Court Gives Child Agency In D.C. 2 Weeks To Form Plan

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 2008

The District's child welfare agency has two weeks to craft a plan to get out of trouble and avoid being held in contempt of court for its treatment of about 2,500 of the city's imperiled children.

The deadline was set yesterday by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, who has been presiding over a lawsuit against the city's Child and Family Services Agency for two decades. In court yesterday, Hogan conveyed a sense of urgency about its current state.

Flattened by both a surge in cases this year and an unprecedented exodus of social workers, the agency is facing a situation that "could bring everything we've been working for for 20 years to a standstill," Hogan said.

One of the hopes for the agency's salvation lies in Kevin Ryan, former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.

D.C. Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles met with Ryan, who was largely credited with the turnaround in New Jersey's troubled child welfare system, two weeks ago to propose a short-term contract to enlist him and a team from New Jersey.

"We'd like to make him a 90-day contractor, subject to extension," Nickles said.

The D.C. agency was in court five months ago, explaining that it was flooded by a 400 percent increase in active caseloads because of publicity over the case of Banita Jacks, a mother found with her four dead daughters inside her Southeast Washington home in January after she fell through the safety nets of several city agencies.

Nickles said that situation, paired with the flight of about 25 percent of the agency's social workers, was "a perfect storm." But Hogan interrupted him, reminding him that it happened in January and that things have not improved substantially since then.

The agency "just got worse and worse and worse and worse, to an extraordinary degree," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, a lawyer and executive director of Children's Rights, a national advocacy group that filed the federal lawsuit against the agency almost two decades ago. "This system truly has been in free fall."

Lowry, whose group has taken legal action on behalf of children in about a dozen states, said it is common to see calls and cases increase when a high-profile crime rattles a community.

But she said that flailing agencies elsewhere recovered much faster than the District's has.

"I have never seen a system react as badly, especially one so well funded," said Lowry, who was at the hearing yesterday for the LaShawn A. v. Fenty case, which was filed as LaShawn A. v. Barry on behalf of a girl in foster care in 1989 and sent the agency into federal receivership for eight years.

Lowry wanted the court to hold the agency in contempt for its lack of progress on many fronts, particularly the drop in adoption rates, the backlog of cases that have not been resolved in 30 days and the nomadic existence of children in foster care.

"There are children in custody in the District of Columbia that are being moved from place to place to place every night," she said.

Hogan held off on the contempt charge and instead asked the agency to focus on ways to correct the problems highlighted by Judith W. Meltzer, appointed by the court to monitor the agency as a result of the case.

Aside from addressing the backlog of 1,189 investigations that have not been completed in 30 days, Meltzer said, "the selection of a permanent director accompanied by the development of a highly qualified leadership and management team is essential to fully stabilize the agency's operations and to revitalize implementation of essential reforms."

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