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. A bill to establish an independent ombudsperson was introduced by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau in 2019 but was not brought up for a vote; 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.

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.

 

 

Welcome to Child Welfare Monitor DC

Welcome to Child Welfare Monitor DC. Since leaving my job in the District of Columbia’s child foster care system in 2015, I’ve been writing about national issues in child welfare through my blog, now called Child Welfare Monitor. I have not focused on local issues, using my participation on the Citizen Review Panel for child welfare as the platform for my local child advocacy work. 

With my decision to leave the Citizen Review Panel, I’ve decided I needed a local platform to focus on specific issues around child welfare in the District and I’ve created Child Welfare Monitor DC. My goals are twofold.

  • First, in view of the almost total absence of press coverage of child welfare in the District, I want to inform people of about what’s going on in the District of Columbia child welfare system. In the coming months, I’ll write about CFSA’s implementation of the Family First Act, the upcoming  oversight and budget hearings, reports and hearings in the LaShawn case, and the suit filed by DC Kincare Alliance regarding CFSA’s use of kinship diversion, among other issues. I’ll cover new publications that come out of CFSA, new reports from the court monitor and other outside agencies and other resources, events and policy changes that won’t be covered anywhere else. 
  • Secondly, I want to convey my own unique point of view. Those of you who read Child Welfare Monitor will know that I take a child-centered approach to child welfare. I think that CFSA, like most other large systems, has gone too far in its focus on parents’ rights at the expense of child safety. I’m also concerned about foster care and the lack of parenting many wards of the state receive, whether they are in foster homes or other facilities. And of course I’m concerned about the current placement crisis, which would clearly be much worse if all the substandard foster homes were shut down. These and other concerns will come out in my writing, but if you disagree with me, I hope you will still appreciate the factual reporting that you will also find in my blog. 

If you want to know more about me, check out the About page of this website. And I hope you will subscribe to this blog by clicking on the Follow icon on the right-hand corner of my home page.

Marie K. Cohen