Report on D.C. Child Welfare Agency Calls Care Inadequate

Judith Meltzer has been monitoring D.C. child welfare.
Judith Meltzer has been monitoring D.C. child welfare. (Ray Lustig - Ray Lustig/tw:p Staff)
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By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Despite promises of reform from the Fenty administration, the District child's welfare agency still fails to provide adequate care for abused and neglected children, a court-appointed monitor says.

Children spend too much time in foster care, according to a newly issued report by monitor Judith W. Meltzer. Of the 2,237 children in foster care in the District, the report found that 60 percent had been in the city's care for 24 months or more at the end of last year, and that almost 600 had been in the system for five years or more.

"Progress in reducing length of stay in foster care and ensuring a permanent home for every child has been stalled," Meltzer wrote in the report, made public yesterday.

Meltzer, appointed to track the child welfare agency by a federal judge, found that too many children in foster care were being placed in shelters and other non-family homes or moved from one temporary home to another while awaiting final adoptions.

Her report also found that the number of children being adopted out of shelters and foster homes has slowed. Between 2005 and 2008, adoptions finalized in the District dropped from more than 250 a year to fewer than 100, the report said.

The report, written for a judge overseeing a 20-year-old class-action lawsuit, said the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency has made strides over the past year, finally catching up on a backlog of investigations under the leadership of a new acting director. But the performance has been inconsistent, suggesting that long-awaited reforms have yet to firmly take hold, the report stated.

D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles defended the District's efforts yesterday and said the agency is being more careful in reviewing cases and homes -- a big reason why many children remain in foster care. On a related note, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and acting CFSA Director Roque Gerald launched a month-long campaign yesterday to recruit more District-based foster parents.

Nickles said he believes that the efforts made under Fenty should allow the city to take full control of the agency by 2011.

Children's Rights, the national advocacy group that filed the court case, is fighting efforts by the Fenty administration to end the court's oversight. The child welfare system was put in receivership for five years before being placed back under the District's management in 2000, with the court setting benchmarks for changes. A hearing in the case is set for tomorrow before U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan.

"The federal court has found time and again that D.C.'s abused and neglected children and vulnerable families are entitled to a level of care and service that the District is still simply failing to provide," Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, said in a statement yesterday.

"The city basically said they have done all they're going to do, and enough is enough. But that's not what the court order requires and that's not what these children need," she said in an interview.

The agency came under increased pressure and scrutiny last year after Banita Jacks, a Southeast Washington woman, was arrested on murder charges in the deaths of her four daughters. The girls' bodies were found by federal marshals in January 2008; in the aftermath, the agency was flooded with hundreds of reports of abuse and neglect.

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