Money Shifted to Backlogged Child Agency

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 1, 2008

D.C. officials have taken $6 million set aside for charter schools, interest and administrative salaries and redirected it to the ailing Child and Family Services Agency for overtime and other costs as the agency has struggled with a surge of new cases.

The agency needed $1.95 million for overtime, $689,000 to hire contract social workers to help investigate backlogged cases and $3.44 million to help fund in-home services for children, according to a memo from William Singer, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's chief of budget execution.

The move was part of an $11 million transfer of funds, largely from the 2008 charter school budget, which had a surplus because enrollment during the past school year was lower than expected. About $5 million will go to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services to pay for an unexpected increase in the number of juveniles detained at or committed to the Oak Hill Youth Center.

The movement of money will not have an impact on charter school operations in the coming academic year.

Child and Family Services, which takes care of the city's most vulnerable residents, has been hit by a wave of staff resignations and a six-fold increase in cases reported since January, when Banita Jacks was found living with the corpses of her four daughters. Six social workers were fired for not responding to earlier reports about the troubled family.

The resulting staff exodus and the new cases "create a perfect storm of rising demand and declining personnel resources," the agency's interim director, Roque Gerald, wrote to his staff members in an internal memo Thursday.

The funds for the agency came from three city sources where expenses were lower than anticipated, according to a letter Fenty (D) wrote to the D.C. Council requesting the money. Half came from the charter school budget; the rest came from savings on interest payments and the city administrator's budget.

Fenty cited the tragedy of the Jacks case in explaining his decision to redirect the money.

A month before the girls' bodies were discovered, Child and Family Services had 305 open cases. That number jumped to more than 2,000 in April, according to agency statistics. At the same time, 59 social workers resigned, about a quarter of the workforce.

That contributed to a backlog of cases that hadn't been resolved in 30 days. In early January, the agency had 65 such cases. That rocketed to more than 1,700 in June. This summer, almost 80 percent of child abuse reports made to the agency hadn't been closed in 30 days, according to agency statistics.

The remaining social workers worked early morning hours, nights and weekends to catch up, logging nearly $2 million in overtime. Many who once handled fewer than a dozen cases have been juggling an average of 20 or 30 cases; some were assigned as many as 50 cases, according to the social workers.

Things got worse in June, when a 6-month-old boy was found dead three months after he was reported to have been neglected. And on July 14, a 5-month-old boy died, possibly having suffocated, when his teenage mother rolled over on him as they slept on a couch. Although a social worker had visited him and counseled the mother, the case put the spotlight on the agency's struggles yet again.

Director Sharlynn E. Bobo resigned three days later.

Calls to the hotline have slowed, and social workers can focus more on the backlogged cases. Gerald issues regular reports tracking the progress they are making, such as a monthly backlog decrease of a couple of hundred cases a month.

"This week, we should get the backlog of investigations below 1,400 and expect to make further progress over the next month," he wrote Thursday.

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