Another child, known to police and CPS, dead of abuse in DC

Image: Newsbreak.com

His name was Gabriel Eason. His story is achingly familiar. A young child dead at the hands of those who should have been caring for him in the District of Columbia. A family that was investigated by both police and child protective services, who were apparently unable to confirm the multiple incidences of past abuse. An agency more concerned about parents’ rights than children’s safety and hiding behind confidentiality laws to protect itself.

On October 9, 2019, an unnamed childcare center called the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) child abuse hotline to report that two-year-old Gabriel Easton had an unexplained injury, according an affidavit provided to DC Superior Court by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and summarized in a Washington Post article. On October 16, 2019 CFSA and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) investigators went to the home of Ta’Jeanna Eason and Antonio Turner in Northeast Washington to initiate an investigation. By March 2020, detectives had determined that there was not enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegation of abuse and closed the case. Two weeks later, police called to the home found EMT’s unsuccessfully trying to revive two-year-old Gabriel.

An autopsy showed old and new injuries to Gabriel’s body, including swelling of the head and brain, abrasions and contusions to the head and torso; lacerations of the kidney and liver; injuries to the. heart and vena cava; cuts on the face and neck; blunt trauma to the genitals; and 36 rib fractures, six of which were healing and believed to have happened in an earlier incident. The medical examiner reported that Gabriel appeared to have been punched, kicked, slapped, or hit with an object on his right flank and punched or hit in the chest. She concluded that the main cause of death was significant head and abdominal trauma.

Both of Gabriel’s siblings had experienced physical trauma. The three-year-old was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit with life-threatening injuries including a fractured rib and a lacerated liver. There was evidence of old and new injuries. A child abuse pediatrician determined the injuries were due to blunt force trauma equivalent to being involved in a multiple-vehicle accident or falling from a twenty-story building. The liver lacerations were inflicted within two days of the child’s presentation at the hospital. The 11-year-old was found with a healing black eye and older injuries. Both surviving boys have been placed in foster care.

Gabriel’s older brother, age 11, told police that he was required to clean the house, do the laundry, and change his siblings’ diapers at night while the adults slept. If a diaper was wet in the morning he would be beaten. He disclosed that Turner had previously hit him in the eye, on the chest, and with a belt. He reported that his mother hit him with her hands, her fists, and a belt. The 11-year-old stated his mother did not recognize that “the marks and bruising rampage” started when Turner arrived, and that Turner would beat his younger brothers when his mother was not around or not in a position to hear the abuse. When she noticed the injuries, she blamed her oldest son instead.

Turner admitted to police he routinely used physical force to punish his partner’s children. He reported punching the 11-year-old in the face to “teach him a lesson.” He also admitted that he beat the boy up once, giving him a “teenager whooping.” He reported that he “went to his body, like my father did me” during that incident. Turner also said that he hit the 11-year-old in the head and kicked him in the body when he found the boys playing with one of his metal weights the day before Gabriel’s death.

Eason, the boys’ mother, repeatedly blamed the 11-year-old for the injuries to Gabriel, telling the police on the murder scene that he was evil. Eason later told police that she started to notice bruises on Gabriel after she met Turner, but later concluded they were inflicted by the 11-year-old. But the child abuse pediatrician who examined and treated the three-year-old stated that neither his injuries nor Gabriel’s could have been caused by a child weighing 80 pounds.

The police concluded that Eason and Turner “collectively and chronically inflicted injury upon the three children who lived with them, including two-year-old [Gabriel], who died at their hands. They did this this both by abusing the children and failing to obtain medical attention for the injuries.” Police charged both defendants with First Degree Cruelty to Children and Felony Murder.

There is a system to protect children like Gabriel and his brothers. It starts with the requirement that professionals who work with children report all suspected abuse to CFSA’s hotline. It appears that the staff of Gabriel’s day care center did not fulfill their mandatory reporting duties as established by District law, failing to report four suspicious injuries to Gabriel. On May 22, 2019, a teacher saw Gabriel with a black eye. When asked the cause of the injury, Eason told the teacher a brother hit him with a boxing glove. The same teacher found injuries on Gabriel’s back in June. The mother said she did not know what caused the marks. In August 2019, Gabriel showed up with another black eye. The center director told police she did not report the August incident because Eason had an explanation for the injury (Gabriel had fallen and hit his eye on a toy) and produced a doctor’s note indicating Gabriel had been cleared to return to day care. (Receiving medical clearance from a doctor to return to day care should not be a reason not to report suspected abuse.) A staff member saw bruises on Gabriel’s face and ears on October 7, 2019. Eason wrote and signed a note saying the injuries came from playing roughly with siblings. On October 9, Gabriel had bruises on his ears, which his mother could not explain. That is when the center finally called the CFSA hotline. It should not have taken five suspicious injuries before a report was made. It is not clear whether the staff were sufficiently trained in mandatory reporting, especially the principle that all suspected abuse must be reported.

Doctors are also mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect. We know that Gabriel received a doctor’s note clearing him to return to school after his black eye in August, 2019. MPD found that Eason had taken Gabriel to Prince George’s County Hospital on August 30. He was diagnosed with a black eye and eye abrasions. According to notes from the medical record, Eason claimed she was on her computer while the “father” was watching the kids. At some point Gabriel was playing in the closet and Turner said he had to get Gabriel out because the doors were off the track. Gabriel fell asleep on the couch and woke up crying but Eason did not see an injury. Nevertheless, she gave him Benadryl because she thought he might be having an allergy attack. She claimed she did not see child abuse by the “father,” suggesting she was asked that question. She also declined a CT-scan because she did not want Gabriel sedated or exposed to radiation. Eason’s explanation of the injury seems incoherent and self-contradictory, and a mother’s response that she did not suspect abuse by her partner should be expected and not necessarily credited. Eason’s refusal of a CT scan might be unremarkable if the doctor did not recommend it–but we don’t have that information. If there were any concerns about Eason’s explanation or behavior, the hospital should have made a report to the CFSA hotline just to be safe, but we do not know if this happened.

The next known contact with medical personnel occurred on January 28, 2020, when Turner called 911 and Gabriel was taken to Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC) with a severe laceration to his forehead. Turner claimed Gabriel fell off the bed while the 11-year-old was watching him, at Turner’s request. Doctors diagnosed Gabriel with a “complex” seven-centimeter laceration with concern for facial nerve laceration, as well as a concussion. To a layperson like this author, such a laceration sounds quite unusual from falling off a bed unless Gabriel somehow fell onto a sharp object, which would raise serious concerns about the home’s safety. Moreover, Turner’s statement that he had asked an 11-year-old to “watch” a two-year-old should have been concerning. We do not know if the emergency room doctor had good reason to call the hotline or if in fact a call was made. We can only speculate about whether a call could have saved Gabriel.

MPD also has a role in protecting children, but its duty is primarily to investigate crimes, arrest offenders, and charge them in court. There is no point in charging people when the charges will not hold up in court. Therefore, it is not clear that MPD made any errors in investigating the October report from the day care center. It is understandable that MPD did not find evidence of abuse that could support a criminal charge. The injury that was actually investigated did not appear serious and did not require medical attention. Eason lied about her own use of corporal punishment and the 11-year-old, undoubtedly terrified to tell the truth, reported that his mother did not use physical discipline. More importantly, there is nothing about Turner in the summary of MPD’s first investigation; it is not clear whether whether MPD or the child care staff knew of Turner’s existence. Whether MPD should have uncovered his presence is a question we cannot answer at the moment.

The responsibility to assess the validity of an abuse allegation and ensure safety for the child is with CFSA, not MPD. Rather than investigating allegations to determine whether charges should be presented in court, CFSA decides whether or not to confirm, or “substantiate” allegations. Investigators must substantiate an allegation when it is “supported by credible evidence and is not against the weight of the evidence.” Therefore, CFSA may substantiate an abuse allegation when MPD does not find evidence to make criminal charges. The call from Gabriel’s childcare went to CFSA and it is not clear how MPD got involved. Perhaps CFSA asked MPD to accompany the investigator on the initial visit to the home, but we have no information what CFSA itself did. The only mention of CFSA action in the MPD complaint is that “On October 18, 2019, CFSA filed a report with MPD about the October 9, 2019 incident.” CFSA’s Communications Director told the Post she could not comment on CFSA’s interactions with the family, citing local and national confidentiality laws. So we don’t know if CFSA delegated the entire investigation to MPD, which would be unusual, or if CFSA conducted its own investigation. If CFSA did investigate, we do not know the quality, results, or findings of the investigation, or any further actions by the agency.

Not knowing these facts is unacceptable when a child is dead of abuse. The taxpayers pay the cost of maintaining an agency to investigate complaints of child maltreatment and make arrangements to ensure that the children are safe. We have a right to know if it did its job. If the problems are systemic, we need to fix them. If one or more individuals made errors, they need to be held accountable.

CFSA’s conduct in this case will be reviewed in by at least two bodies, but the results will not be available to the public. An internal CFSA fatality review committee will review the agency’s conduct to determine whether there were opportunities to save Gabriel. It will make a public report, but that report will not include details about the agency’s response to individual cases. The District’s Child Fatality Review Committee will review the case as well. I have served on this committee for over three years. Unfortunately, the committee will not have the opportunity to review Gabriel’s case until Eason and Turner have been sentenced or acquitted. When that day comes, we might have less than an hour to review the case, unless a longer time is allotted as it was on one occasion during my tenure when a high-profile case was being discussed. The document we read will not include the names of Gabriel and his family members, referring to him as “the decedent.” Undoubtedly, I’ll be able to identify Gabriel’s case from the description. But if I call him by his name instead of “the decedent,” as I have done in the past, I will be chastised and possibly punished for violating confidentiality. I will be able to read summaries of the family’s interaction with MPD, CFSA, and other agencies with which they had contact. Although I won’t see the full case files, I may get at least partial answers to my questions about how the case was handled. But I won’t be able to share what I learn with anybody outside the meeting even without including any names. If I do, I will be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. The panel may make recommendations, which will be shared in its annual report. But there will be no case study included in the report. Information about individual cases in these reports is statistical only.

This is not an acceptable state of affairs. As a first step, the law regarding the Child Fatality Review Committee should be changed to allow members to share information about how District agencies respond to reports of abuse and neglect. Secondly, the D.C. Council must require that all deaths from abuse or neglect, and all deaths of any child whose family has been the subject of an earlier child abuse report, be reviewed by experts. This review should be made public with names (such as those of the surviving brothers) redacted when necessary. This review could be done by a special multidisciplinary team staffed by the child welfare agency as in Washington State or by a neutral agency like Illinois’ Office of the Inspector General for DCFS or the Office of the Child Advocate in Rhode Island. I prefer the neutral agency so that the agency that failed the child is not involved in the review. That is why I support including child fatality review in the bailiwick of the proposed child protection ombudsperson under legislation that is currently being marked up.

In the absence of any information about CFSA’s response to the initial call from Gabriel’s child care center, we cannot know why Gabriel’s suffering was not discovered in time to save him. But I cannot help placing some responsibility on a mindset that values parents’ rights above child safety. This orientation is becoming even stronger, with a growing chorus of groups arguing that child welfare as we know it should be abolished. According to some of these organizations, like a new movement called upEND, removing a child from home is always traumatic and never recommended. (See my recent post for discussion of this movement.) I wonder what the folks at upEND would make of what the 11-year-old told the interviewers at the Child Advocacy Center after he was finally liberated from his hellish home. He told them that he felt safe in his foster home. In contrast, he said his own home felt like a “death trap.” Would they say he was traumatized by his removal and not by his home life? Would they say that Gabriel is better off dead than in foster care?

Gabriel’s case also supports the importance of childcare and school in protecting children. The police affidavit states that Gabriel and his three-year-old brother did not attend childcare for most of February and all of March. Ironically, this was not related to the closure of the childcare center in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, Turner told police that Eason was not able to get the children to the center because she was pregnant with his child–a baby that died shortly after birth. It is reasonable to wonder if Gabriel might have been saved had he been attending childcare in the days before his death. Perhaps another report would have been made and this time this house of horrors would have been seen for what it was. There has been much talk about how school closings due to Covid-19 mean that children are no longer seen by adults who might spot and report signs of abuse or neglect. While the pandemic did not apparently contribute to Gabriel’s death, the circumstances show the importance of of keeping childcare centers and schools open, especially for children at risk of maltreatment.

I searched the internet in vain for a photo of little Gabriel Eason. Perhaps nobody loved him enough to take a photo. There have been no vigils or demonstrations about his death. But for those who care about children, forgetting Gabriel is not possible. Let us remember him by holding accountable those who let him die, and learning why the system failed him so badly, so that such failure can be prevented in the future.

CFSA’s Internal Child Fatality Report leaves out more than half of dead children known to system

On September 10, 2020, the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) released its internal child fatality review report for 2019. This report raises many issues and concerns. Some relate to the scope and coverage of the report. Others concern the cause and manner of death, the existence of families with repeated CFSA involvement that nevertheless have a child death, the predominance of large families as a correlate of child deaths, and the suggestion that unrelated adults in the home may have perpetrated a child fatality.

Child fatality review is an important way for an agency to assess the quality of its work. CFSA states in the report that “the fatality review process is one of CFSA’s strategies for examining and strengthening child protective performance. It provides the Agency with specific information that helps to address areas in need of improvement and to identify any systemic factors that require citywide attention–all with the goal of reducing preventable child deaths.” But the goal of child fatality review should be broader than reducing child deaths. Child fatalities should be seen as the tip of the child welfare iceberg. For every child who dies, there may be many others who are left in abusive or neglectful homes with no monitoring or support.

There are two child fatality review reports issued in the District. The District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee (CFRC) is located in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. CFRC reviews all deaths regardless of cause of all District residents from birth through 18 years, as well as the deaths of youths aged 19 to 21 who were known to child welfare within four years of the fatal event or those known to intellectual and disability services or juvenile justice programs within two years of the fatal event. Each year CFRC reports on all the fatalities reviewed in that year, but these fatalities could have occurred in any previous year. In the most recent report, on 104 cases reviewed in 2018, the deaths reviewed were from 2014 through 2018.

CFSA’s internal child fatality review reports are based on information gathered by the CFSA’s Child Fatality Review (CFR) unit and recommendations developed by the agency’s Internal Child Fatality Committee (ICFR). These reports focus on a smaller subset of child fatalities–all known fatalities of children whose families were known to CFSA within five years of the child’s death. In the past, the report included all fatalities reviewed in each calendar year. As stated in last year’s internal fatality review report, which has been removed from the CFSA website: “Historically, every CFR annual report has also included review data outside of the calendar year, depending on when the CFR Unit received notification of a child’s death. For [Calendar Year] 2018, reviews included fatalities from years 2015 to 2018.” However, the new report, includes only those fatalities that occurred during 2019. This is only 13 of the 33 fatalities the Committee reviewed during 2019, as the agency explains in a footnote. The other 20 fatalities reviewed occurred in previous years and will therefore never be included in a CFSA child fatality report unless the previous practice of including deaths from previous years is reinstated.

Cause and Manner of Death

Of the 12 fatalities for which cause and manner were known, the causes were equally divided between maltreatment, natural causes, non-abuse homicides, and accidents.

  • The cause of death was abuse or neglect by a caregiver for three of the children who died in 2019, 25 percent of the 12 children whose cause of death was known. All of these children were under the age of three. For two of these children the cause of death was abuse by blunt force trauma. The other child died of fentanyl poisoning due to neglect.
  • Of the 12 children with a known cause of death, three (or 25 percent, died of natural causes. Two of these were children between one and five years old, while the third was a young adult over 18.
  • Non-abuse homicides accounted for 25 percent of the fatalities in CY 2019. All of the victims were males living in Ward 8. One was aged 11, another was 16, and the third was 20.
  • All three accidental deaths were infant fatalities and all involved unsafe sleeping arrangements.

Demographic Characteristics

The children who died disproportionately resided in Ward 8 (seven children), Ward 7 (four children), Ward 5 (one child), and Maryland (one child). All of the children who died were African-American. None of these facts are surprising since they reflect the demographics of CFSA’s clients. Most of the children were living at home at the time of the fatality, except two that were living with relatives. All of the children who died had siblings. Nine of the decedents (about 69 percent) had three or more siblings; seven (54 percent) of them had four or more siblings, and four had six or more siblings. Many of the siblings were half-siblings. Twelve of the 13 decedents had at least one-half sibling.

Source: CFSA, Child Fatalities: Statistics, Observations, and Recommendations, 2019, page 6.

CFSA History

Over three quarters of the decedent’s families (10 families) had an open case or investigation within five years of the fatality. The other three families had one or more screened-out referrals only.

  • Six families had four or more reports to CFSA within five years of the child fatality. Nine families had two or more reports.
  • Eight families had at least one CPS investigation; of these families, one had a total of 10 investigations, another had seven investigations and two had five investigations.
  • All of these investigated families had at least one substantiated allegation of abuse or neglect. Most substantiations were for neglect; the neglect categories with the most substantiations were inadequate supervision and caregiver incapacity. There were two substantiations for physical abuse and two for “mental abuse.”
  • Of the eight families that had a CPS investigation, Family Assessment, or case closed within five years of the fatality, the time between investigation or case closure and the fatality ranged from four to 13 months.
Source: CFSA, Child Fatalities: Statistics, Observations, and Recommendations, 2019, page 14. The frequency of CFSA involvement refers to the number of hotline reports received.

Four of the 13 decedents’ families (31 percent) were involved with CFSA at the time of the child’s death. All of these families had open Permanency (foster care) cases. According to additional information provided by the agency, one of these children, a three-year-old, was in foster care with a relative. Her death was classified as an abuse homicide due to blunt force injuries, but it was not known if the injuries were caused by the relative or another adult in the home. Another decedent, a 17-year-old male, had run away from foster care and been missing for 17 days when he was shot to death. The other two decedents were living at home at the time of their deaths: one was an accidental death (asphyxia due to unsafe sleep) and the other decedent’s manner of death was undetermined. According to additional information provided by the agency, in both of these cases the non-custodial parent lived in a different household and had an open permanency case for the decedent’s half-sibling.

CFSA’s Recommendations

CFSA’s Internal Child Fatality Review Committee (ICFR) makes recommendations based on the information it reviews; these recommendations are approved by the Agency Director. There were surprisingly few recommendations based on 2019’s child fatalities. One of them calls for the agency to “ensure that practitioners identify and evaluate all adults living (or potentially living) in the same home as a child in foster care.” CFSA’s Communications Director told Child Welfare Monitor DC that a three-year-old decedent in kinship care died of blunt force trauma that may have been inflicted by an adult that was living in the home. Based on the recommendation, we can assume that adult was not evaluated as part of the foster care licensing process. During my tenure as a social worker in foster care, foster parents (including kin caregivers) not informing their licensing agencies of adults living in the home was a common concern. Often this information is purposely kept from social workers because the adult (often a boyfriend) has a criminal or child abuse record that would prevent the home from being licensed. To address this problem, CFSA plans to have supervisors “continue to work with social workers to identify adults who live in or spend significant time in the home and ensure all adults are evaluated.”

Analysis

This report raises many issues and concerns. These include the exclusion of 20 cases from years prior to 2019, the many children who died of causes that might have been prevented by CFSA, the deaths of children in families with long histories of CFSA involvement, the large size of many decedents’ families, and the possible role of an uncleared adults in the home in a child fatality.

Scope and Coverage of Report: While the ICFR Committee reviewed 33 fatalities during 2019, the report covers only those 13 fatalities that actually occurred in 2019; all of the other 20 occurred in prior years, mostly 2017 and 2018. Unless CFSA returns to its earlier practice of including all fatalities reviewed in a calendar year in that year’s report, these 20 fatalities will never be covered in a future report. This is the first year the ICFR left out all deaths that did not occur in the same year as they were reviewed. Like the citywide Child Fatality Review Committee, until this year the ICFR reported on all of the fatalities it reviewed in a calendar year–not just the ones that occurred in the same year they were reviewed. Leaving out more than half of the fatalities of children known to CFSA in its annual fatality report every year deprives the public, policymakers and stakeholders of crucial information that, if acted upon, could help prevent fatalities and harm to children in the future.

Lack of Case Detail: The lack of detail on the individual cases is a major problem in making sense out of the information provided in this report. Statistical data on such a small number of cases is of limited utility, but knowing the history of CFSA involvement in each case would enable readers to pinpoint the opportunities that may have been missed to prevent the fatality and lessons for the future. The public should know such details, as long as personal information redacted. Some states, like Texas, Florida, and Washington are required to post fatality reviews for children who died of abuse or neglect following involvement with the child welfare agency, as described by Child Welfare Monitor. Detailed fatality case studies on child deaths with agency involvement (without identifying information) are provided in other jurisdictions by independent agencies like the Office of the Child Advocate in Rhode Island and Connecticut and the Inspector General for the child welfare agency. Legislation to establish an independent Ombudsperson for CFSA was introduced in 2019 by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. Such fatality reports were not included in her original legislation, which was never put to a vote, but could be added to the next version.

Cause of death and preventability: The cause and manner of death were known in 12 of the 13 cases and were distributed evenly between four categories–natural causes, accidents, abuse homicides, and non-abuse homicides. The deaths from natural causes were very likely not preventable by CFSA action. Deaths in the other three categories, however, could possibly been prevented if CFSA had responded differently to these families when they came to the agency’s attention. Clearly the fatalities from abuse or neglect raise the question of whether CFSA terminated its involvement without ensuring that the maltreatment that led to the initial allegation had ended. Accidental deaths can reflect neglect. For example, all of the accidental deaths in this report reflected unsafe sleep practices..

Preventability of non-abuse homicides: We don’t know the details on the tragic deaths of an 11-year-old, a 16-year-old and a 20-year-old of non-abuse homicide. Was the youngest victim (most likely an innocent bystander and possibly the case that appeared in media reports in June 2019) exposed to violence because of the lifestyles of the adults who were caring for him? Were the two older youth themselves involved in violence and criminal activities, as is the case for many young victims of violence? Three of the families were involved with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), suggesting that one child (perhaps not the decedent) in those families was involved in illegal activities. I spent five years working as a social worker in foster care and almost four years serving on the citywide Child Fatality Review Committee. In this work I have seen numerous examples of young people who became involved in crime and violence after growing up in families that were repeatedly involved in child welfare due to drug activity, domestic violence, mental illness, and abusive or neglectful parenting. Cases were opened and closed, and children were in and out of foster care, but none of these interventions resulted in any substantial change in parental behavior. Perhaps some of these tragic deaths could have been prevented if better, more intensive and long-lasting services had been provided to the parents, or if the children had been removed from these homes after their parents failed to take advantage of offered services.

Families with Repeated CFSA Involvement: It is clear from the extensive history of some of these families with CFSA that the agency is failing to identify some children who are in danger in their homes. Some investigations may fail to identify the family’s most severe problems; some cases may be opened for foster care or in-home services but may close before the parents succeed in changing their behaviors. CFSA requires a “4+ staffing” for all families that have four or more allegations with the last report occurring within the past 12 months. There was concern in previous years that families with child fatalities had more than four allegations but there was no documentation of a 4+ staffing. As a result, ICFR in 2018 recommended that the agency “make 4+ staffings more consistent,” a recommendation that was reported as “complete” in this year’s report. CFSA reports that five of the families with a child fatality in 2019 were eligible for a 4+ staffing. Of these families, four were documented as receiving such a staffing, but there was no explanatory documentation for the family that did not receive one. If the agency is indeed more consistently holding these meetings, it may be time to evaluate their effectiveness.

Unknown adults in a kinship home: Information provided by CFSA indicates that one of the abuse homicides was perpetrated in a kinship home and that it is not clear whether the perpetrator was the relative or another adult in the home. Evidence suggests that many abuse homicides are perpetrated by other adults living in the home, particularly nonparent partners, as described in Within Our Reach, the report of the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities.

Large families: There is considerable evidence that the deceased children tended to come from larger families. Not only did 70 percent of the decedents have three or more siblings but more than half of the decedents had four or more siblings. The average number of children in a family is only 1.9 in the United States. Large numbers as well as close spacing of children are correlated with more abuse and neglect. Many of these mothers started having children as teenagers. Often, the medical providers used by low-income women lack access to the more modern, effective modes of contraception such as Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARC’s) at all, or require a second visit to obtain these methods.

Recommendations

  1. Cover all fatalities reviewed: CFSA should return to its previous practice of covering all deaths of children known to CFSA within five years–not just those that took place in the year of review. This would probably at least double the number of cases included, providing a much larger basis for making conclusions.
  2. Provide detailed case studies by a neutral party: The public needs to have access to a detailed case study of each fatality in a family with which CFSA had recent involvement. Such a case study would include a chronology of agency involvement and a description of touchpoints where the agency could have done something different and perhaps averted the death. This is particularly important for legislators, who might want to take action to avert future deaths, and for members of the media, who are often the ones that make the public aware of gaping holes in our child safety net. Ideally, such an analysis would be performed by a neutral party, such as the child welfare ombudsman’s office that was proposed last year.
  3. Pay attention to those with repeated CFSA reports: CFSA should assess the nature of the 4+ staffings to determine whether they are having any impact on families with multiple allegations, whether the current guidance for such meetings needs to be changed, and whether other measures should be implemented to ensure that families with repeated allegations get more attention.
  4. Evaluate all adults in the home: The IFRC suggested that the agency “ensure that practitioners identify and evaluate all adults living (or potentially living) in the same home as a child in foster care.” To implement this recommendation, the report states that CFSA plans to have supervisors “continue to work with social workers to identify adults who live in or spend significant time in the home and ensure all adults are evaluated.” More specific guidance may be needed for supervisors and workers as to how to identify such adults.
  5. Increase access to effective birth control methods: The large size of many decedents’ families highlights the need for policies to increase access to modern, effective and long-acting birth control options for all women in the District. Some of the saddest moments in my life as a foster care social worker came from hearing that a mother struggling to get her existing children back from foster care was pregnant again. Clearly expanding access to family planning is in the bailiwick of the Department of Health (DOH) rather than CFSA. However, even in the absence of DOH initiatives, CFSA could collaborate with DOH to ensure that the parents involved in cases have access to effective contraception as soon as their cases are opened and are educated about the deleterious effects of close child spacing and large families, and that family planning is included in case plans.

Studying fatalities among children known to a child welfare agency is an important way to find out how well an agency does its job of protecting children and to suggest changes to protect children better in the  future. CFSA’s review of a limited number of child fatalities (probably less than half) among children known to CFSA in FY 2019 suggest that the agency could have done more to identify and protect some children in danger. And for every dead child, several more may be suffering from abuse and neglect that will poison their future. Leaving out over half of the children whose deaths were reviewed in 2019 just because they died in previous years is an unnecessary loss of information that could be crucial in saving lives in the future. And without a detailed study of each case, it is impossible for legislators and members of the public to evaluate whether CFSA did all that it could to prevent these deaths and protect the many other children in these homes.

This post was modified on October 15, 2020 to incorporate new information provided by CFSA on the families of decedents who had open permanency cases as well as to modify a statement regarding the scope and coverage of the report.

30-year old class action case wrapping up in DC

On August 7, 2020, the parties in a 31-year-old class action suit against the District of Columbia’s child welfare system, currently known as LaShawn vs. Bowser, agreed to a settlement in the longstanding case. The parties agreed that the agency had made sufficient progress to recommend a process and time schedule for closing the case. Judge Thomas Hogan preliminarily approved the settlement and set a hearing for June 1, 2021 to determine whether to grant final approval after receiving information regarding the agency’s compliance with its provisions.

In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit then called LaShawn A. vs. Barry, on behalf of the District’s abused and neglected children. The suit challenged nearly every aspect of the District’s child welfare system and sought comprehensive reform of the city’s child welfare agency, the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). After a trial in 1993, Judge Thomas Hogan concluded that the District’s child welfare system was “a shambles.” In 1994, he approved an extensive order requiring reform in every part of the child welfare system and appointing a court monitor, the Center for Law and Social Policy (CSSP) to oversee the agency’s remediation efforts.

In the years that followed, the original order was succeeded in turn by three different plans agreed upon by the parties to the suit and and setting forth the outcomes to be achieved by CFSA in order to exit the lawsuit. The most recent agreement, the Exit and Sustainability Plan (ESP), was approved by the court on October 31, 2019. It recognized that the agency had made progress in fixing the problems identified the lawsuit and removed 56 of the exit standards the agency had achieved, setting forth a reduced list of 24 outcomes to be achieved. The latest LaShawn progress report from CSSP, published in June 2020, described continued progress on some outcomes but indicated that others had not yet been achieved.

The Settlement Agreement contains a list of actions to be taken by the agency in order to exit the LaShawn lawsuit. These actions, which target the outcomes not yet achieved, include:

  1. CFSA will contract with a provider to develop a psychiatric residential treatment facility for children in foster care between the ages of eight to twelve.
  2. CFSA will license enough foster homes by December 31, 2020 “to have a 10 percent built-in surplus of foster care beds, thereby creating more matching choices and prompt and appropriate placement for all children in care.”
  3. CFSA will “ensure accessibility for clinical and therapeutic services” by maintaining four in-house behavioral therapists, a behavioral health clinical supervisor, and a psychiatric nurse practitioner; maintaining a contract with a Core Services Agency that will provide for the ability to serve “150 children and families” each year with “support and specialized therapeutic and crisis stabilization services.”
  4. CFSA will maintain its ongoing commitments outlined in the ESP regarding self-regulation and public reporting, including policy development and publication, continuous quality improvement, quality service reviews, and publishing an Annual Needs Assessment and Resource Development Plan.
  5. CFSA will maintain caseload standards embodied in the ESP.

The agreement also lays out the schedule and parameters for continuing monitoring, enforcement, and potential exit from the lawsuit. CSSP will provide a report on CFSA’s performance during calendar Year 2020 by March 31, 2021. A hearing will be scheduled for June 1, 2021 and the case will be dismissed in the event that there are no compliance concerns. The agreement will remain enforceable as a contract between the District and the plaintiffs for a period to be defined, with CSSP acting as an “Independent Verification Agent (IVA).” CFSA will prepare two semiannual public performance reports covering Calendar Year 2021 with the second report due by March 31, 2021. These reports will be “validated” by CSSP. The plaintiffs will have an opportunity to file an action for breach of the Settlement Agreement based on the public performance reports. In such a case, the parties will attempt to resolve the concerns through mediation by IVA and the agency will have up to 60 days to fix the problems before plaintiffs may file an enforcement action. In the absence of such an action, the Settlement Agreement will expire on the 181st day following CFSA’s final public performance report.

Analysis

CFSA’s performance in protecting children from abuse or neglect, caring for children in its custody, and helping families address the problems that put their children at risk still leaves much room for improvement. However, the egregious problems that led to the lawsuit and court supervision have been addressed to the satisfaction of the plaintiffs, as the new agreement indicates. The case could be kept open forever, with new benchmarks replacing those already achieved. But court oversight is an expensive way for dealing with systemic problems, using funds that could have been used for services to children to pay attorneys and evaluators instead. Moreover, it is a blunt instrument that relies on benchmarks that are measurable but not necessarily meaningful.

As a social worker in the District of Columbia’s child welfare system between 2010 and 2015, this writer found several of the provisions of the exit plan in force at the time to be more harmful than helpful to children in the system and the social workers trying to help them. I described some of these in a blog post in 2015 when these aggravations were fresh in my memory. One example was the standard requiring that 83 percent of youth in care must have two or fewer placements. Because of this standard, I was told that I could not move one of my clients whose foster parent provided no support and left him alone most of the time. At other times I was forced to waste precious time on unnecessary activities such as performing the required four visits to a child new foster home even when the “new placement” was actually just a change in placement status and the child had not actually moved, or making sure a “Youth Transition Plan was on the books every six months even if the client refused to participate in the required meeting. Actions taken for compliance purposes take time that overwhelmed social workers need for work that actually improves the lives and futures of clients.

Not all of the outcomes outlined in the ESP have been achieved, and specific provisions of the Settlement Agreement address these continuing issues. These provisions are discussed in more detail below.

  1. Contract with a provider to develop a psychiatric residential treatment facility for children in foster care between the ages of eight to twelve. CFSA has reported that it is seeing more young children with aggressive behaviors than in the past. It is often difficult to find a residential facility for these children, and they end up disproportionately staying at the agency overnight after being sent back by foster parents who cannot deal with them. According to the latest LaShawn progress report, over half of the children experiencing overnight stays in the CFSA building between April and December 2019 were between the ages of eight and 13. Therefore, establishing a facility to care for these children makes sense.
  2. License enough foster homes by December 31, 2020 “to have a 10 percent built-in surplus of foster care beds. The agency must establish a recruitment plan, which will focus on traditional family-based homes as well as specialized placement types to meet special needs. This is a somewhat surprising recommendation in light of data provided to the DC Council as part of its oversight process showing that there were 327 vacant beds available in the District and Maryland out of a total of 941 beds–a vacancy rate of way over 10 percent, making it unnecessary to license more homes to achieve such a surplus. This large number of vacancies at the same time as children were spending the night at the agency indicates that the problem is not the overall number of foster homes. The issue that has been of concern in this case is the lack of placement options (therapeutic foster homes, group homes, or residential treatment centers) for young people who have more serious problems, which has resulted in children moving from placement to placement and even staying overnight at the agency. Another issue is the poor quality of care provided in many of the existing homes–a problem that has not been addressed at all in the LaShawn case.
  3. Maintaining in-house behavioral therapists and contract with core services agency: CFSA added three in-house behavioral therapists in 2018 because many children entering foster care were waiting months to be evaluated and matched with mental health providers by a Core Services Agency. It was part of a new strategy to move from a model of dependence on the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) to a model with therapists on staff at CFSA to provide time- limited services for children newly arrived in foster care or those experiencing placement instability. To further expand services CFSA also entered into a contract with MBI Health Services, a DBH “Core Services Agency,” running from October 1, 2019 until September 30, 2020. The settlement agreement aims to institutionalize these innovations. However, contracting with a Core Services Agency does not address the the inconsistent quality of behavioral health services provided by these agencies. During my time as a foster care social worker, both CFSA and private agencies contracted with private providers in order to obtain higher-quality therapeutic services for clients with more complex needs.The District needs to overhaul and enhance its behavioral health services because it is not just CFSA clients who are in desperate need of timely, high-quality therapeutic services.
  4. Maintain CFSA commitments regarding self-regulation and public reporting. The maintenance of these commitments is important; however they do not substitute for review by an external monitor, as discussed below.
  5. Maintain caseload standards. The closure of the court case is most worrying as it relates to this outcome. Thanks to the case, CFSA has reduced its caseloads to meet the standards imposed by LaShawn, which are considered acceptable and are lower than actual caseloads in many jurisdictions. However, even these low caseloads are too high to do the myriad of duties expected of social workers, at least in some jobs. During my service as a foster care social worker between 2010 and 2015, I found that a caseload of 15 children was almost unmanageable and made it hard to focus on anything beyond crisis management, even when working more than 50 hours per week. A caseload of ten mostly older and harder-to-serve clients was equally unmanageable. This was mostly because foster care social workers in the District (at least during the years of my tenure) performed many of the tasks that foster parents were supposed to do–like taking their children to doctors and therapists and dealing with their schools. If caseloads are allowed to get higher, investigative social workers will be forced to cut corners and ongoing services social workers will be unable to do much other than respond to crises. Children and families will pay the price. That is one reason continued oversight is needed, as described below.

A Need for Continuing Oversight

While court supervision may no longer be the appropriate way to ensure acceptable performance by CFSA, the end of CSSP’s role as court monitor leaves the District without an independent agency to report to the public on problems with the agency. With its critical responsibilities that can mean life or death for children in or out of the system, and with the need for privacy that allows the agency to refuse to share information about its failures, we need an independent agency to monitor CFSA’s performance. Legislation to establish an independent Ombudsperson for CFSA was introduced in 2019 by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. The Ombudsperson would respond to complaints, monitor agency policies and practices, and report annually on its findings. As the Children’s Law Center outlined in its testimony on behalf of legislation, there is no other agency that can perform this role because the only other institution that have the authority to do it—the DC Council and the Citizen Review Panel–lack the resources and the capability to do this important work. At least 15 states have established independent child welfare ombudspersons that perform such a role. Councilmember Nadeau’s Ombudsperson bill was not brought up for a vote in 2019; the Councilmember was planning to make adjustments in the legislation based on the testimony received, before the pandemic intervened. The legislation should be passed as soon as possible to avoid a large gap between the closing of the court case and the opening of the office.

It is time for LaShawn vs. Bowser to close. However, we cannot leave maltreated District children in unprotected both in and out of foster care. In order to protect the children of the District, we need an independent ombudsperson to ensure that CFSA is fulfilling its mandate to protect the children or the District of Columbia and ensure their wellbeing and transition to permanent homes.

CFSA hotline calls, investigations and substantiated maltreatment reports plummeted under Covid-19 shutdown

Report Child Abuse—It's the Law | Attorney General Karl A. Racine

Last spring, reports poured in from around the country about drastic drops in calls to child abuse hotlines after the closure of schools due to Covid-19 and the loss of reporting from teachers and other school personnel. The District of Columbia was no exception, and Child Welfare Monitor DC shared early data from the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) that documented a dramatic decrease in the number of hotline calls in the first month of the lockdown compared to the same period of the previous year. CFSA has finally uploaded data for the entire third quarter–April through June 2020–to its online Data Dashboard. This newly available data confirms the drastic decline in reports, investigations, and substantiations under the Covid-19 emergency.

The loss of reports from schools was the primary explanation for the drops in reports of child maltreatment around the country last spring. And indeed the shift to online education delivered a double blow to child protection efforts. For children who did attend virtually, it was harder for teachers to see signs of trouble, like bruises or hunger, than it would be in person. But many children were absent from digital classrooms much or all of the time. DCPS did not collect data on school participation last spring. But 57 percent of the 2,000 teachers who responded to a survey by the Washington Teachers’ Union, said that less than half their students were participating in virtual education. A child’s failure to participate may reflect the lack of a dedicated computer or internet access, difficulties in accessing platforms, a child too busy watching siblings or even working, or lack of engagement in virtual education.  Whatever the explanation for their absence, these children were not being seen by teachers, counselors or other school staff, often the ones who notice red flags. Other potential reporters, like doctors and extended family members, were also less likely to see children under the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders. 

In the District, schools closed for in-person classes on March 13, 2020. After a two-week spring break, online learning began on March 24 and ended on May 29, nearly a month early. So any effect on hotline calls should be observed starting in mid-March and ending in late June, when schools would normally close. To assess the effect of the school closure and health emergency, we compared the numbers of reports, investigations, dispositions, and foster care placements in the third quarter of 2020 (or April through June 2020) with the numbers during the same period of 2019.

The difference between the third quarter of 2020 and the same period of 2019 was staggering, as shown in Figure I. There were only 2,231 calls to the CFSA hotline between April and June 2020, compared with 6,058 during April to June 2019. That is a decrease of 63 percent. Unfortunately, CFSA does not provide quarterly data on the reporting source, so it is not possible to see which reports declined most. But if it the District is like other jurisdictions, school personnel probably accounted for a large fraction of the drop. The District’s drop in hotline calls may be even more pronounced than the national trend due to the District’s emphasis on school reporting of student absences before the pandemic, according to Judy Meltzer, President of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, who has followed CFSA for many years as the Court Monitor in its longstanding class action suit.

Calls to the hotline can be screened out as inappropriate, treated as “information and referral,” or result in investigations. The number of investigations dropped from 1773 in the third quarter of FY 2019 to 842 in the third quarter of FY 2020– a decrease of 52 percent–as shown in Figure 1. The fact that investigations decreased by a lesser percentage than hotline calls reflects the fact that hotline calls were more likely to result in investigations in 2020 than in 2019. The percentage of hotline calls resulting in investigations increased from 29 percent to 38 percent between the third quarter of 2019 and that same quarter of FY 2020. This suggests a trend that has appeared in other jurisdictions where data on referrals has been analyzed in detail. These analyses reveal that the reports made during the lockdown tended to be more serious, with the less serious reports more likely not to be made, as reported in our national blog, Child Welfare Monitor. This may be happening in the District, but the drastic drop in reports overall indicate that complacency is not in order. Clearly many serious referrals are being missed along with the less serious ones.

An investigation can have several possible results. It can result in a finding of “inconclusive,” meaning the evidence is insufficient to prove maltreatment despite some indications it occurred; “unfounded,” which means “there was not sufficient evidence to conclude or suspect child maltreatment has occurred;” or “substantiated,” indicating that the evidence supports the allegation of maltreatment. (See the CFSA Data Dashboard for the definitions of these terms as well as of another category called “incomplete investigations.”) There were 381 substantiated investigations between April and June, 2019, and there were only 214 substantiated investigations in the same period of 2020, representing a decrease of 44 percent. (See Figure I). Just as the number of investigations decreased by a lesser percentage than the number of reports, the number of substantiated investigations decreased by a lesser percentage than the number of investigations overall. The percentage of investigations that was substantiated increased from 21 percent to 25 percent between 2019 and 2020. Again, this may represent a tendency for the reports that come in to be more serious when school was virtual.

When an abuse or neglect allegation is substantiated, several things may happen, depending on the level of risk to the child or children in the home. The agency may take no action, refer the family to a community-based collaborative, open an in-home case, or place the child or children in foster care. Like hotline calls, investigations and substantiations, the number of children entering foster care plummeted during this quarter–from 97 in the third quarter of FY 2019 to 64 in the same period of 2020–a decrease of 34 percent. This percentage decrease, though large, is clearly smaller than the decreases in hotline calls, investigations and substantiations. Moreover, foster care entries began dropping precipitously before the pandemic hit, starting in the fourth quarter of FY 2019, as shown in Figure 2. During that period only 61 children were placed in foster care, 39 percent less than the 100 children placed in the same quarter of FY 2018. In the first quarter of FY 2019, 68 District children were placed in foster care, 40 percent less than the 114 children placed in the same quarter of the previous year. In January to March of 2020 (which saw the only the very beginning of the Covid-19 emergency), foster care placements fell by nearly two-thirds compared to the same quarter of 2019–43 compared to 115–truly the most surprising and confounding number in the graph. But in the first full quarter of the pandemic emergency, April through June 2020, 64 children were placed in foster care–almost 50 percent more than the previous quarter.

Thus, it appears that the decline in foster care placements during the pandemic emergency was actually a continuation of a trend that started earlier–and was more precipitous before the emergency than during it. When we asked CFSA about this, Communications Director Kera Tyler responded that the fall in foster care caseloads reflects CFSA’s continued commitment to keep children out of foster care by supporting families in their homes. “CFSA is committed to front-end operations to better support families with the goal of keeping them together without formal child welfare involvement whenever it’s safe to do so. In keeping with our Four Pillars strategic framework, we’ll continue to narrow the front door by linking families to community-based services that help to keep children in their homes.”

“Narrowing the front door” was the first pillar of the Four Pillars Strategic Framework instituted in 2012 by Brenda Donald in her first term at the Director of CFSA. It referred to the effort to support families so that children could remain safely at home. The number of children in foster care on the last day of the fiscal year declined every year between FY 2009 and 2019, falling from 2264 in 2008 to 798 in 2019. The decline appeared to be leveling off in Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018, but there appears to have been a renewed push to narrow the front door starting in the fourth quarter of Fiscal Year 2019. It is impossible to disentangle this trend from the effects of school closures and overall lockdowns, except to say that the downward trend in foster care placements actually moderated in the spring quarter.

The pandemic-induced reduction in calls, investigations, and substantiations remains equally alarming when we know that more of the unseen children would have been remaining at home with services rather than removed to foster homes. Because these children are invisible to the system, their families are not receiving the services they need to keep their children safe. And by the time these children are discovered (perhaps not until school buildings open again), conditions may have deteriorated to the extent that the children must be removed.

With school starting online on August 31, the need to find these unseen children is more urgent than ever. So what can be done? We have published a detailed list of suggested approaches, with examples and links, in our national blog, Child Welfare Monitor. These suggestions are listed briefly here.

  1. Public awareness campaigns using mailings, posters, and social media to remind community members to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. The CFSA hotline was included on a postcard that also includes hotlines for Adult Protective Services and the DC Victims hotline. CFSA could do more by developing resources that provide more detailed information about signs of child abuse and neglect.
  2. Providing guidance to teachers and other traditional reporters on how to to spot signs of abuse and neglect in virtual settings: Many excellent materials are available and cited in the Child Welfare Monitor article. They provide some very helpful tips and warning signs for teachers to look out for, and parental behaviors to anticipate and try to prevent, like excessive punishment for children who receive a bad grade.
  3. Reaching out to nontraditional reporters, like animal welfare workers, postal workers, garbage collectors, and home repair specialists: These workers continue to see children and should be educated about signs of child abuse and neglect. The idea of partnering with animal protection organizations is particularly interesting. Animal abuse often coexists with child abuse, and encouraging information-sharing between the two systems is a promising idea that should be explored.
  4. Reaching out to at-risk families known to the system: Michigan and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania contacted higher-risk families with child welfare cases that recently closed to offer help with urgent needs, thus addressing stress and social isolation, which are major correlates of abuse and neglect. Many parents were very appreciative and eager to talk, and social workers reported some success in connecting them with services and benefits.
  5. Investing in Prevention: When it is harder to identify existing abuse and neglect, it makes sense to invest in preventing it. This is already a high priority for CFSA, which is establishing neighborhood family support centers. However it is our view that a more targeted, intensive approach that can be adapted for virtual use during the pandemic is called for. CFSA should look some programs currently under development in other jurisdictions, such as Allegheny County’s Hello Baby Program, which is universal but targets more intensive services to the families most at risk, and Michigan’s new pilot program pairing at-risk families with peer counselors and benefits navigators. These programs use predictive analytics or historical data to target the families most in need of help to prevent child maltreatment.
  6. The role of schools:: Ensuring children’s attendance in virtual education is not important only to prevent them from falling behind in school but also to fulfill the schools’ role as a protector of children. Unseen children cannot be protected. Video screens provide some opportunity for teachers to spot problems. We know that DC Public Schools were not successful last spring in getting computers and high-speed internet to all the children that needed them. The chancellor has promised to do a better job this year, but on the eve of opening day it was clear that many students still lacked a computer or an adequate internet connection. The schools must also do a better job of tracking attendance and reaching out to children who are not logging into school platforms. One Arlington County elementary school principal has directed teachers to provide the names of children who have not logged in by noon every day. Teaching assistants and other staff will reach out to these children and help resolve any problems until all students are engaged in school. DCPS and charter schools should adopt such a policy. They should also explore the possibility of adding to virtual platforms a button that children can push if they need help if there is trouble at home.

The District, like other jurisdictions, has seen a dramatic drop in calls to the child abuse hotline, resulting in a corresponding fall in investigations and substantiated allegations. These sobering statistics suggest that many abused and neglected children are currently invisible to the systems that exist to help them. CFSA and DCPS must take action quickly to identify these children; and CFSA should also develop more targeted efforts to prevent child abuse and neglect among at-risk families.

CFSA and Covid-19: Agency maintains essential operations but some concerns remain

The coronavirus pandemic, and the measures imposed to contain it, have affected almost every aspect of child welfare operations in the District of Columbia and around the country. Maintaining normal child welfare operations during this crisis was not an option. CFSA appears to have continued to meet its core responsibilities of investigations, in-home services, and providing a safe haven for children in foster care. However, some questions and concerns remain and some areas require special attention as the city moves toward normalcy.

Child welfare operations can be divided into the major categories of child protective services (or investigations),  in home services, and foster care and adoption services and are discussed in that order below.

CHILD PROTECTIVE SERVICES

Investigating allegations: While other social worker visits have become virtual, CFSA has continued to send its CPS workers into the field to investigate allegations of child abuse and neglect. But there have been many fewer allegations to investigate. CFSA reports that between March 16 and April 18 of 2020, it received 897 hotline calls, compared to 2,356 hotline calls between those dates in 2020. (Child Welfare Monitor has requested updated figures from CFSA but not yet received them.) This drastic decline is not surprising because children have not been going to school or medical checkups or seeing family friends and relatives who might notice signs of maltreatment. As a result of reduced reports and resulting investigations, the number of children entering  foster care has also declined. As stated in an earlier post, the agency might have done a better job at encouraging teachers to report children who were not in contact with their schools before school let out for the summer. At this point, with many summer camps canceled or scheduled to operate at reduced capacity, CFSA should be doing more to encourage awareness of child maltreatment and reporting among members of the general public and workers who see children regularly in the community.

Worker Safety: Continuing to conduct in-person investigations for child abuse or neglect means that workers are potentially being exposed to Covid-19. A recent article in City Paper painted a distressing picture of an agency that failed to provide its staff with the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed to prevent infection. And it indeed appears that CFSA, like other agencies, was slow to obtain such protective gear. However, it is not clear that it would have been possible to obtain it any faster in light of the shortages at the beginning of the pandemic. In any case, CFSA workers have paid a high price for their important work on the front lines. As of June 21, a total of 48 CFSA employees had returned to work after recovering from Covid-19, six were currently in quarantine, and one had died. According to CFSA’s Communications Director Kera Tyler, by now all workers have provided with protective equipment and can obtain more as needed.

CPS Workforce and Caseloads: CFSA has allowed workers who are at high-risk of complications from Covid-19 to work from home, meaning that they are not able to carry out in-person investigations. City Paper reported some alarming data about declines in the CPS workforce due to at-risk workers staying home and agency vacancies, but these number were apparently inaccurate. There were 131 CPS workers in the field before the pandemic and 112 as of June 15,  according to Tyler. Of the 19 employees currently staying home due to a COVID health concern, all were teleworking. In contrast to the data reported by City Paper, the current number of CPS vacancies was six on June 15. These vacancies are exempted from the hiring freeze, and the agency was actively working to fill those positions, according to Tyler. With the large decrease in hotline calls, it is not likely that CPS caseloads have risen during this time; on the contrary they have likely fallen.

Extrajudicial Placements/Hidden foster care: There has been growing concern in the District and around the country about children being placed with relatives outside of the foster care system without court involvement or agency support. This extrajudicial placement of children is often called “hidden foster care.” These concerns have escalated around the country in light of Covid-19. In the District, CFSA Director Brenda Donald stated at a budget hearing and community forum  that parents who are incapacitated by COVID-19 would not be considered neglectful and that their children would be placed with kin without court involvement. This sounds like a humane policy but is actually inconsistent with DC law regarding parental illness or incapacity. Under current law, being unable to care for a child due to physical or mental incapacity is defined as neglect, regardless of the parent’s intent, as is explained in a document provided to Child Welfare Monitor by Marla Spindel of the DC Kincare Alliance. This finding of neglect by the court is required for the child to be removed and placed in foster care. By not declaring their children neglected,  CFSA is treating parents affected by Covid-19 differently from parents with other incapacitating conditions. Moreover, such extrajudicial placements raise a number of concerns, including the lack of parental consent, the failure to establish a timeline, plan or services to return the child to the parents, and the child’s loss of certain rights, like the right to stay in the same school. We have no idea of the how many children have been affected by such placements due to parental incapacity from Covid-19 as CFSA has not answered our question and there is no requirement to collect this information..

IN HOME SERVICES

Over the past several years, the balance has shifted so that the majority of children served by CFSA are living at home with their families, not in foster care. In-home social workers visit families once, twice or four times a month depending on the intensity of their needs. During the pandemic, these social worker visits have shifted from face-to-face to virtual. Clearly there is a tradeoff between worker safety and child safety in this context. It is more difficult for workers to spot concerning signs of child abuse or neglect through a computer screen, especially when internet service is poor. In-home workers are an important source of CPS reports; CFSA data reported to the CRP last year indicated removals from in-home were 40% of all removals in the nine-month period ending June 30, 2019.  We do not yet know whether removals from in-home cases have increased during the pandemic.

FOSTER CARE

Impact of virus and quarantine: Illness among children and foster parents has been widespread: As of June 10, 17 children in the custody of CFSA had tested positive for Covid-19. CFSA established a respite center for children who test positive for coronavirus, and a total of three children have utilized the respite facility since its inception.  The remaining children remained (or been placed in) in their foster homes or group homes. There was some fear that placements might be disrupted by foster parents concerned that their foster children were failing to observe the curfew but as of June 15 CFSA reported no such disruptions. However, Judith Sandalow of the Children’s Law Center reported in her budget testimony that “placements are disrupting due to disagreements between foster parents and older youth regarding how too balance social distancing recommendations with work obligations and birth family connections.”

Visitation with parents: Parent-child visitation is a crucial part of any plan to reunite birth parents with their children. Most of these visits have gone virtual around the country in the wake of pandemic concerns. Birth parents and their advocates around the country have expressed concern that virtual visits would not be as effective as in-person visits in building parent-child bonds (especially for younger children) and that reunifications might be delayed as a result. In the District of Columbia, all visits supervised by CFSA social workers continued to be virtual as of June 15, according to Kera Tyler of CFSA. Unsupervised visits and visits that are supervised by designees, such as kinship resource parents, were being managed on a case-by-case basis. Many of these visits were taking place virtually, but some have continued in person.

Social Worker visitation: Social worker visitation to foster families, like visitation to families with in-home cases, has been virtual since the onset of the pandemic restrictions. Other jurisdictions have adopted the same policy, in accord with federal guidance waiving the requirement that these visits be in person for the duration of the emergency. As in the case of visits to families with in-home cases, it is certainly more difficult to assess the situation in a foster home online, especially if a parent is using a phone with a poor internet connection. Subtle or not so subtle cues can be missed and it can be difficult to talk privately to the children.

Reunifications and Adoptions: At the onset of the emergency, the Family Court suspended almost all operations except initial hearings for children coming into the system. Since that time, the court has slowly begun to resume operations online, as Children’s Law Center’s GAL Program Director, Jennifer Morris, reported to Child Welfare Monitor. Permanency hearings have continued to be replaced mostly by written reports and orders. We do not know whether these reduced court operations have resulted in any delays for reunifications or adoptions. Most parents with in-home or out-of-home cases require one or more services such as mental health and drug treatment to achieve reunification or case closure. These services also have been affected by the pandemic; they have presumably been either suspended or moved online with unknown impacts on accessibility and effectiveness. Brenda Donald has stated that reunifications and adoptions have continued since the coronavirus emergency but has not provided a comparison of the numbers during equivalent periods before the pandemic.

In conclusion, it appears that CFSA has been able to continue with its core operations without extreme disruption–certainly a commendable result given the widespread impact of the Covid-19 emergency. Nevertheless, the pandemic has clearly affected the agency’s capacity to identify and protect abused and neglected children and to work with their families toward reunification or case closure. In addition, there is some reason for concern that children left without a caregiver when their parents contracted Covid-19 may have been placed extrajudicially with relatives in a way that deprives them, their parents and their caregivers of significant rights and benefits. The repercussions of all of these changes are yet to be known, as is CFSA’s plan for increasing in-person visits as the city opens further.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testimony on the Mayor’s Budget for the Child and Family Services Agency

Below is Child Welfare Monitor DC’s testimony to the Committee on Human Services of the DC Council regarding the Mayor’s revised 2021 budget for the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).

I write this testimony with a heavy heart. By the time it is read, the District’s public schools will have closed for the summer, and with them closes the last window of opportunity we had to identify some of the abused and neglected children who have been suffering in silence since the schools closed on March 16. It is my hope that the Committee will allocate new funding for a publicity campaign to enlist members of the public to report suspected abuse and neglect among our isolated and unprotected children..

My name is Marie Cohen, and I am an advocate for children in the District of Columbia and nationwide. I write two blogs, Child Welfare Monitor and Child Welfare Monitor DC. I am a former social worker in the District’s foster care system, a former member of the Citizen Review Panel, and a current member of the District of Columbia’s Child Fatality Review Committee.

In a recent blog post, I wrote about the increased danger facing abused and neglected children during this period of social isolation. A pandemic is likely to increase abuse and neglect through multiple pathways. Parents stressed due to job loss, fear of illness, and close quarters with children home from school are more likely to lash out in abusive ways. Parents who have to go to work, or who get sick may leave children unsupervised or in the care of abusive or unqualified caregivers. History demonstrates that child maltreatment increases during natural and economic disasters.

And indeed, data from DC’s Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC) suggest that severe child abuse is increasing in the District. As Chairperson Nadeau discussed at the budget hearing, The Washington Post reported that the number of children coming into Children’s National Medical center with abuse concerns has dropped while the percentage of severe cases has increased. From March 15 through April 20 of last year, about 50 percent of the children had injuries serious enough to be hospitalized. This year, 86 percent did. The percentage of children with head trauma, fractures, or injuries in multiple areas of the body doubled. And the percentage of children who died increased from three to ten percent.

At the same time, as Chairperson Nadeau also mentioned, reports to CFSA’s child abuse hotline have decreased dramatically. CFSA reports that between March 16 and April 18 of 2020, it received 897 hotline calls, with 30 percent coming from school personnel. During the same period last year, the agency received 2,356 hotline calls, with 52 percent coming from school personnel, according to CFSA Communications Director Kera Tyler. 

In light of the dangerous situation facing so many of our children, I urged CFSA to work with DC schools in order to identify and check up on children at risk of abuse or neglect, especially those who have not had any contact with their schools, before schools closed for the summer. Sadly, the agency did not follow my recommendations. Schools will close without a concerted effort to identify the children who are being abused and neglected at home. 

At the Committee on Human Services budget hearing on May 26, Chairperson Nadeau asked CFSA Director Brenda Donald how the agency was trying to get to these unreported cases of child abuse and neglect. The Director responded to this question with marginally relevant anecdote about a sharp-eyed teacher who identified a mother with symptoms of Covid-19 who needed medical attention. Seemingly unaware that schools were closing three days later, she stated that CFSA is “working with” the schools on protocols for when teachers should reach out. She appeared not to know that these protocols were published more than a month ago, and there certainly is no time to “work on” them now. Unfortunately, those protocols, as discussed in my blog, seemed to be more dedicated to limiting hotline calls than encouraging them. Director Donald had nothing else to offer other than asking those who watched the hearing to be vigilant about reporting child abuse and neglect. 

Now that schools are closing, we must find another way to identify the silent victims of abuse and neglect. I hope you will consider adding money to the budget for a publicity campaign urging all community members to report suspected abuse or neglect to CFSA’s hotline. This campaign should use ads on buses, bus shelters, and Metro stations, as well as flyers to be distributed around the community. These messages could picture a child with the words, “You are his/her only hope” and information about the hotline. There should be special messaging targeted to the workers most likely to see children, including grocery and pharmacy workers. This message should also be incorporated into the Mayor’s briefings and the city’s website, coronavirus.dc.gov.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to submit written testimony. I would be happy to work with you in developing the specifications for new budget allocations for a publicity campaign around child maltreatment reporting. Our vulnerable children deserve no less.

More efforts needed to encourage child abuse reporting during pandemic

CFSAhotlineSocial distancing is essential to break the back of  the coronavirus pandemic. But for children who are at risk of abuse and neglect, social distancing can mean being cut off from the people who might see and report their situation. The District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), like other agencies around the country, has recognized the problem. However, its response should be strengthened in order to check in with isolated children before schools close on May 29.

All DC public schools (DCPS) and public charter schools closed on March 16. Public schools resumed on March 24 and charter schools on various dates with instruction taking place by distance learning. Distance learning will continue until DCPS schools close on May 29, weeks before the regular closing date. Each public charter school is selecting its own end-of-year closing date.

We do not know how many children are logging on but we know there are problems. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the digital divide that already affected the District. This divide coincides with discrepancies in income, parental education, time and many other resources affecting children. DCPS estimates that 30% of its students lack a computer and/or access to the internet at home. As the Washington Post has reported, schools, nonprofits and activists have been trying to fill the gap but have not reached all the children who need help getting connected with their schools.

The results of the digital divide are clear. The Washington Teachers’ Union surveyed its teachers in April and received responses from about half of all teachers, as reported in the Washington Post. Of the respondents, 57 percent said that less than half of their students were participating in virtual education. Not surprisingly, teachers at richer and more selective schools reported strong attendance in remote education. DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee told the Post that “Ninety-six percent of our students have engaged in some way….And those are the key words here: ‘in some way.’ . . . Instead of logging into a learning session, a student may be doing virtual meetings with a counselor or a school psychologist.” But we have no idea how much contact those 96 percent of students have had with their schools. Was it one virtual contact or ongoing contact? Without knowing the quality or frequency of the contact, this figure is not very helpful, except to raise extreme concerns about the four percent of students who have had no contact with their schools since the shutdown.

Unfortunately, many of the children without computers and internet are also the most at risk for abuse and neglect due to poverty, parental drug abuse, domestic violence, or parental mental illness. Taking these children out of  school cuts them off from the main group of professionals on whom we rely to report their concerns about child abuse and neglect to child welfare agencies.

Hotline data show the impact of this loss of contact. CFSA reports that between March 16 and April 18 of 2020, it received 897 hotline calls, with 30 percent coming from school personnel. During the same period last year, the agency received 2,356 hotline calls, with 52 percent coming from school personnel, according to CFSA Communications Director Kera Tyler. Clearly both the number and proportion of calls coming from schools have declined greatly, but so has the number of calls coming from other sources. This is not surprising since other major reporters, like medical personnel and extended family members, are also less likely to see children during this period of social distancing. 

At the same time as hotline calls have drastically decreased, severe child abuse appears to be increasing. The Washington Post reports that “the overall number of children referred to Children’s National Medical Center with child abuse concerns has dropped. But the cases coming in are more severe than usual: From March 15 through April 20 of last year, about 50 percent of the children had injuries serious enough to be hospitalized. This year, 86 percent did. During the same period last year, about 34 percent of children had head trauma, fractures, or injuries in multiple areas of the body. This year, that number jumped to 71 percent. Last year, 3 percent of the children referred for child abuse died. This year, 10 percent died.” While teachers are unable to reach a student, serious injury or death is the worst-case scenario but they also worry about children being hurt, going hungry, and suffering other types of abuse or neglect.

On April 13, 2020, CFSA issued new guidance to educators who are concerned about their inability to contact some students. The guidelines create a dichotomy. between “contact concerns” and “safety concerns.” For children of any age for whom there are safety concerns, educators are directed to call the CPS hotline. For children aged 0-4 and 14-18 for whom there are “contact concerns,” educators are also directed to call the hotline.

But for children aged 5-13, there is a different procedure for when a school “determines it has not had sufficient contact with a student, and there is no evidence the student has engaged in distance learning.” In such cases, schools are directed to attempt to reach the student’s friends and emergency contacts and to use calls and postcards to contact the student and family members. After ten days of such efforts, schools that have been unsuccessful in reaching a student are instructed to complete a reporting form to CFSA. The guidance warns that any “report that does not document full contact efforts will be denied by CFSA and sent back to the reporting school.” (According to CFSA’s Ms. Tyler, these specific reporting requirements for children aged five to 13 derive from the law that requires reporting of unexcused absences for students in this age group and also from a concern that parents play a more important role in facilitating contact with school than for older children).

In view of the large decline in reports from teachers, one might worry that CFSA seems more concerned with restricting reports from teachers than encouraging them. When we raised this concern with Ms. Tyler, she stressed that the “most important piece of the guidance to note is that if educators have safety concerns for a child of any age, it is mandatory to report those concerns to the hotline.” When the concern is educational, the guidance encourages teachers to use different approaches to reaching students before engaging the hotline.

However, distinguishing between contact concerns and safety concerns is difficult in this time of social isolation. Lack of contact prevents the identification of safety concerns, and long-term lack of contact (when teachers have tried to reach students and their families by phone, email or mail) suggests a child may be in danger. The early closing of schools on May 29 of this year will leave children without even virtual conduct with the most important group of mandatory reporters. CFSA and DCPS should consider new guidance encouraging school staff to report on all students for whom contact has been a concern since the schools reopened in March. This should include all students with whom the schools have not been in touch since school reopened (the four percent mentioned by the Chancellor) as well as any students with whom there has been little or no recent contact and for whom teachers have reason to feel concern. Such guidance should request that schools reach out to these students and their families and to report to the hotline when such efforts have been unsuccessful.

CFSA has been making efforts to encourage other professionals to report. The agency has reached out to agencies like the Metropolitan Police Department and community organizations like the Healthy Families and Thriving Communities collaboratives to serve as “an additional set of eyes and ears” on children. CFSA has asked Child Welfare Monitor DC to share the following message: To help keep children safe during this time, it is imperative for neighbors, family members, and essential workers who still see children to be extra vigilant. CFSA is operating through the pandemic, and our hotline accepts calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Please call 202-671-SAFE[7233] to report child abuse or neglect.

CFSA could be more aggressive in sharing this message. The agency could work with the Mayor to incorporate messaging about child abuse and neglect reporting into her daily press briefings. The agency could try to reach the workers who are still seeing children and families by providing materials to grocery stores, pharmacies, post offices, and food banks to share with their employees informing them of the signs of abuse and neglect and how to report them.

As we approach the end of the school year, the emphasis should shift from setting limits on CPS calls to encouraging educators to reach out to all children and families with whom they have had little or no contact. It is a time for schools and CFSA to team up to check on our most vulnerable children before the the school year ends and the opportunity is lost. And it is also time for CFSA to look for other workers outside schools to take on the role of protectors of our children.

This post was updated on May 13, 2020 to incorporate information from a Washington Post report about school participation during the pandemic. 

Want a national perspective? Check out our national blog, Child Welfare Monitor

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Advocacy group files unprecedented lawsuit challenging kinship diversion in DC

Screen Shot 2020-03-08 at 8.07.11 PMA growing practice often called kinship diversion has been creating a parallel foster care system of informal kinship care in jurisdictions around the country. This practice has been raising concerns among advocates for parents, children, and the relatives who are raising them. In the District of Columbia, an advocacy group for relative caregivers called DC Kincare Alliance (DKA) has filed an unprecedented suit against kinship diversion.

What is Kinship Diversion?

The term kinship diversion, as discussed in detail in my recent post in Child Welfare Monitor, refers to a practice used in many states and jurisdictions to place abused or neglected children with relatives. Instead of taking custody of the child and requesting court approval for this move, the agency facilitates the transfer of custody to a relative outside the foster care system. This transfer is often effected through a “safety plan” or agreement between the parents, the child welfare agency, and the relative to keep the children safe.  According to Marla Spindel of the DKA, sometimes the agency transfers custody of a child without the agreement of the parent, and only the agreement of the kinship caregiver.

Kinship diversion has raised various concerns both ends of the child welfare ideological spectrum, as a recent article points out. Those who are concerned about parents’ rights worry about the state removing children without due process protections for their parents. Moreover, unlike with foster care, there is no requirement that the agency make reasonable efforts toward reunification or develop case plans prescribing what parents must do to get their children back. Those who are concerned about children’s safety and well-being worry that kin caregivers may return the children to their parent at any time, regardless of safety, or may allow unsupervised visits with dangerous parents. Child advocates also worry that there is no permanency for these children as they move back and forth between parents and caregivers. Moreover, informal kinship caregivers may not receive the same level of screening as potential foster parents. These caregivers and the children they raise do not usually receive the same supports as they would in foster care, including stipends, case management, and mental health, drug treatment and parenting services. If not granted custody in court, these caregivers have no legal rights to obtain medical care, enroll children in school, or approve services, and a parent can come back and take custody of the child at any time. 

Kinship Diversion in the District of Columbia

Like child welfare agencies in many jurisdictions, the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) uses kinship diversion, usually through safety plans that are worked out with relatives after a child is deemed to be unsafe at home. And like most jurisdictions, it does not track these cases, so we have no idea how widespread this practice is and how the District compares to other jurisdictions.

It does appear that the District provides more support for informal kinship caregivers than most other jurisdictions. CFSA has long operated a Grandparent Caregiver Program that provides a subsidy to grandparents caring for their grandchildren. The agency recently established, pursuant to new legislation, a Close Relative Caregiver Pilot Program to support relatives who are caring for siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins who might otherwise be in foster care. Nevertheless, kinship caregivers do not receive as high a stipend as foster parents.  The average subsidy for grandparents and close relatives is about $500 per child per month, compared to about $1100 for foster parents, according to Marla Spindel of DKA. Moreover, these subsidy programs have eligibility requirements that limit who can receive the funding to only related caregivers (not fictive kin such as godparents), living with the child in DC for at least 6 months, with income at or below 200% of the poverty line.  The foster care subsidy has no such eligibility restrictions. Further, the grandparent and close relative subsidies are not entitlements like the foster care subsidy; rather, they have limited funding and relatives may be placed on a waiting list until funds are available. Even more importantly,  caregivers, children, and birth parents do not receive the same level of support through case management and access to services as do children, families, and guardians in the official foster care system.

The Complaint

The amended complaint, filed in U.S. District Court by DKA and the law firm Ropes & Gray on January 27, 2020, states that the District of Columbia (as represented by the Mayor and the Attorney General) has :

for at least the last 10 years, …consistently and repeatedly engaged in the custom and practice of kinship diversion, whereby Defendants remove children from the custody of their parents and informally place them in the care of a relative caregiver, rather than placing the child in foster care with that same relative. Unlike foster children and foster parents, Defendants do not provide diverted children and their relative caregivers with any services or foster care maintenance payments. By ignoring the legally-required removal and placement procedures, Defendants avoid the legal and financial responsibilities to support these children and their relative caregivers….The use of kinship diversion rather than kinship foster care placement deprives both child and caregiver of their rights to assistance, in violation of the United States Constitution, and federal and D.C. law.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of three children and their relative caregivers, including a six-year-old girl and her aunt; a one-year-old girl and her great-aunt, and a fifteen-year-old boy and his aunt. In all the cases, according to the complaint, CFSA determined that the children had been abused and neglected and would be in danger if they remained in their parents’ care. CFSA informally placed the children with relatives and instructed the relatives to file for emergency custody in court. The Complaint alleges that the agency did not inform the relatives of the opportunity to become a licensed foster parent and later declined all their requests to be licensed.

The Plaintiffs assert that these practices are typical practices for CFSA. They allege that “If CFSA identifies a willing relative that is available to care for the child, CFSA deliberately ignores its responsibility to inform the relative of their option to become a licensed as a foster parent, and typically directs or pressures the relative to file an emergency motion for legal and physical custody, including by threatening to place the child in foster care with a stranger if the relative does not agree to do so.”

The Complaint alleges that CFSA is violating the federal Social Security Act and several DC laws by using kinship diversion instead of removing these children formally and licensing their caregivers as foster parents. According to the Complaint, CFSA’s use of kinship diversion “subverts the formally established procedures for removal and kinship placements and thereby denies diverted children and their relative caregivers the same benefits, services, and protections that foster children and foster parents receive.” Specifically, in the case of children diverted into kinship homes, CFSA does not assess the relative’s home and ability to care for the child, monitor the child in the home, provide services to meet the needs of the child or the birth parent, or provide a foster care subsidy to the kinship caregiver.

The decision on this case could be groundbreaking. According to DKA’s Marla Spindel, two similar cases were brought by relatives in federal district court in Pennsylvania, but both cases settled. No kinship diversion case brought by relatives has ever been decided in state or federal court.

Why Does CFSA Divert?

As  the complaint points out, CFSA already has a formal procedure, called kinship placement,  for placing a child with a relative foster parent, which can include fictive kin such as godparents, teachers, or family friends. There is even a temporary licensure provision that allows these relatives and fictive kin to be licensed provisionally while fulfilling the extensive requirements for a permanent license, and non-safety related requirements can be waived for kin.  Further, relatives in Maryland can be licensed as foster parents for a DC child. As a social worker in the District’s foster care system, I filed numerous license applications for kin in the District and Maryland. But these were all for children already in foster care with an unrelated caregiver. Once a child is already in the system, it is impossible to “divert” that child so in such cases the relative is licensed. But the agency seems to prefer the option of kinship diversion when foster care can be avoided.

It is not surprising that CFSA and other agencies prefer to divert abused and neglected children out of foster care when possible. The most obvious motive is financial. In its complaint, DKA argues that the District has saved “millions of dollars” by kinship diversion. Saving money is likely part of the motivation behind kinship diversion in the District and around the country, even if the District does spend more to help kinship caregivers outside the system than other jurisdictions.

The Complaint also suggests that CFSA has used kinship diversion as a way to “meet certain statistical targets for reducing the number of children in foster care” because the diverted children are not counted as foster children. In 2012, Director Brenda Donald announced a new strategic agenda known as the Four Pillars. The first “Pillar” was called Narrowing the Front Door, or reducing the number of children coming into foster care–a goal that was very much in line with a national trend among child welfare agencies. From FY 2012 through FY 2019 CFSA set numerical targets for reducing new entries into foster care and has been publishing quarterly and annual  “Four Pillars Scorecards” comparing these targets to actual performance. Moreover, the agency has repeatedly congratulated itself for the continuous decline in its foster care population since Fiscal Year 2012, not mentioning that an unknown number of additional children are in informal kinship placements with little or no support from the agency.

There is also an ideological bias toward keeping children outside the foster care system, as described in an issue brief from ChildTrends. There is a widespread belief among many child welfare professionals that it is better to keep families outside the system, and this may contribute to the support for kinship diversion in the District and around the nation.

The Plaintiffs filed their original Complaint on October 17, 2019, and the case was assigned to Judge Thomas Hogan–the same judge who has presided over the LaShawn class action suit since its inception in 1989. The defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss, the plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint on January 27, 2020 and the District again filed a Motion to Dismiss. The plaintiffs must file an opposition to to that motion by March 20 and the defendants will have some time to respond. Then Judge Hogan will make a decision about whether to dismiss the case. Relatives who step up to care for abused and neglected children are performing an invaluable service, often at great personal and financial sacrifice.  It is hoped that the judge will allow the lawsuit to proceed so that these often-heroic caregivers and their young relatives can have a chance of getting some much-needed support.

 

 

CFSA’s Oversight Responses: What can we learn?

Screen Shot 2020-02-26 at 10.08.48 AMEvery year, the DC Council’s Committee on Human Services, currently chaired by Councilwoman Brianne Nadeau, submits a series of detailed oversight questions to the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). These questions focus on many aspects of the agency’s operations and policy.  The lengthy responses, available on the DC Council website, are some of the most interesting and detailed information that the agency releases during the year. This post attempts to highlight some of the more revealing  responses, as well as providing some comparisons with the previous year’s oversight responses.

Child Protective Services

Hotline Calls: The number of calls to CFSA’s child abuse and neglect hotline increased from 26,602 in FY 2018 to 28,561 in FY 2019. The highest number of calls (594) concerned educational neglect (usually student absences from school), followed by physical abuse (428), substance abuse (407), inadequate supervision (343), and domestic violence (248). The agency screened out 11,768 of these calls, or 41%, compared to 35% of the slightly smaller number of calls in FY 2018.

Assessments and Investigations: CFSA eliminated its Family Assessment track as of April 1, 2019, so that all screened-in Hotline calls, other than some infant positive toxicology reports , receive an investigation.  The total number of investigations increased from 4193 to 4788, which reflects the elimination of Family Assessment. The total number of investigations substantiated increased slightly from 1127 to 1204–which was a smaller percentage of investigations than in the previous year. The top factors leading to substantiation in 2018 and 2019 were substance abuse (in almost 25 percent of the cases), educational neglect (21 percent), physical abuse (19 percent), inadequate supervision (19 percent), domestic violence (15 percent) and caregiver incapacity due to incarceration., hospitalization, or physical or mental incapacity (11 percent). Substance abuse was the top factor in both years, but the order of the next five factors differed.

Educational Neglect Allegations: Because of the increase in allegations of educational neglect, CFSA is piloting a new approach to these allegations in collaboration with DCPS. A specialized unit has been created and is being piloted at two schools in order to provide early intervention services.

Sex Trafficking: Sex trafficking has been a hot topic in child welfare for the past decade or so after it became known that children in foster care are at particular risk. The Committee asked numerous detailed questions about sex trafficking and CFSA’s response.  Unfortunately it requested only the top ten factors accounting for substantiation of allegations to the hotline–and sex trafficking was not one of the top ten.  In order to know the number of substantiated sex trafficking allegations, the committee could ask for the numbers of substantiated allegations for all categories, not just the top ten. Without knowing how many sex trafficking cases were substantiated, we do know that the number of cases must have been less than the 49 substantiated for general neglect, the lowest number listed out of the top ten factors accounting for substantiation.

Worker Caseloads: The current plan to exit the LaShawn court case  requires that 90 percent of investigators and social workers will have caseloads less than or equal to 12′ no individual investigator shall have a caseload greater than 15 cases, reflecting generally accepted caseload standards. In response to the Committee’s question about the average caseload per worker, CFSA provided the average caseload for each individual investigator rather than the entire investigative workforce.  For a better picture, the Committee could request that the agency provide the average caseload for all investigators. It is encouraging to note, however, that the highest average caseload for any investigator in FY 2019 was 10.21 although there were many “instances” when a worker had a caseload of 13-15 and one “instance” when a worker had a caseload of 16 or more. The concept of “instance” is hard to interpret as it could reflect one minute or a year. The Committee could instead request the median number of days with a higher caseload for all investigators.

Newborns with Positive Toxicology: CFSA changed its policy in 2017 to require that all positive toxicology reports for newborns be screened in to make contact with the family and determine whether an investigation needs to be conducted. The number of hotline calls received regarding newborn positive toxicology in FY 2019 was 233, almost exactly the same number as the previous year but the response appears to have been more extensive. Of these 233 calls, 87 percent resulted in an in-home wellness visit by nursing staff (compared to 56 percent in FY 2019), 69 percent resulted in an investigation (compared to 30 percent in FY 2019) and 12 (five percent) resulted in removal of a child (data not provided for FY 2019).

Child Removals: CFSA removed a total of 360 children from their homes in FY 2018 and 378 in FY 2019. The most common reasons for removal were neglect (unspecified, 84 percent), physical abuse (13 percent), parental drug abuse (nine percent), and “caregiver ill/unable to cope” (7.5 percent).

In-Home Services

Cases Opened: In F’Y 2019, 618 cases were assigned to the In-Home Administration. 1 Of these cases, 69 percent resulted from a finding of abuse, 26 percent from neglect, five percent from sexual abuse, and less than one percent from allegations of sex trafficking (three cases) and child fatality (three cases). A total of 662 in-home cases closed in 2019, slightly more than the number that opened.

Case Closures: The the reasons for closure of in-home cases that CFSA provided are confusing, and Chairperson Nadeau asked about these during the hearing. Half of the cases closed because “child welfare services not needed,” a category whose meaning is unclear. Another 126 closed because “services/service plan not completed.” Still another 89 closed because of “completion of treatment plan.” It is hard to understand how that differs from “service plan completed.”  Four cases closed for “client’s failure to co-operate.” Since in-home cases by definition involve high risk to children, this is somewhat disconcerting. The Council might want to ask what happened to the families in these cases. Were the children removed, or simply left in their risky situations without monitoring? Was a risk assessment done before case closure? CFSA and the Court monitor have agreed that court involvement (through community papering) should be considered for noncooperative parents with in-home cases.  It is also significant that 38 of the families moved out of the District. A reasonable conjecture would be that many moved to Maryland. There have been child fatality cases around the country involving families with in-home cases moving between states (or even lying that they were moving out of state) and avoiding further supervision by CPS. The Council could ask CFSA whether they verify such moves and inform the receiving state of these families.

Services to In-home families: Families with in-home cases develop a case plan with their social workers that outlines the services they need to complete in order to close their cases. Among the services most frequently included are mental health services, drug treatment, parenting skills training, and domestic violence interventions. As the Citizen Review Panel pointed out in a recent report, many many parents with in-home cases who need mental health services in order to comply with their case plans, as well as many of their children, struggle to obtain timely quality services in light of long waiting times and high provider turnover. In response to the committee’s question about what the agency is doing to ensure these families get the services they need, CFSA stated that “In-Home families access mental health services through DBH” and that the two agencies work collaboratively to address families’ needs.  It is clear that CFSA understands the deficiencies in DBH services because it has opened an in-house mental health unit to serve children in foster care and plans to expand these services to their families. That leaves the larger group of parents and children with in-home cases out in the cold. Unfortunately, the Family First Act, which was supposed to fund services to prevent children entering foster care, does not allow federal Title IV-E funds to pay for services which can be funded by Medicaid, ruling out most mental health programs in the District for Title IV-E funding..

Family First Act: Under the Family First Act, CFSA can now spend federal Title IV-E funds, formerly confined to foster care, for in-home services that have been included in the federal Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse. As discussed in the oversight hearing, CFSA expects only $80,000 in revenue from Family First because there was only one program in the clearinghouse at the time CFSA developed its Family First Plan–Parents as Teachers–that CFSA chose to provide and that was not already sufficiently funded using other sources. However, Motivational Interviewing and Healthy Families America have been added to the clearinghouse since CFSA submitted its plan, and CFSA stated that it hopes to draw down federal funding for these programs.

Foster Care

Placement instability: Frequent placement changes continued to be a problem in 2019. About 51 percent of children had one placement episode in FY 2019; another 27 percent experienced two episodes, 16 percent experienced three to four episodes and seven percent had five or more. The percentages were fairly similar in FY 2018, with slightly more experiencing one or more than five episodes. As described by witnesses at the oversight hearing, it is often the children with behavioral problems and disabilities who bounce from placement to placement because foster parents are unable to handle their issues.

Overnight stays at CFSA and emergency placements: As discussed at the oversight hearing, more children stayed overnight at the agency in FY 2019 than in FY 2018.  This number increased from 13 youths in FY 2018 to 31 in FY 2019. According to CFSA’s responses, the factors behind these overnight stays included placement disruptions occurring late at night or early in the morning, lack of psychiatric options such as sub-acute psychiatric programs and partial hospitalization programs, youth brought back to the agency by foster parents, and youths refusing to leave the building for an offered placement. The number of youths staying in an emergency, short-term, or otherwise temporary placement while awaiting a long-term placement also increased from 79 in FY 2019 to 100 in 2020.

Placement Capacity: Placement capacity has increased greatly from 758 beds as of September 30, 2018  to 941 at the time of the oversight responses–presumably January 2020. Not surprisingly, given the decline in the foster care population, the number of vacant beds increased from 66 in January 2019 to 327 in January 2020. This huge increase in vacancies at a time when children are staying overnight in the CFSA building as described below illustrates that the problem in the District is not the number of foster homes but the lack of placements for harder-to-place children.

Expanding Placement Capacity: In order to expand the placement array, CFSA in FY 2019 added two Stabilization Observation Assessment Respite (“SOAR”) professional foster homes with a total of four beds, to serve high-needs children; entered into a contract with Children’s Choice to provide intensive foster care to 36 children, secured six additional congregate care beds for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and added six additional behavioral/therapeutic beds in a new group home run by the Children’s GuildThe agency expressed the hopes that these new resources will reduce stays in offices and emergency placements and also hopes to increase placements with kin.

Kinship Care;  Twenty-eight percent of children in out-of-home care were  in kinship homes on the last day of FY 2019  (up from 26% in FY 2018), as compared to a national average of 32 percent. To explain this difference, CFSA cited the stricter licensing requirements in Maryland, where many relatives live, as well as the lack of affordable housing in the District. More use of  kinship diversion to place children with relatives outside of the foster care system could account for a jurisdiction’s lower-than-average percentage of foster parents who are kin. However, neither CFSA nor most other jurisdictions collect the data that would allow comparison of the frequency of the practice.

Assistance to relative caregivers outside foster care: In FY 2019, 521 families with 822 children were served by the Grandparent Caregiver program, up from 513 families with 798 children in FY 2018. The average benefit received in FY 2019 was $1,145 per month. The Close Relative Caregiver program was established in FY 2019 and currently serves 12 caregivers and 22 children, who are expected to receive an average of $553 per child per month. CFSA started its Kinship Navigator Program in the last quarter of FY 2019 and includes a helpline, enrichment events for families, flex funds for one-time or short-term needs, and educational groups, which are slated to begin later in FY 2020.

Group Homes: The number of group home beds decreased from 71 as of January 15, 2019 to 67 as of January 15, 2020 despite CFSA’s opening two new group homes for children with special needs. There were 17 vacant group home beds, as compared to 14 the previous year. In an email responding to my questions, CFSA’s Intergovernmental Affairs Liaison Yolanda McKinley explained that the decrease stemmed from the decline in foster care caseloads and the continuing move away from congregate care as a placement option for most youths.

Mental Health Services: The new in-house mental health unit appears to have reduced the time it takes for children newly placed in foster care to access needed mental health services. Children receiving services from the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) waited an average of 75 days between mental health screening at CFSA and intake and the actual receipt of services. Children served by the in-house mental health unit waited an average of 35 days. Seventy-three children were served by the unit in FY 2019. Unfortunately, CFSA answered the question about length of service, type of service, and transition to an external provider with a table that provides a separate row for each of the 73 children receiving services. The Committee might want to request aggregate data about length of service to get a better overall picture. For those children who completed services, the average length of service ranged from seven to 399 days.  Six children, all of whom received at least 259 days of services at CFSA, transitioned to another provider after completing service at CFSA.

Psychiatric hospitalization: A total of 118 children in foster care had an episode of psychiatric hospitalization in FY 2019, compared to 122 in 201,  according to Director Brenda Donald, who corrected in her oral testimony an error in the oversight answers for FY 2018.

Educational Performance: The abysmal educational performance of DC youths in foster care is no surprise and not different from that other jurisdictions around the country. Only five percent of third through eighth graders and two percent of those in grades nine through twelve met or exceeded expectations for their grade in mathematics. In reading, the percentage meeting or exceeding expectations was 12 percent  for grades 3-8 and five percent for grades 9-12. In its oversight responses, CFSA rightly points out that there are many factors behind this abysmal school performance, most of which predated children’s placement in foster care. These include cognitive or other disabilities, periods of missed schooling, mental health concerns, and trauma histories. But while all foster youth should receive intensive supports to help reduce the deficits they bring into foster care, my experience as a foster care social worker and mentor has revealed that the system often instead imposes new disadvantages. These can include foster parents who take little interest in the child’s education (especially Maryland foster parents when the child attends a DC school), long commutes to keep children in their original school (which may result in a child missing a whole day of school for a doctor’s appointment), and system-induced absences for court hearings, meetings, and medical appointments scheduled during school hours for the convenience of staff who must take them to these appointments.

The number of students receiving tutoring went down from 285 in 2018 to 209 in 2019. CFSA’s Yolanda McKinley explained in her email that the agency conducted a comprehensive review of service utilization and terminated tutoring services for students with a “poor history of utilization,” those who had completed their educational goals, and those who had exited foster care.

The number of youths receiving mentoring services declined from 172 to 118 during Fiscal Year 2019. In her email, McKinley explained that CFSA has changed its referral guidelines so that youth who are nearing reunification with their families are not referred to contracted mentoring services through BEST Kids. They also removed from the mentorship rolls young people who were not actually participating in mentoring services. According to McKinley’s email, “[T]he lower FY19 number accurately represents youth who are actively engaged in mentoring services.”

School stability transportation: CFSA paid a total of $1,310,966 , or $99 per youth per day, to transport 199 foster youth living in Maryland to their original schools in the District. In addition to the high costs, these transportation arrangements may require children to spend two to three hours on the road daily and deprive them of the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities. There is no debate that it would be  better to place children in foster homes that are near their schools. CFSA is already investing heavily in foster parent recruitment in the District but perhaps future efforts could be targeted around the schools and neighborhoods that send the largest number of children to foster care. Trying to recruit families and teachers from schools and churches close to these schools might be a good approach. In view of the large numerical surplus of foster homes, CFSA might want to consider closing some Maryland foster homes in order to increase the ratio of DC to Maryland homes.

High School Performance and Graduation: CFSA had access to grade point average information for only 84 of the 186 youths enrolled in high school during the 2018-2019 school year. These GPA’s ranged from a low of 0 to a high of 4.42, with a median of 1.61. The high school graduation rate for the last academic year was 73 percent, which was calculated by dividing the number of youth who graduated from the 12th grade or earned a GED by the end of the school year by the number of foster youth who were in the 12th grade or a GED program 2 at the beginning of the year.

College: Thirty-six young people were enrolled at a four-year college in Fall 2019, and 11 were enrolled in a two-year college. These figures are similar to those from the previous year. Eight young people received a Bachelor’s degree in the 2018-2019 school year and no youths achieved an associate’s degree in that year. CFSA reports that 19 youths dropped out of college in FY 2019.

Older Youth Issues

Program changes: YV LifeSet is a new grant-funded program that has replaced Career Pathways. There were 49 youths involved in YVLifeset as of January 2020, compared to 113 in Career Pathways in 2019. Eighteen youths were enrolled in vocational programs in FY 2019, compared to 35 in 2018. It is possible that the reduction is due to the end of the Career Pathways program.

Independent Living: In January 2019, there were 10 beds in Independent Living Programs (ILP’s) in CFSA’s system, of which 5 were vacant. By January 2020, all of these beds had been eliminated. In its oversight responses, CFSA explained that it no longer offers ILP’s due to “underutilization.” Last year’s oversight responses clarify the meaning of this term. In its 2018 responses, CFSA described its conclusion that youths placed in ILP’s who have not demonstrated their maturity have struggled after aging out. In 2018, CFSA revised its policy by requiring youths to demonstrated readiness by having a high school diploma, being engaged in employment, education or training and having a savings account in order to move into an ILP. In tandem with this policy change, CFSA reduced the number of ILP slots from 20 to 10 by eliminating one of the two ILP programs. CFSA reported that only three young people moved into an ILP after the new policy and there were only five youths total in the one ILP at the end of the fiscal year.  This appears to be the “underutilization” that resulted in closure of the remaining program in FY 2019.

Aging Out: CFSA answered that 45 out of 49 youths had stable housing at the time they aged out of foster care in FY 2019. However, a witness from the Children’s Law Center stated at the oversight hearing that “the agency improperly defines transitional housing, college dorms, staying with friends, and DDS placements as ‘stable living arrangements.”’ If those arrangements are considered unstable, 32 out of the 49 youths who aged out were in unstable housing.

Permanency

The number of adoptions finalized remained nearly the same–98 in FY 2019 and 101 in FY 2019. There was an average of 14 months between filing of the adoption petition and finalization of the adoption, up from 10 months in FY 2018. The number of guardianships finalized declined from 64 to 40 with an average of 19 months between placement in a home and finalization of the guardianship, down from 39 months in FY 2018. The Committee did not ask similar questions about reunification.

Fatal Incidents

CFSA reported that eight children and youth died while in CFSA care in FY 2019. Four children were in foster care, three had open In-Home Cases and one had an open Family assessment or investigation at the time of death. I view these numbers as very distressing and I hope that the Council requests further information about them. It could be that some of these children were medically fragile and that their deaths were not due to maltreatment of any type. Such basic information as the cause of death is necessary for the Committee to make sense of this information.

Conclusion: CFSA’s answers to the oversight questions of the DC Council’s Human Services Committee provide a trove of useful information. A continued reduction in the number of children in foster care, an increase in stays in agency offices and emergency placement, a large surplus of foster care beds along with continued need for more placements for hard-to-place youth, expansion of the placement array in response to this problem, successful implementation of a mental health unit to serve foster youth, the elimination of independent living programs, and high number of fatalities among system-involved children are among the  results that stand out.  Child Welfare Monitor DC was able to obtain corrections for some responses from CFSA that did not appear to make sense. Nevertheless, some responses were unclear or delivered in a format that is difficult to use. The Council might want to seek clarification in these cases and modify its questions next year in order to obtain information that is more useful in its effort to oversee and support CFSA’s important work.


  1. There are no comparable data for FY 2018 because of a change in the data collected. 
  2. This number was incorrectly reported as 32 instead of 26 in the oversight responses, according to the clarifying email by CFSA. 

The CFSA Performance Oversight Hearing: Progress and Problems

Screen Shot 2020-02-17 at 3.32.03 PMThe annual oversight hearing on the Child and Family Services Agency took place on February 12, 2020. The hearing lasted over six hours and covered a wide variety of topics and perspectives. The testimony painted a mixed picture of considerable progress along with continuing concern about major issues including the availability of placements meeting the needs of some of the more difficult-to-serve clients. Much of the testimony centered around CFSA’s responses to the committee’s oversight questions that were submitted in advance. These are a very useful resource that can be compared from year to year. Readers can watch the hearing here.

  • Widespread Praise for CFSA: The last to testify, CFSA director Brenda Donald heralded a year of accomplishment, including planning and getting approval for a five-year Title IV-E Prevention Plan under the new Family First Prevention Services Act, creating the local Families First DC program, reducing the scope of monitoring under the LaShawn class action lawsuit, settling its new arrangement for delivering foster care, fully implementing its in-house mental health unit, and gearing up for new child welfare information system. As she pointed out, CFSA is currently considered to be a national leader in child welfare. Many other witnesses also praised CFSA for these accomplishments or others.
  • Foster Care Numbers: Contrary to national trends, the number of youth in foster care continued to fall in the District since a year ago. Director Donald testified that there were only 796 children in care at the end of 2019 and 1357 were being served in their homes. Reunifications increased from 197 in 2018 to 227 in FY 2019 and the number of children aging out of care fell from 63 to 53. CFSA expects further declines because of the emphasis on front-end prevention, according to Director Donald, as well the agency’s continuing efforts to reduce the length of stay in foster care. Donald did not mention the movement of low-income families into Maryland due to rising rents in the District, which may be an even more important factor behind the continued declines at a time when the national foster care total has been rising.
  • LaShawn Exit Plan: Court Monitor Judy Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy reported that CFSA and CSSP have agreed on a revised exit plan in the 30-year-old LaShawn vs. Bowser class action lawsuit. The new plan removes 56 of the exit standards; 23 remain to be achieved. As part of the revised plan, CFSA committed to adding several types of placements and it has already satisfied most of these commitments, as described below.
  • Lack of appropriate placements: CFSA continues to struggle with a lack of placements for the young people with the most serious disabilities and behavioral problems, as described in testimony from CSSP’s Meltzer  and witnesses from the Children’s Law Center (CLC). As a result, 31 children spent a total of 60 nights at the agency between April and November 2019. The number of children staying overnight more than doubled between FY 2018 and 2019, as Aubrey Edwards-Luce of the Children’s Law Center pointed out in her valuable written testimony. The number of children staying at the Sasha Bruce emergency shelter also more than doubled. About 100, or one in every eight children, had stayed in an emergency shelter or respite home in FY 2019. Moreover, about 22% of children in care had three or more placements, the same number as the previous year, which suggests a lack of appropriate placements for some children.
  • Additions to Placement Array: CFSA has made some progress in expanding the array of placements that can accommodate children with more severe problems. The agency has contracted with Children’s Choice for 36 therapeutic foster homes for youth with intensive needs; added two “Stabilization Observation Assessment Respite (SOAR) professional foster homes, with a total of four beds, to serve high-needs children; secured six congregate care placements for children with autistic spectrum disorders, and added six additional behavioral therapeutic congregate care placements.
  • Foster Parent Retention and Supports: Judith Sandalow of the Children’s Law Center urged CFSA to focus on retention as well as recruitment of foster families by improving its support for foster parents. Margie Chalofsky of the Foster and Adoptive Parent Advocacy Center (FAPAC) suggested several improvements to foster parent supports, including on-call and timely crisis support, which has not been consistently available through the current resources; more therapy for foster youth; and a mechanism for foster parents to evaluate social workers. Interestingly, Cheryl Brissett Chapman of the National Center for Children and Families gave a dissenting position on retention, arguing that foster parents need to take a break after two therapeutic youths. She also reminded listeners that many foster homes are lost when foster parents adopt the youths in their care and that should not be considered a problem.
  • Education and Employment: Data on education and employment outcomes cited by Aubrey Edwards-Luce from CFSA’s oversight responses continues to be very concerning, although the high school graduation rate among CFSA foster youth actually increased from 67% in FY 2018 to 73% in FY 2019, based on corrected data submitted later by CFSA. The Grade Point Average (GPA)  of the 84 (out of 186) high-school aged children in care for whom this figure was available was only 1.69. Nearly 10% of high school students in CFSA care dropped out in FY 2019. And nine of the 40 foster youth who enrolled in college in FY 2019 dropped out, based on corrected data from CFSA. Moreover, less than half the young people enrolled in vocational programs completed them.
  • Youth aging out: Edwards-Luce pointed out that CFSA’s data on living arrangements of youth aging out of care are deceptive. CFSA reported that only four of the 49 youths who aged out of foster care in FY 2019 exited to unstable housing situations, which it defines being homeless, in a shelter, or incarcerated. However, CLC believes that “the agency improperly defines transitional housing, college dorms, staying with friends, and DDS placements as “stable living arrangements.” If those arrangements are considered unstable, 32 out of the 49 youths who aged out were in unstable housing.
  • Office of Youth Empowerment: CFSA touted its status as the first public agency to be awarded a three-year $10 million grant fromYouth Villages to implement the evidence-based and much-praised YV LifeSet program. But CLC’s Edwards-Bruce expressed concern about the elimination of OYE’s Career Pathways program, which served 113 youths in FY 2019, and its replacement by the LIfeSet Program, which served only 49 youths in the firsts quarter of  FY 2020. According to CFSA’s Annual Progress and Services Report, YV Lifeset requires participant buy-in, and youths who do not wish to participate will receive similar services to those provided under Career Pathways. Moreover, there is some reason for concern that the LifeSet funding may be supplanting rather than supplementing local funds, as discussed below.
  • Aftercare: In her very enlightening oral and written testimony, Marcia Huff of the Young Women’s Project described her experience running CFSA’s aftercare program in a contract that lasted from 2017 to 2019. In a nutshell, Huff found that “the vast majority of the youth we worked with were unprepared to succeed when they emancipated from care at age 21.” Among the depressing data she cited about the young people entering her program: 51% were unemployed; 9% were employed 15 hours or less; and only 20% were employed full-time; 31 out of 75 were homeless or couch surfing; 32% were in temporary housing, and only 9% were in permanent housing with a long-term voucher or rent that was sustainable based on employment; 56% had one or more children; 27% needed help managing marijuana or other drugs; 58% had unresolved mental health issues that interfered with progress in employment and housing; 17% had no GED or high school diploma; and 36% had no bank or deposit account of any kind. Lack of housing was a major obstacle to engagement with the program and progress toward goals and kept many participants in a state of crisis. Lack of child care was a huge obstacle for parenting youth. Huff’s testimony, which should be essential reading for anyone who cares about foster youth, recommended first and foremost that the agency needs to “start young and go deep” to prepare youth for life after care because “by the time they are 20 it is nearly too late and it is extremely hard to turn things around.”
  • Youth Services Reprogramming: Human Services Committee Chair Brianne Nadeau asked about the reprogramming of $449,782 allocated for teen youth services to support for the court monitor in LaShawn, which was not included in the FY 2019 budget. Donald testified that this money was saved by bringing youth aftercare in-house, without any loss of service capacity.  If true, this would point to an appalling inflation of the contract price, which seems unlikely. This writer cannot help wondering whether this money may have instead been replaced by the grant to implement YVLifeSet and hopes Chairwoman Nadeau will look into that possibility.
  • Kinship Care: Several witnesses celebrated the new Close Relative Caregiver Subsidy, including Donte Massey, whose testimony last yea sparked the creation of this program. Massey reported that the program is helping him raise his younger siblings. Stephanie McClellan of the DC Kincare Alliance asked the Council to remove the requirement that a caregiver must wait six month to receive the subsidy. This results in an actual eight-month rate which is a hardship for cash-strapped caregivers. She also asked the Council to consider emergency funding to eliminate the current waiting list. The longstanding Grandparent Caregiver Subsidy also received praise from caregiver Vernita Grimes, who credited program staff with providing emotional and moral, as well as financial, support .
  • Social Worker Support: Wayne Enoch, president of the union local representing 400 workers at CFSA, expressed his members’ concern about worker safety from attacks by clients, even in the office. The union is seeking for a “viable health and safety committee” to work with management on a long-term solution to this problem.  Worker turnover is a concern for CFSA. Social workers complain about work-life balance, support from supervisors, and micromanagement rather than pay and promotions. Despite the problems, Enoch hailed Brenda Donald for her commitment to workers’ well-being and to working with the union through the Labor Management Partnership Council.  He noted that CFSA has appointed a Wellness Coordinator to boost well-being among its workers. He said that other agencies should follow CFSA’s example of labor-management cooperation.
  • Latino Families: Isabelle Suero-Stackl of the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) argued that CFSA is not meeting the needs of the Latin American community.  Although LAYC has a contract to deliver foster care including case management to Latino families, all of these families are initially managed by CFSA, and most are served directly by CFSA. Moreover, in-home services to all families are provided by CFSA, which may be a problem for a family that does not speak English. Instead, Suero-Stackl recommended that CFSA should assign all Latino families to LAYC as soon as they come into in-home or out-of-home care.
  • Changing nature of foster youth: Both Director Donald and Dr. Cheryl Brissett Chapman of the National Center of Children and Families (NCCF) cited changes in foster youth. They are seeing more young children with aggressive behaviors than in the past. Dr Chapman of NCCF, which manages all of the Maryland foster homes that house about half of the District’s foster youth. had some interesting observations from a long career in child welfare. Unlike the “parentified” children seen in the crack epidemic, who acted as parents to their own parents and their siblings, many of today’s children coming into care are accustomed to be treated by their parents as peers. When they come into foster care, they are not ready to treat foster parents respectfully as adults, and many older, veteran foster parents cannot cope with disrespectful behavior. Surprisingly, placement disruptions are most frequent for children aged 9 through 12, and it is this disrespect that is causing many of the disruptions.
  • CFSA Mental Health Unit: the new mental health unit to provide initial services to youth coming into care seems to have be achieving its goals of allowing CFSA to screen and evaluate children more quickly and get them into therapy sooner.  This unit works with children for six to nine months. Donald testified that CFSA has issued a contract for ongoing mental health services for some children with specialized needs and to serve some parents.
  • Child Protective Services: The number of substantiated investigations went up slightly in FY 2019, as did the number of removals, which Deputy CFSA Director Robert Matthews suggested might be due to the elimination of Family Assessment as an alternative response to investigation. He also mentioned that the quality of investigations is improving as indicated by the agency’s Quality Service reviews.  However, one representative of a charter school raised concerns about the quality of CFSA responses to reports alleging child abuse and neglect. In his written testimony, Christopher Nace of the DC International School mentioned two families that were the subject of repeated and serious reports to CFSA, none of which resulted in actions that protected the children. In the case of the first child, staff reported concerns ranging from sexualized language and behaviors, physical abuse, educational neglect and sex trafficking. none of which resulted in any change in the child’s situation. In the other case, school personnel reported concerns about a family 11 times between 2016 and 2020 on issues including domestic violence witnessed by school staff, children being left alone all night, alcohol and drug abuse in the home, children being driven to school by intoxicated parents, concerns about drug distribution, physical abuse that left bruises; and fights in which weapons were drawn and students were kicked out of the house. Nace recommended that CPS investigations should take into account past allegations as well as the present one and that CFSA should collaborate more extensively with schools and other agencies involved in the lives of children and consider adding regular “check-ins.”
  • Families First DC: The Committee heard from many of the organizations that have received grants to start Family Success Centers under Families First DC, CFSA’s new primary prevention initiative. The grantees have been chosen and given money for a year of planning. The centers are to launch early in Fiscal Year 2021.All of the grantees praised the support of CFSA and the provision of a year to plan their programs with input from community residents. Grantees expressed their excitement about this program.
  • Transparency and Responsiveness: After last year’s hearing, where representatives of several organizations lamented a decline in transparency and community involvement by CFSA, both the Children’s Law Center and the Foster and Adoptive Parent Advisory Council (FAPAC) noted that CFSA had become more open and responsive to feedback from advocates and foster parents in the last year.
  • Ombudsman Proposal: Several witnesses, including Aubrey-Luce of CLC, reiterate the need to move forward the proposal of establishing an independent Ombudsperson for CFSA in order to spur the needed improvements.

This year’s oversight testimony highlighted agency’s ability under the leadership of Brenda Donald to accomplish major initiatives. Of more doubt to this writer is how many of these initiatives actually improve children’s lives. Some of the most important testimony highlighted the major problems that still plague the District’s foster care system, especially the lack of appropriate placements for the hardest to serve children and the lack of effective approaches to enhancing education and employment outcomes for foster youth. As I have written before, CFSA’s vaunted success in getting the first Family First plan approved is of limited utility given the extreme limitations on services available for funding. However, CFSA responded in an email to this writer that “CFSA’s implementation of Family First//// is not designed to produce immediate results. ” Instead, “Family First has created the momentum for the District to look at our referral pipelines, assess the systems we have in place to ensure referral connections are made timely and, have targeted conversations to determine if we have the right services available to meet children and their families’ needs.”

The abysmal outcomes for older foster youth and those who have aged out (while consistent with those around the country) indicate that there is much room for improvement. And the transfer of $450,000 in services to older youth in order to pay for the court monitor’s oversight is particularly concerning considering the great needs of these youth. However, some of the new initiatives, such as the addition of new placements for children with greater needs, the creation of in-house mental health services, and the establishment of Family Success Centers are likely to make life better for children in CFSA care and in the community.

Director Donald’s concluded by expressing her gratitude to the Mayor for supporting CFSA in its request for funding for its new initiatives. She did not however, point out that  parents and youths involved with CFSA rely on other systems, like behavioral health and child care, in order to achieve their goals. Many parents rely on mental health and drug treatment services provided by the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) to get their children back or keep their children at home–and these services are characterized by waiting lists, high turnover, and insufficient capacity. CFSA has attempted to compensate for DBH deficiencies by creating its own mental health unit for children in care, and is expanding that unit to serve their parents as well, but parents and children with in-home cases will still be relying on services funded by DBH. Youth who have aged out need these services as well, including help in managing their use of marijuana and other drugs, as mentioned in testimony by the Young Women’s Project. Parents with in-home and out-of-home cases, as well as parenting youth in foster care and aging out, all struggle to find and pay for child care. In order to ensure that CFSA can achieve its goals, the generosity of the Mayor must extend to other systems as well.

This post was updated on February 25, 2020 to incorporate corrections and comments from CFSA.