Trying to Mend the 'Frayed Trust'

By Scott Higham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2001

Olivia A. Golden continues to confront the question: Why did she agree to become the director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, long considered to be one of the most dysfunctional child protection departments in the nation?

"It feels like a chance to make a difference," said Golden, 46, a no-nonsense administrator fresh from the Clinton administration, who started her new job June 16.

Child and Family Services is emerging from a court-ordered takeover that has been criticized as ineffectual. Golden is the first District official with unfettered power over the agency since 1995, when a federal judge and a succession of receivers assumed control of day-to-day operations.

Golden, a former assistant secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the D.C. agency is ready to change the way it protects and helps the nearly 3,000 children under its care. She said there are no guarantees that she will succeed in the $132,000-a-year post in which so many have failed. But she called her hiring and the backing she has received from Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) "a moment of opportunity."

In many ways, the January 2000 death of Brianna Blackmond, a 23-month-old foster child, was a catalyst for that opportunity. Brianna was slain after several D.C. agencies assigned to protect her failed to do their jobs, adding fuel to Williams's call for an end to the federal control of Child and Family Services. The circumstances surrounding her death, documented by The Washington Post in a series of articles last year, prompted numerous changes to the system.

Federal oversight is expected to end later this year if the city passes a probationary period imposed by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan. The agency's budget has been boosted to $184 million from $124 million two years ago. Golden will hold a position in the mayor's Cabinet with direct access to Williams.

Change is promised. The city is hiring more lawyers to assist social workers. It is ending a decades-long practice of dividing investigations between social workers who handle neglect complaints and police officers who take calls about abuse. Lawmakers have introduced a bill in Congress that would force D.C. Superior Court judges to create a separate family court to supervise abuse and neglect cases. And the city is establishing regulations for foster and group homes.

The mayor said that the city has turned a corner with the reforms he is now making and the hiring of Golden.

"I think it's just amazing that she is willing to come into a very, very difficult, complicated and unforgiving environment here in the District," Williams said. "It speaks volumes for her commitment. She's got the kind of policy, but also practical, experience that's going to make a difference for these kids."

Golden understands the obstacles. She said she wants to restore the "frayed trust" between top agency officials and social workers, while strengthening ties to neighborhoods and tracking children so that none are lost in what has been a haphazard, dangerous system.

"There are worse things than trying your best and not getting all the way," she said. "I fully intend to go all the way."

Golden is mapping a strategy to rebuild Child and Family Services. She said it's too early to tell what the agency might look like in a year or two.

Her former boss from the Clinton administration thinks she can make a difference.

"Almost anyone you meet in the business will tell you this job is not doable," said Donna E. Shalala, former secretary of Health and Human Services. "But if anyone can do it, Olivia can. She is a first-rate manager with a caring heart."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company