can adequately protect the thousands of children in the District whose safety and well-being depend on it,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “Now, rather than taking the steps necessary to satisfy the federal court order requiring him to reform the system, he is engaging in a deeply disingenuous attempt to simply do away with the court order itself.”

The new filing by Children’s Rights attacks the District’s plan for exiting court oversight and its motion for approval on multiple fronts, charging that:

  • The District’s action plan is inadequate, failing to include the concrete and measurable steps and benchmarks required under the orders of the federal court. The District’s plan promises to find permanent homes for only 18 children in foster care over the next six months, and includes no targets for reducing the number of times children are bounced from one foster home to another; no targets for providing mental health and other services to meet the urgent needs of children in foster care; inadequate standards for providing health and dental services to foster children; and no time frame for hiring a permanent CFSA director or filling other critical positions.
  • The District’s motion violates an October 8 court order and seeks to undermine the authority of the independent monitor appointed by the court to oversee reforms. The October order requires that the District’s reform plan meet the approval of the monitor; in a January 26 letter to the court, the monitor wrote that the District’s plan was “not acceptable,” and that she was “troubled by the District’s decision to ignore the court’s requirement… and the implications of this action for moving forward constructively.”
  • The District presents a “disingenuous interpretation” of a December report by external consultants appointed by the court to assist the District in its reform efforts. That report by the Public Catalyst Group, composed of the leadership team responsible for advancing major child welfare reforms in New Jersey, called for the development of a six-month plan as a bridge to a longer-term proposal while CFSA gets the issue of permanent leadership resolved. The District’s motion cites PCG’s recommendation regarding the six-month plan while glossing over its call for it to be followed by a longer-term plan.

Children’s Rights filed the class action known as LaShawn A. v. Fenty in 1989 on behalf of the more than 2,500 abused and neglected children dependent on the District’s child welfare system for protection and care. Following a 1991 trial on the merits and a finding by the court that the 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 the 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. Although CFSA initially made improvements, the District remained in violation of the court-ordered reform plan.

In recent years, the advances previously achieved by CFSA deteriorated, and CFSA’s overall performance declined sharply, prompting Children’s Rights to file a motion for a finding of contempt against the District in July of 2008. Subsequent negotiations produced a new court order in October 2008 requiring the District to work with external consultants to stabilize the failing system and develop a plan for meeting the remaining requirements of the LaShawn A. court order.

The full text of the new brief filed by Children’s Rights — and a complete collection of documents related to LaShawn A. v. Fenty — are available at www.childrensrights.org/dc.