D.C. Child Agency Agrees to Conditions

Peter Nickles, D.C. acting attorney general, shown with Mayor Adrien M. Fenty, wanted terms that would not set up the agency to fail.
Peter Nickles, D.C. acting attorney general, shown with Mayor Adrien M. Fenty, wanted terms that would not set up the agency to fail. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The District's embattled child welfare agency agreed yesterday to a list of conditions in a court arrangement meant to prevent its slide back into federal receivership, according to court documents.

The Child and Family Services Agency must reduce its swelling backlog of investigations open longer than 30 days, move dozens of children toward adoption and find replacements for this year's exodus of social workers.

By Oct. 15, the agency also must hire the Public Catalyst Group, the consultants credited with reforming the New Jersey child welfare system, under the stipulation order signed by U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan.

The court order puts the brakes on a motion of contempt brought in July by Children's Rights, a national advocacy group, against D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the agency. The motion could have returned the agency to federal receivership. Children's Rights may restart the contempt motion at any time.

The agency emerged from receivership about eight years ago. In less than a year, the agency has been thrust in the middle of two high-profile cases involving deaths of children known to the agency. In January, authorities found the bodies of four dead girls in their mother's home. Last week, Maryland officials found the bodies of two girls in the freezer of a woman who said had adopted the children from the District.

"With this agreement, the District has finally recognized its desperate need for help in putting its child welfare system back on track," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, which has been involved in a federal lawsuit against the agency for nearly 20 years. "Unfortunately, the District's recent history of allowing the system to deteriorate to this point does not inspire great confidence, and so we have reserved the right to return to court immediately on our open contempt motion if they cannot deliver on even the short-term commitments they have made."

D.C. Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles had a different take, saying Children's Rights finally "got much more realistic" about those short-term commitments.

Nickles had complained that Children's Rights wanted to set targets that the agency could not hit, given the increased volume of calls and the exodus of social workers this year. "I didn't want to commit the city to failure" and, ultimately, receivership, Nickles said.

After a weekend of negotiating, "we have an agreement that we can meet," he said. With the help of the Public Catalyst Group, "over the next eight, nine, 12 weeks, we can do it."

The contempt filing came as the agency began drowning in neglect and abuse calls in January, after Banita Jacks was discovered living in Southeast Washington with the decaying corpses of her four daughters and after officials realized that no one had made contact with her despite calls to a child abuse and neglect hotline.

That surge in neglect and abuse reports led to a fourfold increase in calls. Meanwhile, morale was crumbling at the agency after Fenty fired the six social workers associated with Jacks's case, prompting an exodus of almost 25 percent of the agency's social workers.

Over the summer, two more children died while the agency was investigating reports about them, and the confidence of Children's Rights in the system plummeted.

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