Everyday Neglect

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

WHEN CHILDREN die in the District, the public, politicians and the media get worked up over deficiencies in the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). Brianna Blackmond is bludgeoned, or the decaying bodies of four young sisters are found: Officials are quick to react. What doesn't get attention is the everyday damage to children lingering in foster care, being moved from place to place, missing out on medical treatment, never being part of stable families. These hurts have continued as they have stayed hidden, and so an effort to embarrass Mayor Adrian M. Fenty into finally finding solutions is long overdue.

Last month, children's Rights Inc. and the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area asked a federal judge to hold the District in contempt for its failure to make needed improvements to the agency. The groups highlighted the deaths this year of six children whose troubled lives had been brought to the agency's attention. But the problems extend beyond protective services to things as basic as properly training workers. Moreover, it's clear the agency was in free fall well before the case of Banita Jacks, the mother of the four sisters. A court monitor had identified critical shortcomings. No one -- not in the mayor's office or on the D.C. Council -- was paying attention.

It was this indifference -- even after the post-Jacks deluge of calls to the hotline overwhelmed the agency -- that caused the groups to seek a contempt finding. City officials are vexed by what they see as a counterproductive action, but our only qualm is that it didn't come sooner. No specific relief is sought; the groups are not asking, at least not now, for the agency to go back into court receivership. That would be likely to further disrupt an organization that, above all else, needs focused and stable leadership. Since the spring of 2004, it has had four directors. With Sharylnn E. Bobo's recent ouster, an interim director is in charge.

Just as Mr. Fenty pulled out all the stops in his search for a school chancellor, so must he in finding the right CFSA leader. If he is serious about wanting to make the District a model city, he needs to fix the shoddy way it protects vulnerable children. And it shouldn't take the threat of contempt -- let alone the deaths of six children -- to get his attention.

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