By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
The District's child welfare agency is again facing the threat of a federal takeover after cutting off negotiations with a court-mandated monitor about how best to improve abused children's lives.
The bold move by city officials to circumvent 20 years of legal wrangling triggered a motion this week to hold the city in contempt of court.
It began Monday night, when city attorneys filed a six-month strategy and reform plan for the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency without the approval of the court monitor assigned to the case, according to documents filed with U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan.
CFSA has been involved in a court case for two decades that sent it into federal receivership years ago and places numerous requirements on the way it operates. When city officials filed the six-month plan, they sidestepped one of those court requirements, breaking court protocol and signaling the start of a legal battle.
"It's a quite stunning move and a clear violation of the court order," 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 in 1989.
But D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who has fought to end the case since he joined the city administration, said it is inappropriate "to have the court running city agencies."
"It's important for everyone to realize we are not a bunch of washed-up government servants that need to be monitored," he said.
The plan, which was required by the court, has admirable goals: No child would stay overnight in an intake center or office building, 85 percent of children entering foster care would have health screening and caseloads would not exceed national standards.
This plan was filed late Monday night, when the city and the court-appointed monitor, Judith Meltzer, came to a stalemate after months of debating the plan's specifics. According to court requirements, they should have kept negotiating.
"We are troubled by the District's decision to ignore the Court's requirement that the plan be acceptable to the Monitor and the implications of this action for moving forward constructively," Meltzer wrote in her missive to Hogan.
Nickles said he is weary of "outrageous proposals" from Lowry's group that add "layer upon layer of new requirements."
He said he wants the city to be free from monitoring and for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to say who will be the permanent director of the agency, without having to await court approval.
At the end of last year, social workers logged hundreds of hours to cut a backlog of about 1,750 cases that hadn't been closed in under 30 days to fewer than 100, and dozens of social workers were hired. Nickles said that even that performance isn't enough to show Lowry that the agency is in good shape.
"No matter what we do, we cannot get their approval," he said.
But Lowry said that the agency has a long way to go and that the plan it submitted was "less ambitious" than other reform plans.
"All you have to do is look at the monitor's most recent report," Lowry said. "It shows noncompliance on a huge range of issues."
According to Meltzer's report this month, children younger than 6 are being left in group homes, supervised visits between parents and children in foster care happen only 43 percent of the time and, as of November, a third of social workers had more than 30 cases apiece.
She said she also was disturbed by how quickly the agency cratered last year when Banita Jacks was found living with the decaying corpses of her four daughters and thousands of people moved by that case flooded with agency with reports of child abuse and neglect. Hundreds of cases piled up, social workers were crushed by huge caseloads and almost 25 percent of the frustrated workforce walked out.
"You can see this is a nonfunctioning agency. Several years ago, it was a stronger agency than it is today," Lowry said. "And given what's going on in this agency, this is now devolving into a legal battle."
Lowry said her group will ask the judge this week to find the District in contempt of the court. If the judge agrees, the agency might be placed back under federal control.
Nickles and Lowry are scheduled to appear in court Feb. 6.