CFSA Is 'Not Ready,' Judge Says

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 7, 2009

A federal judge scolded the District's attorney general in court yesterday and told him that the city's child welfare agency is not ready to stand on its own.

"I don't understand your approach today, coming in and throwing down the gauntlet," U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan told D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who last week sought to put an end to 20 years of court involvement in the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency by filing a flurry of legal briefs.

CFSA went into a five-year federal receivership in 1995 and has since been under court supervision. When city officials filed a six-month reform plan without the approval of the court-appointed monitor last week, they sidestepped one of those terms, signaling the start of a legal battle. Two more briefs outlined a plan for the District to exit court supervision and put an end to the long-running case.

Children's Rights, the national advocacy group that filed the case, objected to the lack of consultation and the specifics of the reform plan. Executive Director Marcia Robinson Lowry said the plan focused on what the District could accomplish, not what was best for children. "The plan is not only modest, but disgraceful," she said.

Lowry asked the court to hold the city in contempt, paving the way for a possible return into federal receivership.

But Nickles, who has fought to end the case since he joined the city administration, argued that the agency has improved dramatically since last summer and that court involvement is hindering progress. Adhering to the court monitor's goals, Nickles said, would "commit the agency to failure," because they are too high given the agency's resources.

"You certainly committed a lot of legal resources to filing these motions," Hogan said.

Nickles said the court's involvement is hurting the agency's ability to find a high-profile director for the agency. During interviews, candidates said they didn't want to "walk into a buzz saw," he said.

Although the city signed an agreement in October that said the court monitor and Lowry would be included in the selection of new director, Nickles said Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said "that is not acceptable."

In court and after the hearing, Nickles said he expects to appoint a director of the agency "within a week." Interim director Roque Gerald is a candidate, but Hogan reminded Nickles to include the child advocates before making a selection. The judge also reflected on the 20 years he has been involved in the case. He said the District made great strides and "a couple years ago, the agency was on its way out" of court supervision.

But when Banita Jacks was found living with the decaying corpses of her four daughters last year, the agency was flooded with reports of 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.

The agency "fell back to 20 years ago," Hogan said.

At the end of last year, the agency cut the backlog of cases from more than 1,700 to four as of yesterday. And a vacancy rate that was 25 percent is now a little more than 4 percent, Nickles said.

"We want to turn the ship around," Nickles said. "We want to be credible."

But Hogan said it's too early to declare victory and leave court supervision.

The agency is "not ready," he said, and he scheduled additional hearings for next month.

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