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.

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