By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008
With the recent deaths of several children and a major backlog of cases, the District's child welfare agency will "act on an emergency basis" by pulling in social workers from other city offices and hiring more staff, a top city official said yesterday, one day after the resignation of the troubled agency's director.
"Number one, we have to have a heightened sense of urgency in terms of getting rid of the backlog," said Peter Nickles, the city's acting attorney general.
"We need a temporary influx" of social workers, he said. "We're going to detail folks . . . like putting cops on the street."
Also yesterday, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) promised more funding for the Child and Family Services Agency, which has been under federal court scrutiny for almost two decades. All sides agree that the agency has significantly improved in that time, but a court monitor and advocates say conditions have deteriorated in recent years.
City officials, however, say the problem is temporary. They attribute the case backlogs to the discovery in January of four dead girls at their home in Southeast Washington. A school social worker had warned the agency about the sisters' living conditions but to no avail. Calls to the city about abuse and neglect skyrocketed afterward.
A social worker was fired this month after a 6-month-old boy's death, and the agency is investigating the death this week of a 5-month-old boy.
Sharlynn E. Bobo, who resigned Wednesday after a year as director, did not return a call to her home, and the acting director, Roque Gerald, who had been Bobo's deputy director, would not comment.
Gerald's spokeswoman, Mindy Good, said that the agency is "in the middle of a transition" and that officials would not have anything to say for several days. "We're pretty up against it right now," Good said.
Wells, chairman of the council's Committee on Human Services, said Gerald needs more social workers and should hire outside management experts. He also said he supports funding "whatever the mayor needs" for the agency.
"The mayor should do whatever they need, and if they run a deficit, I'm open to helping them meet that deficit," he said.
The typical agency social worker handles 35 to 40 cases, compared with the national recommended load of 12 to 16, experts said.
"The system is broke. Morale is in the toilet," said Geo. T. Johnson, executive director of District Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Johnson said the problem wouldn't be solved by appointing a new director, but by reducing the caseload, which he said his union has been trying to push since last year.
Officials have just begun to look at how to bring in more social workers, Nickles said, but the goal is to reduce the caseloads by Labor Day.
Officials with Children's Rights, a New York-based group that brought a 1991 case against the agency, said yesterday that CFSA was significantly improved when it emerged from receivership in 2000 but had slipped in recent years. That slippage was evident in the size of the case backlog and in other ways, such as the number of times children in custody are moved from home to home, the group said.
"What's sad is that there was a period when the agency was definitely improving and getting a foothold on reform," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of the group.
But Nickles insisted that the problems are temporary and had resulted from the discovery in January of Banita Jacks's four daughters. Jacks has been charged with murder in the deaths of the girls, whose bodies were badly decomposed.
Before the Jacks case, staffing levels were increasing, Nickles said, and caseloads and the total number of cases were declining. "I thought we had made good progress," he said.