The District’s child welfare agency may have unnecessarily removed dozens of children from their homes in recent years, a new study concludes, “emotionally and psychologically harming both children and parents.”
The Citizens Review Panel, an independent, federally mandated oversight board, examined four years’ worth of records — 27 cases handled by the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency from 2006 to 2010, involving 41 children — where emergency powers were used to remove the children from their homes without a court order, only to be returned to those same homes within months.
Finding “too many cases of inadequate investigations and poor removal decisions,” the panel concluded that the city was “generally right to have significant concerns about that families, but .. was often wrong to conclude that removing children from their families on an emergency basis was necessary to address those concerns.”
The review, though coming amid the fallout from the Banita Jacks tragedy, was not directly connected to it. The report cites an ongoing pattern where children have been removed from homes quickly, only to leave foster care within a few months.
In the District, emergency removals are allowed only if a child is in imminent danger of suffering abuse or neglect by their families.
Panel members found such immediate danger in less than one-quarter of the cases they reviewed. In many cases, the report finds, social workers could have offered parents additional services, transferred custody to a relative, or transferred custody from an unfit parent to a fit parent rather than place a child in a foster home.
The panel calls for “significant reforms to prevent unnecessary removals” — including more clearly defining what constitutes an “immediate danger” worthy of removing a child from his or her home. And in many cases, the report suggests, city officials need to involve a judge sooner and consider less drastic alternatives to foster care.
The report says that CFSA has taken some steps to address the issues in the report, including rewriting many of its internal policies and procedures. In its response to the board, a CFSA official said the report used summaries of cases that “regularly understate the level of danger to the children involved” and otherwise misinterpreted case files.