Vaccinating foster youth not the top priority for CFSA

Youth Vaccine Giveaway

The COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for all children aged 12 and older and has been proven safe and effective. The Mayor has strongly encouraged all eligible youths to be vaccinated, organized special vaccination clinics in schools, and announced a variety of incentives for youth vaccinations. Children in foster care are wards of the District, and one might think that the agency would act as the Mayor has encouraged parents to do, and make vaccinating its wards the top priority. However, it appears that that for CFSA, vaccinating its youth falls somewhere below other priorities, such as protecting parents’ rights to refuse vaccinations for their children.

In the District of Columbia, all children aged eleven and up are allowed to consent to their own vaccinations under a new law, the Minor Consent for Vaccinations Amendment Act of 2020. However, in a new Administrative Issuance (AI) released on on July 22, CFSA takes pains to clarify that it has chosen not to take full advantage of this opportunity to get foster youth vaccinated. In the AI, titled “How to Obtain Informed Consent for COVID-19 Vaccination for Children Served in Out-of-Home Care,” CFSA states that “This law does not negate the Agency’s ability to first seek parental consent, rather, it provides an avenue for consent when a parent or caregiver does not consent.” The agency goes on to state that it has decided to continue obtaining parental consent for vaccination for youth 11-17 unless parental rights have been terminated. Youths aged 18-21, who are “developmentally capable,” are allowed to consent to their own vaccine.

Given that CFSA has decided to request consent from all parents of children under 18, the agency could have required social workers to ask all parents of children in their caseloads to consent to the COVID-19 vaccine for their eligible children by a certain date. But they did not do so. Instead, the AI states that “Social workers will ensure that parents receive the share (sic) “Fact Sheet for Recipients and Caregivers” before obtaining their consent to ensure they are making an informed decision about their child receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.” Thus, the focus is on ensuring that social workers share the fact sheet if they request consent, rather than requiring that they ask all parents to consent to the vaccination for their children. Moreover, there is no requirements that these conversations be documented so that the agency can determine how many parents have been asked and how many have agreed; documentation is required only when parents “refuse or are unable to provide consent.”

We do not know how proactive the agency is being in requesting parental consent for children aged 12-17 to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. According to Kera Tyler, CFSA’s Communications Director, “our social workers are actively encouraging parental consent for the vaccine for children in care over the age of 11. By sharing relevant educational materials along with District incentives, our Parent Engagement Education and Resource (PEER), family support workers, and social workers are facilitating conversations with both birth and resource parents to support vaccination for youth 12 and older.” The emphasis on educating parents and using peer support workers is laudable. But with no record of how many parents are being reached with such communication and what the results were, there is no way to know how successful these efforts have been.

The AI does provide a procedure for a child aged 17 or under who wants to get vaccinated to consent to the vaccine if the agency has not obtained parental consent for whatever reason. In such a case, “CFSA will ensure that the child meets with their primary care provider,” according to the AI. The social worker must “ensure that age and developmentally appropriate information about the COVID-19 vaccine is provided to the child by the primary care provider…The primary care provider must confirm that the child understands that they are making an informed decision about their consent to receive the vaccine.” And If the child does consent to the vaccine, “the primary care provider will be responsible for arranging and administering, recommending, or prescribing the vaccine.”

This is a rather cumbersome procedure. The extra step of seeing the primary care provider is not required of other District children consenting to their own vaccinations. Arranging and carrying out this visit is a burden for already taxed social workers. It is not even clear that primary care providers are willing to schedule such appointments. In any case, following this procedure is sure to delay vaccination. Perhaps most importantly, this provision makes it harder for young people in foster care than for their peers who are not in foster care to consent to their own vaccinations. One has to wonder if any children have been vaccinated under this provision, but CFSA has not been collecting vaccination data, as discussed below.

The situation is different for foster youth aged 18 to 21. According to the AI, these young people can consent to vaccinations unless they have a mental disability. The AI states that “Social workers will ensure that youth receive the share (sic) “Fact Sheet for Recipients and Caregivers” before obtaining their consent to ensure they are making an informed decision about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.” Again, the instructions are more about ensuring that social workers share the fact sheet if they do request consent, rather than requiring that they make this request of all youth in this age category. And without a documentation requirement, we have no idea about how often these conversations are being held and what the results have been.

As with parents, CFSA cannot document how proactive it is being in requesting consent for vaccination from older youth in foster care. According to Tyler, “For our older youth, CFSA social workers have distributed educational materials to youth on their caseloads, coordinated appointments, arranged transportation to and from vaccination sites, and promoted the District’s incentives as applicable.” I mentor a nineteen-year-old in foster care who was eligible early for the vaccine early based on medical status, and it was I who provided information about the vaccine, helped her obtain her appointments and drove her to both. She reported that her social worker “mentioned” the vaccine, but there was no offer of assistance in getting vaccinated.

Given the procedures restricting vaccine uptake among CFSA children aged 12 to 17 and the lack of guidance about vaccine among older youth, it is important to know how many youths in CFSA care have been vaccinated. Unfortunately, the agency is not collecting this information. This makes it impossible to know how successful their attempts at obtaining consent have been. CFSA is collecting reports of children who receive a positive diagnosis of COVID-19 but given that these diagnoses are medical data, Tyler states that CFSA is developing some quality control standards before making those figures public.

It is perhaps not surprising that CFSA is sensitive to the beliefs of parents and older youths about COVID vaccines. Most foster youths are Black and vaccine hesitancy is high in the Black community. This hesitancy and the misinformation on which it is based is indeed the biggest barrier to getting older youths vaccinated, according to the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of FAPAC, an organization representing foster parents in DC. It makes sense to focus on sharing educational materials along with incentives to encourage vaccination among foster youth.

But the health of our foster youth, foster parents, and the District of Columbia population overall should be the top priority during this critical time, and CFSA should spare no effort in ensuring that all youth get the necessary information, and that all who are ready to be vaccinated can get the vaccine without delay. We know that foster youths have more health problems than their peers who are not in foster care, some of which put them at high risk if they develop COVID-19. Children’s National Medical Center has reported a “dramatic increase” in pediatric COVID-19 cases over the summer, fueled by the Delta variant. Nationally, cases in children have reached the highest level since the start of the pandemic–more than a quarter of all new weekly cases.

There were 624 children in foster care in the District of Columbia as of June 30, 2021.  More than half of these are 12 and older.* This is a small number relative to the total number of children in the District, but these children are under the District’s direct care. The Mayor has made vaccinations a priority for all eligible groups. One might hope that the District would set an example by making vaccination of its wards a top priority.

*According to the CFSA Data Dashboard, 47 percent of CFSA youth were aged 13 to 21 in the third quarter ending June 30; therefore it is likely that at least half of these youth were aged 12 to 21.

New CFSA data show rebound in hotline calls but not in investigations; continued drop in foster care rolls

The Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) has updated its Data Dashboard for April through June 2021, which is the third quarter of the District of Columbia’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 and the fifth quarter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new data show that calls to the CFSA hotline have almost returned to pre-pandemic levels as school and childcare staff have increased their hotline calls. However, instead of increasing its investigations to pre-pandemic levels, the agency has been screening out more of these calls every quarter, resulting in a number of investigations that is only 70 percent of its pre-pandemic level for the equivalent quarter. CFSA has maintained a fairly constant number of children and families with in-home cases over the past 12 months. However, the foster care caseload has been dropping fast–with a 14.5 percent decrease from June 2020 to June 2021.

Referrals

Figure One below shows the quarterly number of calls to the CFSA hotline, known as “referrals,” starting in the quarter beginning in January 2019 to enable comparison with pre-pandemic levels. The FY 2019 data represents seasonal variation in referrals in a normal year, with referrals falling in the summer quarter when schools are closed, then rising again in the fall, winter and spring quarters. The pattern changed with the large drop in referrals in the first pandemic quarter of April through June 2020. After remaining low in the summer, referrals rose each quarter starting with October through December 2020. By the most recent quarter, April through June 2021, there were 5,880 referrals, almost as many as the 6058 referrals that came in the corresponding pre-pandemic quarter of 2019.

Figure One

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/hotline-calls-referral-type

Figure Two shows the number of hotline calls made by each reporting source, which are available only on an annual basis from CFSA. School and daycare personnel are traditionally the largest referral source, having made 7,704 calls, or 42.9 percent of calls to the hotline, in FY 2019. But they made only 5,006 calls, or 35 percent of calls, in the pandemic fiscal year that ended in September 2020. This is not surprising. While childcare centers resumed operations during the first two quarters of the pandemic, most public and charter schools were operating virtually during that time. Moreover, many children were struggling to log into class, and teachers may have been unwilling to make CPS referrals for students who were not participating due to connectivity problems. But in the first nine months of FY 2021, starting in October 2020, school and childcare staff made 7,610 calls – almost as many as the 7,704 they made in the entire 12 months of FY 2019. In other words, school and childcare providers were reporting at a higher rate and are on track to make more reports in FY 2021 than in the pre-pandemic FY 2019. The percentage of calls that were from schools and childcare centers increased to 47.7 percent in the current fiscal year to date–which is higher than the pre-pandemic share of 42.9 percent in FY 2019. This rebound in referrals from schools and childcare centers could reflect teachers’ concerns about children that returned to classrooms; it could also reflect concerns about those who did not return and teachers’ increased willingness to make reports about children who have been attending sporadically throughout the school year.

Figure Two

Source: https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/hotline-calls-referral-type

Once a call comes into the hotline, it can be accepted as an “information and referral” to be referred to another agency, accepted for investigation, linked to an existing open investigation, or screened out as not requiring any response. As shown in Figure Three, as the number of referrals increased in each quarter, CFSA has reduced the proportion it accepts, thus avoiding a large increase in the number of investigations. The number of referrals more than doubled from 2,396 in the quarter ending September 30, 2020 to 5,880 in the quarter that ended on June 30, 2021. But the number of referrals accepted for investigation increased by only about 17 percent, from 957 to 1124, during the same period. Instead of accepting these new referrals, CFSA was screening them out. In fact, CFSA has been screening out a higher proportion of referrals in each quarter as the number of referrals has increased. The proportion of referrals that were screened out increased from 51.3 percent of referrals in the quarter ending September 30, 2020 to 75 percent of referrals in the quarter ending June 30, 2021, as shown in Figure Four.

Figure Three

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/hotline-calls-referral-type

Figure Four

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/hotline-calls-referral-type

In a recent post, I reported that CFSA sent a message to DC Public Schools (DCPS) and the Public Charter School Board early in March 2021 describing a new practice in screening referrals for educational neglect “due to the influx of reports for potential educational neglect and furthermore the city-wide attendance issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Under the new procedure, CFSA would reject any educational neglect referral for a family with whom the school or CFSA had been in contact within the previous 10 days of school, with some exceptions. It is not clear when CFSA implemented this procedure. It was already screening out 72 percent of referrals in the quarter ending March 30; this increased slightly to 75.2 percent in the quarter ending June 30, 2021, although the number screened out increased from 3,541 to 4,423 in the spring quarter. Of course, these numbers and percentages include all referrals and not just those for educational neglect: Child Welfare Monitor has requested data on educational neglect referrals from CFSA.

Investigations

Figure Five shows the large drop in the number of investigation in the first four pandemic quarters compared to the analogous pre-pandemic quarters. The fifth pandemic quarter continues the pattern. CFSA reported only 1,092 investigations, or only 70 percent of the 1549 investigations in the spring quarter of FY 2019. We have seen that the number of hotline calls had almost reached pre-pandemic levels in that quarter – but the number of investigations did not follow suit, because so many referrals were screened out as described above.

Figure Five

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/investigations-abuse-and-neglect

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” “substantiated,” indicating that the evidence supports the allegation of maltreatment; “incomplete” (as defined in the CFSA Data Dashboard), or “child fatality,” which is defined as a “suspicious death of a child that may be due to abuse or neglect.” 

The percentage of investigations that resulted in a substantiation (shown in red) has not changed greatly during the pandemic. It has varied between 21 percent and 26 percent per quarter since the Spring quarter of FY 2019, as shown in Figure Six. Figure Seven shows that the number of substantiations increased from 206 in the quarter ending September 2020 to 279 in the most recent quarter, but is still considerably lower than the 379 substantiated investigations in the same quarter of FY 2019, before the pandemic. The failure of substantiations to rebound to Spring 2019 levels reflects CFSA’s screening out an increased proportion of referrals as the number of referrals increased.

Figure Six

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/investigations-abuse-and-neglect

Figure Seven

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/investigations-abuse-and-neglect

When an abuse or neglect allegation is substantiated, several things may happen, depending on the perceived 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. CFSA’s Data Dashboard provides data on how many cases are opened for in-home services and foster care.

In-Home Services

When a CFSA investigator considers children in a family to be at high risk of maltreatment, but not in imminent danger, the policy is to open an in-home case for monitoring and services. Figure Eight shows the number of in-home cases opened by quarter, starting in the first quarter of FY 2020.** The figure shows a large drop in the number in-home case openings in the third quarter of FY 2020, following the onset of the pandemic. This undoubtedly reflects the decline in referrals, investigations, and substantiated reports during that period. Case openings were even lower in the summer quarter, then rebounded somewhat to a total of 131 case openings in the third quarter of FY 2021.

FIgure Eight

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/open-and-closed-home-cases

Like in-home case openings, in-home case closures also fell immediately following the pandemic shutdowns, as Figure Nine illustrates. This is not surprising in light of the effects of the pandemic. In-person visits to families with in-home cases became virtual, and there may have been some disruption as new protocols were put into place and online connections were established. Many parents with in-home cases rely on services from other agencies, such as mental health and treatment, to complete their case plans, and these services were presumably disrupted as well. These disruptions doubtless made it difficult for parents to complete required services and thus resulted in a postponement of case closures. Presumably, virtual home visits and services were put into place and bolstered in the following quarters. In-home case closures rebounded in three quarters after April through June 2020, though they fell again to 87 in the Spring quarter of 2021, for unknown reasons. But these are small numbers and random fluctuations can occur.

Figure Nine

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/open-and-closed-home-cases

There were 477 in-home cases opened and a very similar 457 closed in the four quarters ending June 30, 2021, which suggests that the number of open cases changed little over the period. The number of families with in-home cases indeed changed little from June 30 2020 to June 30 2021–from 1,429 to 1,398, as shown in Table One. The total number of children being served in their homes was 1,398 as of June 30, 2021, a very slight decrease from the year before.

Table One

Total Children Served in their Homes, June 2019, 2020, and 2021.

DateNumber of Children ServedChange from Previous Year
June 20191,525
June 202014296.3%
June 20211,3982.2%
Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/total-children-and-families-served-their-homes

Foster Care

As I have described in earlier posts, there was a big drop in foster care entries before the pandemic, with a surprising increase in entries in the first full pandemic quarter; quarterly entries have remained between 60 and 70 for the last three quarters. Sixty-two children entered foster care in the Spring quarter of 2021, similar to the 64 who entered foster care in the same quarter of FY 2020, as shown in Figure Ten. Figure Eleven shows that while the pandemic seemed to delay foster care exits in its initial stages, that effect seems to have dissipated as the agency and courts adapted to virtual operations. The number of children exiting foster care increased slightly in the Spring quarter of 2021. There were 86 exits from foster care, compared to 62 entries in the March-June quarter resulting in a decrease in the foster care population from 648 children on March 30, 2021 to 624 on June 30.

Figure Ten

Source, CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/children-entering-or-re-entering-foster-care-during-fiscal-year

Figure Eleven

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/total-number-exits

Looking at the data for the most recent four quarters, there were 234 entries into foster care and 340 exits in the four quarters ending on June 30, 2021. With exits eclipsing entries, the number of children in foster care had to fall. And indeed, Table Two shows that the total number of children in foster care fell from 740 in June 2020 to 624 in June 2021, a decrease of 14.5 percent, very similar to the 14 percent decrease the year before. The foster care rolls have been falling annually for years, but the decrease accelerated in Fiscal Year 2020, as I described in recent testimony. It looks like FY 2021 will show the same trend when the year is complete. When I asked about this trend a year ago, CFSA responded that it reflects CFSA’s continued commitment to keep families together without formal child welfare involvement when it is safe to do so.

Table Two

Total Children Served in Foster Care as of June 30

DateNumber of Children ServedChange from Previous Year
June 30, 2019850
June 30, 2020730-14.1%
June 30, 2021624-14.5%
Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://childwelfaremonitordc.org/2021/02/26/testimony-before-the-dc-council-cfsa-oversight-hearing-february-25-2021/

In conclusion, the third quarter of FY 2021 saw the number of referrals (calls to the CFSA hotline) recover almost to pre-pandemic levels. CFSA responded by screening out more of these referrals and increasing the number of investigations only slightly. CFSA reported only 1,092 investigations, compared to 1549 in the spring quarter of FY 2019. The number of children and families with in-home cases stayed stable, but the foster care population continued to drop–by an annual rate of about 14.5 percent. CFSA has attributed its declining foster care numbers to its continued commitment to keep families together without formal child welfare involvement when it is safe to do so. Whether CFSA is fulfilling this commitment without jeopardizing child safety remains to be seen.

*DCPS buildings closed in March 2020 and remained closed for all students for the remainder of the academic year. Only a few students were welcomed into school buildings in the fall of 2020. Schools reopened in person in February 2021 to some students, but still only about 20 percent of DCPS students and most only part-time.

**These numbers include all in-home cases opened as a result of CPS investigations. It does not include a small number of cases opened as a result of case transfers from foster care or adoption units or in-home cases that are the result of reunifications and are managed by the foster care units.

CFSA in the second quarter of FY 2021: rejecting more referrals, serving fewer kids

On Tuesday, Judge Thomas F. Hogan approved a settlement in the 32-year-old case now called LaShwan vs. Bowser–a suit which was filed in 1989 alleging major mismanagement in the District’s foster care system. Today, Mayor Bowser announced the end of court oversight over the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). Nevertheless, released by CFSA concerning its operations in the quarter ending March 31, 2021 shows there is still reasons for concern about whether CFSA is complying with its mandate of protecting DC children in a time of pandemic.

A major concern for child advocates has been the possibility that the COVID-19 pandemic would have a double effect–increasing abuse and neglect and also making it less likely to be discovered. As we have already reported, data from the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) indeed showed a drastic drop in calls to the CFSA hotline at the onset of the pandemic and associated closures. The most recent data, from the quarter ending March 31, 2021, show the beginning of a return to normal levels of hotline calls, with an uptick in calls from schools and child care providers. But just when calls are starting to return to normal, the agency seems to be focused on limiting these calls and screening out as many as possible. Moreover, a large decrease in the total child population served by CFSA (including those served both in their homes and in foster care) over the course of the pandemic is of concern as it is unlikely to reflect an equal reduction in the number of abused and neglected children.

CFSA’s Data Dashboard is updated 45 days after the end of each quarter. Child Welfare Monitor DC reported on FY 2021 Quarter One (October to December 2020) update in Testimony at the CFSA oversight hearing conducted by the DC Council’s Human Services Committee on February 25, 2021. We also reported on some preliminary data from Quarter two in a post entitled CFSA, DCPS and the Safety of children not in school buildings. This post integrates the full Dashboard data from Quarter Two (the quarter ending March 31, 2021) into an overview of trends since the onset of the pandemic.

Referrals

Figure One below shows the monthly number of calls to the CFSA hotline, known as “referrals,” from March 2020, when the pandemic emergency began, through March 2021, compared to the same dates of the previous year. (Note that March 2020 is included in both 13-month periods as the pandemic closures began in the first half of that month). DC’s sudden closure of schools for an extended spring break in March 2020 was followed by a chaotic virtual reopening, as schools and nonprofits strove to get children connected with computers and internet service. Not surprisingly, the first three months of the pandemic produced a drastic drop in hotline calls, investigations, and substantiated cases of maltreatment. Reports stayed at basically the same level from April to August, unlike a normal year, when reports drop after schools close.

Perhaps in part due to new guidance for educators produced by CFSA about how to spot abuse and neglect in a virtual environment, referrals rose In October 2020 and began to approach the previous year’s level in November and December, then dropping slightly in January in contrast to an uptick in January of 2021. But the number of referrals increased from 1,224 in January 2021 to 1,408 in February and took a staggering jump to 2,233 in March. We don’t know the extent to which this change was due to the fact that about 20 percent of the school system’s population returned to school early in February. Perhaps there was an onslaught of reports from teachers seeing students in person for the first time that school year. March was the first month where the pre-pandemic and pandemic curves crossed: the 2021 uptick contrasted with a downturn in March 2020 when pandemic closures began. In fact, there were many more calls (2,253) in March 2021 than in March 2019 (1858), when all schools were open.

Figure One

Source: Data from CFSA Dashboard and data provided by CFSA for January-March 2020.
Note: March 2020 data are shown twice in this table

The number of hotline calls per quarter is shown in Figure Two. This quarterly view shows how referrals plunged in the first full pandemic quarter (April-June 2020) and have increased in each quarter since then. The total number of referrals fell from 18,751 in the four quarters ending March 2020 to 13,172 in the four quarters ending March 31, 2021.

Figure Two

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/hotline-calls-referral-type

While monthly data on reporting source are not available, annual data for FY 2020 shown in Figure Three suggest that a decline in reports from school personnel was a major factor behind the fall in referrals overall. In FY 2019, school and childcare personnel made 42.9 percent of all calls to the hotline, but this percentage went down to 35 percent in the pandemic year of 2020. But in FY 2021 to date the percentage of calls that come from teachers actually increased to 47.7 percent–which is higher than the pre-pandemic share of 42.9 percent in FY 2019. This change reflects the big increase in referrals from schools in March, after some children returned to school.

Figure Three

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/node/1435406

Once a referral arrives, it can be accepted as an “information and referral” to be referred to another agency, accepted for investigation, linked to an existing open investigation, or screened out as not requiring any response. It is interesting to look at the numbers (Figure Four) and percentages (Figure Five) of referrals that are assigned to these four categories. Figure Four shows the large drop in the total number of referrals at the onset of the pandemic in April 2020, and the resultant rapid drop in the numbers of referrals that were screened out and accepted. But as the total number of referrals started increasing in September 2020, CFSA began screening out more of these referrals and maintaining a similar number of referrals accepted for investigation. The increase in the number of referrals in February (from 1224 to 1408) resulted in a decline in accepted referrals that month, and a near doubling of calls in March 2021 (from 1408 to 2253) resulted in a much smaller increase of accepted referrals from 307 to 379. Basically, the number of referrals accepted for investigation remained similar from September 2020 (345) to March 2021 (379) despite the big increase in referrals after November.

Figure Four

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/hotline-calls-referral-type

Figure Five shows that with the rapid drop in referrals due to the pandemic, CFSA began accepting a higher percentage of those referrals starting from May to August 2020. But starting in September 2020, as CFSA began getting more calls, screeners began screening out a higher percentage and accepting a lower percentage or referrals. This trend accelerated in February and March of 2021 with the increase in calls to the hotline. This is particularly notable in March 2021, when the number of calls to the hotline jumped from to 2233 from 1408 the previous month. Confronted with this onslaught of new calls, CFSA increased the percentage screened out from 62.9 percent in January 2021 to 71.1 in February to 78.6 percent in March.

Figure Five

This decline in acceptance of referrals is not surprising because CFSA, citing an influx of referrals in the fourth quarter of previous years, made a conscious effort to reduce calls by telling educators that unnecessary calls would be screened out, as described in our previous post, CFSA, DCPS and the safety of children not in school buildings. CFSA’s increased tendency to screen out referrals is somewhat concerning, especially combined with the strong discouragement of referrals in their most recent guidance. Data provided by CFSA in response to a request from Councilmember Nadeau, shown in Figure Five, shows there is reason for concern. The number of educational neglect referrals fell from 3,368 in the pre-pandemic school year of 2018-2019 to 2,378 In 2019-2020, which was interrupted by COVID-19 in March. In the current academic year as of March 31, 2021, educational neglect referrals came roaring back. CFSA had already received 3,581 educational neglect referrals as of March 31–more than in the full pre-pandemic year. But the number of accepted educational neglect referrals declined from 956 in SY 2018-2019 to 443 in SY 2019-2020 to 258 in the current school year through March 31.

FIgure Five

Source: Data provided by CFSA

Figure Six shows the percentage of educational neglect referrals that were accepted, screened out and other. CFSA accepted 28.4 percent and screened out 71.6 percent of educational neglect referrals in the pre-pandemic academic year, 2018-2019. In the disrupted School Year (SY) 2019-2020, CFSA accepted 18.6 percent of educational neglect referrals and screened out 81.3%. And in the current academic year as of March 31, 2021, CFSA had accepted only 7.2 percent of educational neglect referrals and screened out 86.9 percent.

Figure Six

Source: Data provided by CFSA

CFSA’s intent to keep a lid on educational neglect referrals is understandable. Administrators are presumably afraid of being overwhelmed by referrals of educational neglect. Moreover, there has been considerable pushback by activists in jurisdictions like New York City about reports of parents being investigated for educational neglect when they were not able to obtain computers or internet service. However, it is important to note that while categorized as “educational neglect,” referrals from schools about absences often serve a much broader purpose than ensuring that children are going to school. Chronic absence is often the first indicator that the child is not safe. It may even be an indicator that the child is missing. In the case of Relisha Rudd, who disappeared in 2014 and was never found, 18 days of absences did not trigger a report to CFSA because the absences were excused with the help of a bogus “doctor” who was probably Relisha’s abductor.

Investigations

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 full definitions of these terms as well as of “incomplete investigations.”) It takes up to 30 days, and sometimes more, to complete an investigation, so the trends tend to reflect the previous month’s referrals. Figure Seven shows that the trend in substantiated investigations is very similar to the trend in hotline calls, but with a time lag of about a month. There was a huge decline in substantiated investigations in May, June and July 2020 compared to 2019. Substantiated investigations almost caught up to normal levels in August and September, reflecting the normal decline in hotline during any normal summer, and then fell somewhat below the previous year during the fall. Just as hotline calls approached normal in November and December, so did substantiated investigations in December, January, and February. But in March 2021 there was a big decline in substantiated investigations relative to March 2020, a month that may have been already affected by the pandemic. This may reflect that in January and February, the number of calls again lagged behind the numbers for the previous year. It will be interesting to see what happens in April, after the bulge in new referrals in March.

Figure Seven

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/investigations-abuse-and-neglect

Educational neglect data provided to the office of Councilmember Nadeau and displayed in Figure Eight show that the proportion of educational neglect referrals that were substantiated increased between School Year (SY) 2018-2019 and SY 2019-2020 (when the pandemic began) and again in SY 2020-2021 as of March 31, 2021. These data may be related to the fact that proportion of referrals that was accepted for investigation has dropped so greatly. Perhaps by screening out such a high proportion of referrals, CFSA is also screening out more allegations that are not worthy of substantiation. But one wonders if there is a cost to this increased discrimination. Perhaps they are also screening out more allegations that would have been substantiated.

Figure Eight

When an abuse or neglect allegation is substantiated, several things may happen, depending on the perceived 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. 

In-Home Services

When a CFSA investigator considers children in a family to be at high risk of maltreatment, but not meet “in imminent danger of serious harm,” the policy is to open an in-home case for monitoring and servies. In-home cases have become much more common than foster care placements as CFSA has been been laser-focused on keeping children in their homes. On March 31, 2021 there were only 648 children in foster care compared with 1259 children being served in their homes, or 34 percent and 66 percent of the 1907 children being served in total, as Table One shows.

Table One: Number of Children Served in foster care and in their Homes, March 31, 2021

In HomeIn Foster Care Total
Children Served1259 (66%) 648 (34%)1907 (100%)
Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/total-children-and-families-served-their-homes

Based on the early data from the CFSA dashboard discussed in an earlier post, there was a drastic drop in in-home case openings after CPS investigations with the onset of the pandemic. The total number of in-home cases opened in the pandemic months of March to June dropped from 533 in March-June 2019 to 267 in the same months of 2020–a decrease of 50 percent. However CFSA stopped publishing these data after the quarter ending June 2020 because the dashboard was not populating as expected, according to CFSA’s response to Child Welfare Monitor DC. So we do not know if that 50 percent decrease was correct nor how many cases have opened since that quarter. But we do know the number of children and families being served in their homes has dropped drastically since the start of the pandemic. The number of children served in their homes dropped by 12.6 percent from 1,441 to 1,259 between March 31, 2020 and the same date in 2021, as shown in Table Two below. This drop in children served in their homes is seriously concerning as in-home services are CFSA’s main way of monitoring the safety of children who are at risk of harm at home.

Table Two: Total Children Served in in their Homes, March 31, 2019, 2020, and 2021

DateMarch 31, 2019March 31, 2020March 31, 202
March 31, 2019136514411259
Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, cfsadashboard.dc.gov

Foster Care

Figure Nine examines foster care entries from March 2020 to March 2021, compared to the previous 13-month period. From March 2020, when the pandemic hit, through November 2020, foster care entries were always lower in the pandemic period, although the number of entries in July 2020 was almost identical to those in July 2019. But starting in December 2020 and continuing through March 2021, foster care entries each month were higher than that month in the previous year. The explanation for this trend is not obvious. Hotline calls and substantiated investigations did not eclipse prior-year levels until March 2021. But I pointed out in an earlier post the pandemic did not seem to be the main cause for changes in foster care entries earlier in the pandemic and this may continue to be the case.

Figure Nine

As shown in Figure Ten, there was a big decrease in foster care entries before the onset of the pandemic from the quarter ending March 31 2019 to the quarter ending September 30, 2019. After that quarter, foster care entries bounced up and down. Nevertheless there was some decline in foster care entries in the pandemic four quarters starting April 2020 compared to the previous four quarters. The number of entries in the four quarters before the pandemic (April 2019 to March 2020) was 269. In the four quarters beginning April 2020, the number of entries was 236. So the number of foster care entries during the pandemic period dropped by 33, or roughly 12.6 percent.

Figure Ten

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/children-entering-or-re-entering-foster-care-during-fiscal-year

Foster Care Exits

There has been widespread concern around the country that COVID-19 would create delays in the achievement of permanency for foster youth. Family reunifications could be delayed by court closures, cancellation of in-person parent-child visits and increased difficulty facing parents needing to complete services in order to reunify with their children. Court delays could also hamper exits from foster care due to adoption and guardianship. And indeed fewer children did exit foster care every month from March to September 2020 than in the same months in 2019, as Figure Eleven shows. This pattern changed after September, with monthly exits sometimes higher and sometimes lower than the previous year, perhaps as the agency and service providers adjusted to pandemic conditions and delayed reunifications began to occur.

Figure Eleven

Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/total-number-exits

Looking at the total number of foster care exits over time, we can see that foster care exits began to increase after the first two pandemic quarters. But exits did decrease overall during the pandemic period. The total number of foster care exits was 324 during the pandemic year from April 2020 to March 2021 compared to 400 in the previous four quarters, as shown in Figure Twelve.

Figure Twelve

During the four quarters approximately corresponding to the pandemic, there were 236 entries into foster care and 324 exits. As a result of the surplus of exits over entries, the total number of children in foster care declined from 737 in March 2020 to 648 in March 2020, which was a decline of 12 percent–similar to the 13 percent that we found occurred between September 2019 and September 2020. This is a continuation of a multiyear decrease in foster care caseloads. However, we did note in earlier testimony that the percentage drop in the number of children in foster care was greater in FY 2020 than in any other year since FY 2014. So the decline in the foster care rolls seems to be accelerating.

As shown in Table Three, the total number of children served either in-home or in foster care dropped from 2,178 on March 31, 2019 to 1,907 on March 31, 2020–a whopping 12.4 percent, which inclded a drop of 12.6 percent in children with in-home cases and 12.4 percent in children in foster care. It is important to note that this is a decrease of over 12 percent in one year in the total number of children served by CFSA, rather than a shift in the percentage being served from foster care to in-home. Moreover, while the drop in foster cases can be seen as continuing an earlier trend, the drop in in-home cases cannot: the number of in-home cases dropped only slightly more than two percent in the previous year.

Table Three

DateIn-Home
No. (diff. from prev. year)
Foster Care
No. (diff. from prev. year)
Total
No. (difference from previous year)
March 31, 201913658672232
March 31, 20201441 (5.6%)737 (-15.0%)2178 (-2.4%)
March 31, 20211259 (-12.6%)648 (-12.1%)1907 (-12.4%)
Source: CFSA Data Dashboard, cfsadashboard.dc.gov

To look further back, we used figures from the Center for the Study of Social Policy that date back to 2010 showing the total number of children served in foster care and in home on the last day of the fiscal year. Figure Thirteen shows that this total number served was actually increasing between FY 2017 and FY 2019 as continuing declines in the foster care population were offset by increases in the in-home population.

Figure Thirteen

Source, Center for the Study of Social Policy, LaShawn A. v. Bowser, Progress Report for the Period April – December 2019, available at https://cssp.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/LaShawn-A-v.-Bowser-Report-for-the-Period-of-April-1-December-31-2019.pdf, and CFSA Data Dashboard (for 2020 data), at https://cfsadashboard.dc.gov/page/total-children-and-families-served-their-homes. Note: there is an inconsistency between CFSA and CSSP in home totals for 2019–1376 (CSSP) vs. .1348 (CFSA)

So the large (12.4 percent) drop in the number of children served by CFSA was not a continuation of an earlier trend. Foster care, but not in-home, caseloads were decreasing before the pandemic. It is extremely unlikely the number of abused and neglected children dropped by 12.4 percent from March 2020 to March 2021. It appears that this big decline results from a combination of a continuing decline in foster care placement and a reduction in in-home case openings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is concerning that the agency is serving a significantly decreased population compared to before the pandemic.

In sum, the newest CFSA Dashboard data show some encouraging signs of a movement toward normalcy. Referrals for March 2021 are higher than they were two years before and the number of investigations that are substantiated is approaching pre-pandemic levels as well. However, CFSA has displayed a concerning tendency to screen out a large percentage of the new referrals that are coming in. It is clear that CFSA responded to COVID-19 by screening out more education neglect referrals than ever before. And large decreases in the number of children receiving either in-home services or foster care as of March 31, 2021 compared to a year before raises the question of whether CFSA is performing its duty to protect abused and neglected children in the District. As the agency exits from court oversight in the LaShawn class action suit, it is important to ensure that some oversight continues. As we will argue in upcoming testimony, the Council should authorize an Ombudsperson for CFSA to make sure that somebody is monitoring agency operations in the interests of the District’s abused and neglected children.

Relisha Rudd: new podcast misses crucial questions about her disappearance

Image: WAMU.org

WAMU’s new podcast series, Through the Cracks, has just completed its first season, which focused on the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd from the DC General family shelter in 2014. The podcast presents a compelling picture of how multiple generations of untreated trauma, combined with an inadequate social safety net, makes such tragedies possible. However, the podcast falls short in its effort to document the systemic failures leading to Relisha’s disappearance. Specifically, it draws an incomplete picture of the failure of DC’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) to keep Relisha safe despite an open case on the family.

In Through the Cracks, host Jonquelyn Hill retells the story of Relisha Rudd’s 2014 disappearance, which many readers will remember well. By the time Relisha was declared missing, it had been 18 days since she was last seen at Payne Elementary School or the DC General shelter where her family resided, according to the podcast. After Relisha had accumulated 14 absences from school,[1] Payne’s social worker, LaBoné Workman, suspected anything was wrong with the excuse notes Relisha’s mother had been submitting, which were signed by a Doctor Tatum. When Workman arrived at the shelter to investigate, he quickly learned that no such Dr. Tatum existed. Instead there was a janitor with the same name. And not just an ordinary janitor. Investigators learned that Tatum had a criminal record that should have prevented his being hired to work at the shelter. Moreover, he had befriended many children and teens and given them gifts. Some parents had turned down the gifts and terminated the relationships, but not so Relisha’s mother, Shameka Young. The social worker’s visit touched off a citywide hunt for Relisha. On March 20, Kahlil Tatum’s wife was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. On April 1, Kahlil Tatum was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Despite extensive searching by police and volunteers, Relisha Rudd has never been found.

Through the Cracks explains how multiple systems set up to protect Relisha failed. Her mother and stepfather themselves survived instability, abuse, and trauma, which left them with issues that impaired their ability to parent her. Tenant protections failed to prevent the eviction of this family from their home. An abandoned hospital that treated homeless families like prison inmates became the family’s home. A predator named Tatum was hired at this shelter despite his criminal record.

But when it comes to the agency tasked with responding to abuse and neglect in the District of Columbia, the podcast missed the mark. In the penultimate episode, Hill finally mentioned that Relisha’s family was known to CFSA when she disappeared. In fact, she reported that Relisha’s mother Shameka Young was reported three times to the child abuse hotline–in 2007, 2010, and 2013. Hill noted that in none of those cases did the agency elect to remove any of her children, and she devoted some time to discussing that fact. She spoke with a CFSA official, and with Judith Sandalow of the Children’s Law Center, about the policies surrounding the decision whether or not to remove a child. Based on these conversations, Hill finally concluded that “…. because Relisha wasn’t taken away, I can infer that social workers didn’t find enough evidence of abuse or neglect, or I can infer that they believed they could solve whatever the issues were by offering solutions like affordable child care or parenting classes. And if that’s the case, I’m not sure what kind of follow-up there would have been.”

However, the Washington Post‘s extensive coverage of the case has already eliminated the need for some inferences. The Post reported that the abuse or neglect complaints mentioned above were all “sustained” or “verified” by the agency and provided further details. In July 2007, social workers reported finding “inadequate food and supervision for Relisha and her newborn brother and that Relisha had an injury that could have been caused by abuse.” In April 2010, workers investigating a complaint that Shameka failed to bring her son for a follow-up medical appointment after surgery found a home full of cigarette butts and trash and small children being allowed to bathe themselves “without supervision.” In the investigation of the 2013 call, a social worker noted that one of the children had been thrown to the ground, cutting open his lip, and slapped in the face. Young was stated to be “verbally abusive on a regular basis and would leave [the children] alone often.” The Post also explained that these three were the only reports to be sustained by the agency, but others may have been received as well.

Hill and her team could also have consulted CFSA about their options when abuse or neglect is found to have occurred. When CFSA finds abuse or neglect, it can take one of three actions: remove the child or children if they are deemed in imminent danger, open a case for in-home services if the risks are high for future harm to the child, or refer the family to a community-based agency for help if the children are not deemed at high risk. In the case of the 2013 call about Relisha’s family, we know what they did. They opened a case for in-home services.

Several pieces of evidence attest to the existence of an open case on Relisha’s family. Unnamed “sources” told NBC News that “D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) had an active case working when Relisha went missing, along with three prior cases dating back to 2007.” (A reporter can actually be heard reporting this story in the background of the podcast.) The same information was implied by CFSA Director Brenda Donald in a Letter to the Editor stating that “the fact that CFSA does not remove a child as a result of a substantiated abuse or neglect allegation does not mean we do not provide any services.” The City’s heavily redacted report on Relisha Rudd also makes clear to anyone who knows child welfare that her family had an open case.[2]

The fact that a case was opened means that Hill reached some faulty conclusions. First, as explained above, the opening of a case means that the investigator did find abuse or neglect, contrary to Hill’s suggesting that was only a possibility. Second and more important, if Hill was indeed “not sure what kind of follow-up there would have been,” she only had to ask CFSA or the Children’s Law Center. A case for in-home services means there would be follow-up, including twice-monthly visits to make sure the children were all right and to assess the family’s compliance with their case plan. If things were not going well, the social worker had the option of removing the children or seeking court involvement to hold the parents accountable for changing their ways within a given period of time to avoid removal of the children.

Perhaps Hill and her co-producers fell victim to the common misconception that the primary function of child welfare agencies is removing children and placing them in foster care. In fact, as of December 31, 2014, CFSA was serving 2,812 D.C. children, of whom 62 percent were being served in their homes and only 38 percent in foster care. “In-home services” were the main vehicle for serving abused and neglected children in the District of Columbia. (The in-home percentage was slightly higher as of December 2020–about 65 percent). Then, as now, families with in-home services had a case plan outlining the steps they had to take (like receiving therapy or drug treatment) before the case could be closed. The social worker assigned to their case would have been required to visit them at least twice per month to monitor compliance with the case plan and to check on the safety of the children. That social worker would have been required to see each child on each of these visits.

The timeline provided by Through the Cracks indicates that Relisha was last seen on March 1, 2014 at a Days Inn with Tatum on video. (Police told the Post that she had been with him since February 26.) The school social worker’s visit to the shelter on March 19 touched off the citywide search for Relisha. If they had realized the significance of the in-home case, the producers of Through the Cracks might have wondered if the CFSA social worker visited the family late in February or between March 1 and March 18. If so, they might have wanted to know whether the social worker simply accepted Shameka’s claim that Relisha was safe in another location without seeing her, and if the social worker truthfully indicated that fact in her notes. Moreover, the Washington Post reported that Payne Elementary called the CFSA hotline on March 13, after she accumulated ten unexcused absences. A “person familiar with the case” told the Post that CFSA did not treat this as a high-priority call because Relisha’s brothers continued to show up at school. But this report should have been forwarded to the family’s in-home social worker and at least triggered a call or visit to the family by that worker. If they had read the article, the podcast producers should have wondered about that too.

Of course, it is clear that CFSA would not have answered any of these questions. NBC and the Washington Post cited leaked information from unnamed sources for their reports. CFSA refused to comment on Relisha’s case because it would violate the family’s privacy–the same response they give when asked about any individual case. But at least the podcast staff could have done a bit of digging, searching for someone who has left the agency since 2014 and might be willing to talk. They might have asked their police sources if the social worker had been interviewed. In any case, they could have discussed CFSA’s confidentiality protections and whether they truly protect families or serve primarily to serve the agency. And they could have at least raised the issue of CFSA’s how in-home services are supposed to work to address abuse and neglect while keeping children safe at home, and what changes might need to me made to make them more effective.

Why is it important to know how Relisha was able to fall through the cracks of CFSA? It matters because CFSA was Relisha’s last safety net. After tenant protections, the shelter, and the school failed, the only system left to save Relisha was CFSA. And CFSA continues leaving children in homes where they have been abused or neglected under the assumption that they will be safe with monitoring and services. If a child could disappear from a family that had such a case, then there was obviously a need for change. And indeed, the District recognized this. In the heavily redacted report on Relisha’s case that was released by the District government, many of the findings and recommendations concern CFSA (even though that must often be inferred in the findings, where the agency’s name is often redacted[2]), suggesting the agency should have done a better job of recognizing the family’s problems, sharing information with other involved agencies, and perhaps intervening more intensively by seeking court involvement or removing the children. Available information incidentally casts doubt on whether the recommended changes were actually made or retained, but that is beyond the scope of this post.

One hopes the failure to investigate CFSA’s failure in Relisha’s case was not a reflection of ideology on the part of Hill or the Through the Cracks team in general. In the podcast, Hill states that “Black mothers are so often gleefully blamed when things go wrong for their children.” It may not be an accident that she never specifies the details of the three founded reports against Shameka Young. Hill and her team did not mention the details of these findings, such as Shameka cursing her kids, splitting her son’s lip, and letting small children bathe alone. Were these details excluded so as not to make Shameka look bad? Did did the podcast team fear that saying CFSA should have assumed a more interventionist posture would go against the current child welfare climate and the growing movement urging child welfare agencies to stop policing black families, regardless of whether their children need protection?

The unifying theme of Through the Cracks‘ first season is the question of whether Relisha’s disappearance could have been prevented. The producers point out the irony of the District’s statement that the abuse could not have been prevented, while recommending a long list of changes to the policies and practices of all the agencies that interacted with the family. They rightly question the logic of exonerating DC agencies while telling them to change their practices. It is unfortunate that they missed the opportunity to explore the ways in the city’s child welfare agency failed to fulfill its duty to protect Relisha.

[1] According to the Washington Post, on March 13, Relisha had 10 absences and the school called CFSA. On March 19, Relisha had (by deduction) 14 absences and the school social worker went to the shelter.

[2] On page 4, “child welfare” was obviously redacted from Finding #1 and on page 5, “CFSA” is obviously whited out in Finding #2.

Testimony before the DC Council, CFSA Oversight Hearing, February 25, 2021

Good afternoon! Thank you for the opportunity to testify before the Committee today.  My name is Marie Cohen, and I write the blog, Child Welfare Monitor DC, as well as Child Welfare Monitor, which focuses on national issues. I am also a former social worker in CFSA’s foster care system.  My testimony is based on the data that CFSA has been sharing on its new data dashboard, as well as their performance oversight responses and published reports. The most recent dashboard data were uploaded last week and pertain to the quarter that ended in December. I’ll also be making some remarks about CFSA’s efforts around in-home services and prevention, leaving my friends at FAPAC and Children’s Law Center to talk about foster care.. 

My testimony makes a  few major points. 

  • There was a drastic drop in calls to the CFSA hotline starting last March following the closure of schools and the imposition of a stay-at-home order by the Mayor. Total calls were 25 percent lower in March through December 2020 than in the same months of 2019. The number of calls gradually returned to almost normal by December, after CFSA provided training to schools in how to detect abuse and neglect in a virtual environment. The number of investigations, and the number of findings of abuse or neglect, followed the pattern of hotline calls. 
  • CFSA does not currently have valid data on the number of in-home cases opened each month so we cannot tell if that has been affected by the pandemic. But point-in-time data shows the number of children being served in their homes dropped about six percent from 1,333 on December 31, 2019 to 1,250 on that date in 2020. 
  • Foster care entries displayed a surprising trend during 2020. There was a big decrease in foster care entries before the pandemic, and since then quarterly entries have bounced up and down. 
  • Foster care exits declined by 24 percent between March and December, perhaps reflecting court and service delays due to the pandemic, but the gap seems to be closing, with exits actually eclipsing the previous year in October and December.
  • The total number of children in foster care declined from 771 on December 31, 2019 to 662 on December 31, 2020, for a decrease of 14 percent. The fiscal year decrease of 13 percent is larger than for any other year since FY 2014. We do not know the extent to which this accelerated decline in the foster care rolls reflects policy and practice changes, demographic changes in the city, or other factors, but it does not appear to reflect the loss of hotline reports due to COVID-19. Such a big decrease in foster care caseloads raises concerns about whether children’s safety is being compromised.
  • The total number of children served in foster care and in their homes declined by nine percent between December 2019 and December 2020. This is a decrease of almost 10 percent in one year in the total number of children served by CFSA. 
  • About 65 percent of children served by CFSA are being served in their homes rather than in foster care, but we know too little about the services they and their parents are receiving. The oversight responses show a large dropoff between referral and receipt of services, and nothing about completion. Moreover, CFSA does not report on how many parents receive basic psychiatric, therapy, drug treatment and domestic violence services provided by DBH and other agencies. We know that quality and availability are both issues for these services. 
  • CFSA has invested in Family Success Centers as its strategy for the prevention of child abuse and neglect before they occur. These centers seem to be off to a good start and are offering a large menu of services geared at strengthening families. But these centers make no special effort to engage those who need them most, who are traditionally hardest to engage. 
  • Several policy recommendations are suggested by these findings. These include: training alternative reporters for child maltreatment; collecting and sharing data on children diverted to kinship care and their outcomes over time; reviewing CFSA policies and practices to make sure they are not compromising child safety; recognizing the critical role of DBH services for CFSA clients, including parents and those with in-home cases; adding a prevention program that is targeted to the children most at risk of being maltreated, and ensuring speedy implementation of the Children’s Ombudsperson Act.

My observations are discussed in more detail below.

Hotline: There was a drastic drop in hotline calls after pandemic closures, with calls gradually approaching normal levels by December 2020

Almost as soon as the pandemic took hold and stay-at-home orders were issued, child advocates around the country began to express fears that abuse and neglect would increase due to parental stress and economic hardship. Research has suggested that family violence spikes during natural and economic disasters. At the same time, school closures raised fear that child abuse and neglect would go undetected as children stayed home away from the eyes of teachers and others who might report suspicions of abuse or neglect. And indeed, in the District as around the country, calls to the child abuse hotline dropped drastically relative to last year, especially in April and May, just after the shutdown of school and the imposition of a stay-at-home order.  School closures were likely the main cause for this drop, as school and childcare personnel made 43 percent of the calls in FY 2019–and only 36 percent of calls in FY 2020.  But the summer, when teachers are not seeing students anyway and reports go down, looked more like a normal year.  It is as if summer started in April and did not end until August. There is usually an uptick in reports in September and especially October after children return to school and teachers get to know them. This occurred in FY 2020 but was smaller than in FY 2019. But reports began to approach their normal level in November and December. CFSA credits the guidance they developed (in the form of a webinar and a participant guide) to be used to train teachers teaching virtually about how to spot abuse and neglect in a virtual environment. In total, the number of hotline calls dropped from 15,456 between March and December 2019 to 11,579 in the same months in 2019–a difference of 25 percent.

Figure One

Some commentators around the country have wondered if the loss of some reports from teachers might be a good thing because some of these reports were trivial and should not have been made. If only the frivolous reports were being suppressed, the number of reports accepted for investigation would remain similar across the two years. This was not the case. The pattern of hotline calls accepted for investigation followed closely the pattern of all calls to the hotline.

Figure Two

The number of investigations that was substantiated followed a similar pattern to that of reports and accepted investigations. The total number of investigations that was substantiated decreased from 1,053 in March to December 2019 to 808 in March to December 2020, a decrease of 23.2 percent, similar to the percentage decrease in hotline calls. 

Figure Three

We do not know how many in-home cases were opened in 2020 but we do know that the in-home caseload declined significantly between CY 2019 and CY 2020.

When child maltreatment is substantiated, CFSA can place the child in foster care (opening an out-of-home case), open an in-home case, or not open a case at all and refer the family to a collaborative. One might expect fewer cases of both types to open during the pandemic due to the decline in hotline calls.  CFSA does not currently have valid data on in-home case openings, so we do not know the effects of pandemic on this indicator. (Data on in-home case openings posted earlier has been removed due to technical problems). Point-in-time data shows that the number of children served in their homes dropped about six percent from 1333 on December 31, 2019 to 1250 on that date in 2020. And the number of families served in their homes dropped about seven percent from 510 to 473. 

Table One: Number of Children and Families Served In-Home

December 31, 2019December 31, 2020
Children1,3331,250
Families510473

Foster care entries decreased before the start of the pandemic; not so much afterwards.

It is not surprising that hotline calls, investigations, substantiations and in-home case openings all declined in the wake of the pandemic and associated closures. The big surprise is that foster care entries did not display the same pattern. Entries into foster care started out low in January, dropped in February and actually rose in March, April and May of 2020 before dropping sharply in June and a bit more in September. The total number of children placed in foster care declined from 261 in March through December of 2019 to 181 in March through December of 2020.

Figure Four

Looking at quarterly data over time shows that the big decrease in foster care entries appears to have occurred before the onset of the pandemic. It took place during the last two quarters of FY 2019. Foster care entries bounced up and down for the last five quarters, actually increasing last spring when the pandemic began. The data suggest that there was a renewed push to “narrow the front door” of foster care starting in the third quarter of Fiscal Year 2019. And indeed, CFSA’s Communications Director stated that the fall in foster care entries reflected CFSA’s “continued commitment to keep children out of foster care by supporting families in their homes.” Could an increased use of kinship diversion have contributed to these numbers? We won’t know until CFSA starts reporting data on the use of this practice. 

Figure Five

It appears that there were some delays in the achievement of permanency for foster youths in the first few months after the pandemic, as evidenced by declining foster care exits, but the agency appeared to be closing the gap in the first quarter of FY 2021.

There has been widespread concern around the country that covid-19 would create delays in the achievement of permanency for foster youth. Family reunifications could be delayed by court closures, cancellation of in-person parent-child visits and increased difficulty facing parents needing to complete services in order to reunify with their children. Court delays could also hamper exits from foster care due to adoption and guardianship. And indeed fewer children did exit foster care every month from March to September, especially in May and June, than in the same months in 2019. However, the difference between the two years declined in July and August and almost disappeared by September, and the pattern reversed in October and December, so perhaps the agency and court were able to clear the backlog. The total number of children exiting foster care declined from 357 during the period from March through December 2019 to 272 in the same months of 2020. 

Figure Six

A large (14 percent) decline in the number of children in foster care occurred in 2020. 

The total number of children in foster care on the last day of Calendar Year 2019 was 798. It declined to 694 by December 30, 2020, for a decrease of 14 percent. This does not seem to be a consequence of the pandemic, as entries and exits decreased by a similar amount in March to December 2020 relative to 2019. The number of children in foster care on the last day of the fiscal year has declined every year since FY 2012. However, the percentage drop in the foster care rolls (13 percent) was greater than in any other year since FY 2014. Such an accelerated decline always raises questions about whether child safety is receiving adequate consideration.

Figure Seven

The total number of children served both in-home and in foster care declined from 2,104 on December 31, 2019 to 1,912 on December 31, 2020, a decrease of 9 percent.  Out of these 1912 children, 662 (34.6 percent) were being served in foster care and 1,250 (65.4 percent) were being served in their homes. It is important to note that this is a decrease of almost 10 percent in one year in the total number of children served by CFSA, rather than a shift in the percentage being served from foster care to in-home. The reason for this drop is not totally clear but may reflect pre-pandemic policy and practice changes for foster care and pandemic induced reporting declines for in-home services.

Table Two: Children Served in Foster Care and In-Home

DateFoster CareIn-HomeTotal (% Difference from Previous year)
December 31, 2019771 (36.6%)1333 (63.4%)2,104 (1.7%)
December 31, 2020662 (34.6%)1250 (65.4%)1,912 (9.1%)

We know too little about the services received by the parents, as well as children served in their homes.

I have talked a lot about numbers but not at all about the content and quality of services, and I’ll focus on in-home services here. CFSA’s oversight responses provide a list of services provided to families with an open investigation, in-home case, and out of home case combined, not separately for each group. The responses indicated that 910 families were referred to these various services but only 544 were served in FY 2020. We have no idea how many people completed these services, but it is probably a lot less. Moreover, CFSA did not report at all on how many parents received basic psychiatric, therapeutic and drug treatment services, or domestic violence services. CFSA depends on DBH for mental health and drug treatment services and nonprofits for domestic violence services. The DBH services are often of poor quality and all of these services are often in short supply with long waits. CLC discussed the unmet behavioral health needs of children in foster care; the same applies to children in in-home care and especially their parents, who need these services in order to reunify safely with their children.

The big worry is that if the services provided to parents are not effective, cases will be closed without parents having made the changes necessary to be able to keep their children safe. Therefore, we are likely to see these families in the system again, with more harm done to their children. However, there is encouraging news from the latest Quality Service Review (QSR) Report about the In-Home Administration’s improved performance  on providing supports and services to families. 

CFSA seems to have made a good start in implementing the Family Success Centers but needs to do more to engage the families that are most at-risk and hardest to engage.

The Family Success Centers appear to be off to a good start in offering a diverse menu of family strengthening services close at hand for parents in Wards 7 and 8. However, it is not likely that they are going to reach the families that need them most. Families at higher risk are traditionally difficult to engage and reach with services. If CFSA really wants to make a serious effort toward prevention, it will need to target families that are identified as at high risk of child maltreatment.

One example of such a program is Hello Baby, which was pioneered in Allegheny County Pennsylvania, home of Pittsburgh and the visionary child welfare leader Marc Cherna, who has since retired. Allegheny already had Family Success Centers, and they already know that they do not reach the families that need them most. Allegheny County decided to offer a universal support program to all parents of newborns.  The program has three tiers, with the least at-risk families being offered services such as a “warmline,” texting services, and website. The middle tier is connected with Allegheny’s equivalent of the Family Success Centers. And the most at-risk group receives a peer mentor and a benefits navigator or case manager who work together to ensure the family receives the services they need. To assign parents to tiers, Allegheny County uses a predictive algorithm based on a highly advanced “data warehouse” that integrates data across multiple county agencies.

Policy Suggestions

The information outlined above points to several recommendations for CFSA and the Council

  1. Although calls to the CFSA hotline seemed to approach normal levels in December, the total hotline calls between March and December dropped by 25 percent between 2019 and 2020 . Moreover, a nearly 10 percent drop in the total number of children served by CFSA may reflect in part the loss of these reports. CFSA should consider training alternative reporters outside schools: These might include postal and delivery workers and animal control officers, because child maltreatment often coincides with maltreatment of pets. This strategy is recommended by the family violence researcher Andrew Campbell, who has spoken at more than one event under the auspices of Children’s National Medical Center. 
  2. The CFSA dashboard provides no information on kinship diversion–not surprising because CFSA has so far not collected this data. This is an omission that needs to be corrected. The new CFSA policy requires the collection of some data on each diversion and the circumstances surrounding it. These data need to be available on the CFSA dashboard, but we also urge CFSA to make it a matter of policy to track these children regularly and provide regular updates via the dashboard or a public report. 
  3. CFSA should review its policies, practices and data to make sure that it is not compromising child safety in the rush to reduce the foster care rolls through kinship diversion or changed CPS practices. 
  4. The Council must recognize that CFSA relies on DBH for some of the most important services to parents and children and must be willing to allocate funding to improve the services offered by DBH in general. They also need to inform the council about the adequacy of current Domestic Violence services to meet the need among their clients. CFSA must start collecting data on the number of clients receiving these services and the amount of services they receive.
  5. CFSA should consider adding a more targeted prevention program that reaches out to parents  at risk of abuse and neglect but are not yet known to CFSA. This would probably involve developing a predictive model based on data from CFSA as well as other agencies. 
  6. The Council is to be congratulated for authorizing the creation of an Ombudsperson office for children. The implementation of this office should not be delayed as it will be very helpful in ensuring that CFSA continues to improve its performance even in the absence of the Court Monitor after the LaShawn case is closed. Moreover, I hope that with the resources provided the Ombudsperson can do a better job than I can in analyzing the data shared by CFSA.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify. I hope this testimony is helpful in your important work.

This testimony was modified on February 26, 2021 to reflect a CFSA’s clarification to hotline data included in the agency’s oversight responses. It was modified again on June 2, 2021 to clarify the foster care caseload data.

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.