Fired D.C. Social Worker's Caseload Had Ballooned

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A D.C. social worker -- fired yesterday after a 6-month-old boy's death -- had a workload that jumped from four cases to 50 as reports of neglect and abuse flowed into the child welfare system after the death of four sisters.

The Child and Family Services Agency had been accused of mishandling the case of Banita Jacks and her daughters, which drew national attention.

The social worker involved in the baby boy's case got swept up in the increased reports, said Geo T. Johnson, executive director of District Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"A lot of times it's hard to get to the volume of cases they have," Johnson said. "These people are human, too."

But Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) stood by his decision to fire her and to place her supervisor on administrative leave.

"If someone is saying the District of Columbia human services agency is somewhat overburdened . . . I'm the first to say that," he said.

However, Fenty added, "There can be no excuses."

The child died June 25, three months after a March 27 call to a hotline, according to interim Attorney General Peter Nickles. The cause of death has not been determined and no arrests have been made, but the social worker never saw the baby, despite a report of neglect. Nickles also noted that the social worker had not seen children in 16 other cases.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Human Services, is holding a hearing on the case Monday. Wells, a former social worker, said he is concerned about CFSA's ability to manage the backlog of cases.

A children's rights lawyer renewed a threat to ask a federal judge to hold the city in contempt for continuing to fail children through CFSA. Marcia Robinson Lowry said there were warnings that children would not be served if the backlog was not handled properly.

"Unfortunately, a predictable outcome is that all too likely something bad is going to happen to a child," said Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, a national advocacy group that has been involved in a federal lawsuit against the agency for nearly 20 years.

The social worker, whose identity has not been revealed by the administration or the union, tried to contact the family by phone. Nickles said she tried March 31, April 2 and possibly another time in between. Johnson said the social worker told him yesterday that there were four attempts.

Johnson said "initially . . . they had given her the wrong contact information, wrong phone number, wrong address."

"Then, through searching, she was able to track it down through another source," he said.

Johnson and other union leaders said yesterday that there is a policy to make contact with a family before visiting.

"You have to get permission to come there," said Deborah Courtney, president of Local 2401 of AFSCME, which represents employees in the Department of Human Services. "They have to be willing to allow you to come into their door."

Johnson said the social worker told him that the case was not originally hers -- an example of the shuffling other union leaders say has occurred as workers scramble in the wake of the Jacks case.

On Jan. 9, the bodies of Jacks's four daughters were found decomposed in a Southeast Washington rowhouse, estimated to have been there for several months. The case was closed despite a school counselor's desperate calls to the agency and even though police said that the girls were being held hostage and that their mother appeared to be mentally ill.

Fenty fired six workers in that case. A hearing officer recommended three for reinstatement.

It was the kind of swift action Fenty has become known for, although he is sometimes reversed. Fenty said he has instituted the approach of quickly terminating those he finds accountable, because that is what constituents demand. In the past, employees got "a slap on the wrist," he said. "People are tired of that."

The brisk style, coupled with the increase in reported cases, has created an atmosphere of fear and has lowered morale at CFSA, Courtney said. "With our new mayor, it's a fix-it. Get it done or lose your job," she said. Although the drive is there, union leaders said, the resources are not, and more social workers are needed.

The national standard for a social worker's caseload is 12, but after the Jacks case, District social workers were dealing with 20 on average, and some had more than 30.

"You expect someone with 40 or 50 cases to perform at the level they would if they had 12 cases. That's unrealistic," said Wayne L. Enoch, a shop steward for Local 2401.

Courtney said the social workers are constantly struggling with decisions about which cases to pursue.

"You meet the day for that moment," she said. "You get the hot spot. That's it. That's how you lose these children in the system."

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