30-year old class action case wrapping up in DC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

A Need for Continuing Oversight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The CFSA Performance Oversight Hearing: Progress and Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Child Welfare Monitor DC

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

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

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

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

Marie K. Cohen