Another Death Comes as D.C. Probes Caseworker Backlogs

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 15, 2008; B01

A second baby who was the subject of a neglect case by the District's Child and Family Services Agency died yesterday -- the same day that the long-troubled agency tried to explain a 2,000-case backlog at a D.C. Council hearing called to address the recent death of a 6-month-old boy.

Agency spokeswoman Mindy Good issued a spare news release late yesterday saying the agency had learned of a 4-month-old baby's death that morning.

"CFSA is reviewing agency actions in conducting the investigation and will release appropriate information when that review is complete," she wrote.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Human Services, said it was his understanding that the child's 15-year-old mother "rolled over and slept on him." No official cause of death had been released.

Wells also said that the 4-month-old's case was part of the "backlog," the catchall term for cases in which investigations have not been completed within 30 days.

"I feel like throwing up," Wells said yesterday. "It really does just sicken me."

Hours earlier, a court monitor of the agency described a child welfare system that is understaffed and mismanaged.

The caseloads of social workers are "dangerously high," and their supervisors haven't been reviewing their work, Judith Meltzer, also deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, testified at the D.C. Council hearing.

The hearing was called after the death of Isiah Garcia, a 6-month-old boy who was reported as neglected March 27 and who died June 25 of an undetermined cause.

The social worker assigned to his case never visited him. She was fired, and her supervisor was placed on leave. It was the same kind of swift action that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took in January when he fired six workers in the wake of the discovery of four dead sisters, whose mother, Banita Jacks, has been charged with murder.

The unnamed social worker in Isiah's case went from carrying four cases in January to juggling 50 and hadn't seen children in 17 of those cases at the time of Isiah's death.

Wells revealed that the social worker had been disciplined in the past. He did not give specifics, but in an interview with The Washington Post last week, the social worker said she had been suspended for nine days in 2006 for failing to handle her backlog.

The worker, who did not want her name revealed, said she felt the disciplinary action was unwarranted and in retaliation for expressing her frustration with the way the agency was managing its backlog. A year later, after an intervention by her labor union, the 32-year-old worker got a new supervisor and was able to whittle her caseload down to four.

Until Banita Jacks.

She said morale is so low that people often do not show up for work, and she often took cases because she was the only one in that day. "It's the luck of the draw," she said. "It does not mean that they are bad or slow. It means they came to work that day."

Wells, a former social worker, questioned why someone who had had problems would get the brunt of the agency's work and was not tagged as an employee who needed guidance. The story on just how Isiah's case got dropped became clearer yesterday. Agency director Sharlynn E. Bobo and Camelia Pierre, the new administrator of the Child Protective Services division, testified that the social worker first had a wrong number of the person who reported the abuse. After tracking down the correct area code and leaving messages, she finally got an address. But she also ran into issues because the shelter where the alleged neglect occurred was for abused women, and it did not want to disclose its address.

When she finally got the address, she never followed up, Bobo said.

The social worker told The Post that she was overwhelmed.

"By then, I was getting more cases. I was swimming in the cases I had," she said. "Yes, it breaks my heart that that baby died, but I tried. I tried."

Meltzer stopped short of defending the actions of the social worker or calling her a scapegoat, a question posed by Wells.

But in her testimony, Meltzer said the city needs to look at the overall problems of the agency, not individual workers.

"The mayor and CFSA leadership cannot wish this problem away, assume that it is solely because of one or several unproductive workers or believe that it is just a matter of time before the crisis recedes and things return to normal," Meltzer said.

The Jacks case drew national attention and led to a surge in reported abuse, creating more work for an agency that was already seeing an increase in its vacancy rate and that was now even shorter on staff because of the firings.

The social worker in Isiah's case had been absorbed by another unit. Her previous supervisor was one of the six employees fired in January. Supervisors are supposed to have no more than five workers, but they now have seven or eight each, Meltzer said.

Social workers are supposed to carry 12 cases, the national standard. But out of 85 D.C. workers conducting investigations, 63 have more than 12, and 28 have 30 or more outstanding investigations, Meltzer said.

Bobo acknowledged that recent efforts have not reduced the backlog. After the Jacks case, the agency established new rules and developed a SWAT team of 30 social workers to try to wrap up backlogged cases. After Isiah's death, CFSA plans to step up efforts even more, she said.

"In August, we're going to implement an all-hands-on-deck approach in which every licensed social worker in the agency . . . will complete one to three backlogged investigations," she said.

Staff writer Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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