Surge in Caseload Has Put Agency in 'Crisis,' Court Told

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008; B04

The District's Child and Family Services Agency is awash in backlogged cases and is in "crisis" after thousands of new reports flooded the agency in recent months, a children's rights lawyer said yesterday.

The influx of calls has created "clearly a dangerous situation" that might prompt legal action to send the agency back into court receivership, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, a lawyer and executive director of Children's Rights, a national advocacy group that has been involved in a federal lawsuit against the agency dating back almost two decades.

The U.S. district judge who has been presiding over the case, Thomas F. Hogan, read the reports and looked out at the D.C. courtroom. "I am honestly concerned," he said.

Since Banita Jacks was arrested in January after her four daughters were found dead inside her Southeast Washington home, the child welfare agency has been bombarded with reports of neglect or abuse. Calls to the agency have increased 600 percent, and active cases jumped 400 percent, agency spokeswoman Mindy Good said.

Social workers have been working late nights and weekends to respond to the influx, 22 new cars have been acquired so they could respond swiftly and "SWAT teams" of experienced social workers have been formed to close backlogged cases, said the agency's director, Sharlynn Bobo.

"We as an agency have never experienced anything quite like this," Bobo said at a status hearing in federal court yesterday for the LaShawn A. v. Fenty case, which was filed as LaShawn A. v. Barry on behalf of a girl in foster care in 1989 and which sent the agency into federal receivership for eight years.

The surge in cases has also stunted the agency's reforms, which were not progressing fast enough anyway, Lowry testified.

"There is no reason this shouldn't be a high-performing agency," Lowry said. "It is simply not well-run."

Judith W. Meltzer, appointed by the court to monitor the agency as a result of the case, issued a report yesterday that said the agency had failed to meet numerous benchmarks set by the court even before the Jacks case inundated it with more cases.

The agency has lagged in placing children in permanent homes, rather than a succession of foster homes. Adoptions, for example, dropped from 196 in 2006 to 132 last year, according to the report.

Fewer than 10 percent of the children entering foster care get a dental check within 30 days, and few get medical evaluations in the same time frame, the report said. The flood of new cases makes improvements in that area harder.

Fifty of the 84 social workers assigned to investigation in the agency are carrying more than 12 cases each, which had been the average caseload locally and is the nationwide standard. Thirty social workers each have more than 30 cases, according to Meltzer's report.

Tragedies such as the Jacks case "have the potential to knock any system off balance and particularly a system still engaged in a rigorous change process," Meltzer wrote.

The court hearing yesterday took a dramatic turn from the original plan. Meltzer intended to outline a plan for more improvements in 2008, according to her report. Instead, she worked with the agency to draw up a six-month "stabilization plan."

As of March 14, there were 1,602 open investigations in addition to a backlog of 1,107 investigations that had been open for more than 30 days. It was a marked increase from the last time Meltzer sounded an alarm that the backlog was too high: In July 2004, she was worried about 685 backlogged cases, she said.

Hogan said yesterday he was "somewhat surprised about how fragile the agency seems after all the work in the past."

Bobo said giant strides have been made in the past few years. "We are simply not the agency we were," she said. Last year, the backlog of cases was 50, she said.

And she said the unnatural influx of calls is waning, signaling some relief. "It may have peaked in February" and dropped significantly last month, Bobo said.

She also hopes to hire social workers to help close the gap. That task was made more difficult when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) fired six child welfare workers involved in the Jacks case, sending a chill through social workers across the region.

"Initially, that was the case," she said. But she said that the fear has lessened and that the agency has recently managed to woo two social workers from a neighboring suburban agency.

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