D.C. Social Workers Remove More Kids

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The removal of children from their homes has spiked since Banita Jacks's four dead daughters were discovered in early January, months after a D.C. social worker closed the family's case.

The fear of another such tragedy is fueling a social services philosophy in the nation's capital that experts say carries its own perils: "When in doubt, pull them out."

Sharlynn Bobo, director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, says it is not a mandated policy to remove more children from their homes and place them in foster care, as has been the case in other jurisdictions reeling from similar incidents.

But that is often the reaction of social workers, who watched in horror as the Jacks case unfolded and were devastated when their colleagues who worked on the case were fired.

"I would not deny that, in an abundance of caution, my staff became more conservative. That's logical, it's natural, it's human," Bobo said. "But I would also assert that we are not just randomly removing children, either."

A month-by-month comparison of agency statistics shows an increase of about 20 percent in child removals in three of the first four months this year. The most extreme increase, which the agency highlights in its reports, shows a 71 percent increase between the 48 removals done in December, the month before Jacks's situation was discovered, and the 82 removals in March. In April, the number was down to 75, still higher than the 72 children taken in January and the 63 in February.

The increase is straining the overburdened foster care system and sapping the strength of a child welfare agency that is still mending after years of reform.

"With regard to removing children now, since the Jacks case, yes, we have seen an increase in the removals. It's roughly double over the time period," Bobo said. "And I think some of that is certainly attributable to the existence of the Jacks case, but part of that is directly tied to the level of calls."

The city agency has been overwhelmed by a sevenfold increase in open cases of abuse or neglect since the Jacks case made national news, a crisis known as "the surge" in the welfare agency's parlance. School social workers in particular have flooded hotlines, thanks to the example set by a school social worker who was the only one to report her suspicions about Jacks.

The agency has regularly issued reports, "Tracking the Surge," that show that in December the agency had 305 open cases and a caseload that reflected national standards: an average of 12 cases per social worker. Last month, there were 2,110 open cases and the average caseload was 20, but a large portion of the social workers had at least 30 cases on their desks, according to agency records.

Bobo said the situations that have sent children into foster care since the Jacks case are largely similar to those before. Last year, 68 percent of the children going to foster care were there because of neglect, 18 percent because of physical abuse and 13 percent because of a parent's drug use, according to city records.

Social workers have always wrangled with the what-ifs in every doorstep decision about a child's future. But now, making one wrong decision has a name: Banita Jacks. Add to this the pressure of watching D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) swiftly fire six social workers connected to the case, including supervisors and hotline operators. Agency workers might be acting out of fear rather than sound social work philosophy, according to some experts in the field.

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