Progress in D.C. child welfare agency, monitor finds

December 18, 2012

Brenda Donald, after her appointment last December (Mike DeBonis — The Washington Post)

The District’s child welfare agency has made significant progress in recent months and is closer than any time in the past two decades to escaping federal court oversight, an independent monitor has found.

At the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, “a lot of change has occurred in a short amount of time” under new director Brenda Donald, according to a new report from the agency’s court-appointed monitor.

The report, from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, found a “clear and positive attention to results with a commitment to use data to track progress, identify problems, explore underneath and around issues to identify root causes, and to think and act flexibly to craft and implement solutions.” CFSA has now met 11 of the 23 criteria necessary to exit court supervision under a plan agreed to in 2010 by both the city and the plaintiffs in the case, LaShawn A. v. Gray. The report also found significant process on several other criteria.

“This does not mean that all problems have been identified or solved but there is a sense of both forward movement and optimism,” it reads.

The report renewed warnings about high caseloads for the agency’s social workers, which has been of particular concern since the 2008 discovery of the four dead young daughters of Banita Jacks. CFSA had been alerted to concerns about Jacks, but the agency failed to follow through. After Jacks was arrested, a spike in welfare reports and a caseworker exodus led to further destabilization at the agency.

But, otherwise, monitors found significant progress in key areas concerning training, licensing, investigations, and, most crucially, the appropriate placement of children taken from their parents or guardians.

The nonprofit group that has pressed LaShawn since 1989, Children’s Rights, called the progress “encouraging” in a statement.

“The District must apply this renewed focus to other areas where performance has suffered during a period of unstable leadership at the agency,” said Executive Director Marcia Robinson Lowry. “While not all problems have been identified or solved, the new management at CFSA appears to have solid plans to address the existing problems. The test will be whether these plans can be achieved.”

Donald, a former deputy mayor in D.C. and a former Maryland cabinet secretary in charge of human services, was hired by Mayor Vincent C. Gray a year ago to stabilize an agency that had been in relative chaos since the Jacks tragedy. She said at the time that an end to LaShawn, one of several class action cases governing the operations of a District agency, was “within striking distance.”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · December 18, 2012