Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article misspelled Roque Gerald's first name.

D.C. child welfare agency showing improvement but problems persist, report says

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Child abuse and neglect investigations in the District are improving but often take too long to locate alleged victims and frequently fail to include interviews with teachers, relatives and others likely to have vital insight into the family, according to a report by the federal court monitor who tracks the city's child welfare agency.

While noting considerable improvements in investigative practices at the Child and Family Services Agency, the assessment says that some problems cited in previous reports persist and that much work remains for CFSA and its child protective services unit.

The 47-page study, which was made public Wednesday at a hearing in federal court, comes as child welfare agencies and other city departments are wrestling with budget cuts, including this month's layoff of 115 CFSA employees.

The job cuts, which included all 57 of the aides who assist social workers, is one of the budget issues threatening to complicate the District's efforts to exit a long-running class action lawsuit over the city's care of vulnerable children. Last month, the judge in the case, Thomas F. Hogan, rejected the city's argument that the agency had made enough progress to warrant an end to the case. Instead, Hogan asked the plaintiffs and the District to come up with a new plan for ensuring adequate care for abused and neglected children. The two sides have been drafting proposals, which are to be presented to the court monitor in the coming weeks.

Child protection has been a focus of the litigation, particularly since 2008, when Banita Jacks was charged with killing her four children in their Southeast Washington home. Jacks was convicted last year in a case that brought to light a host of problems at CFSA. After the deaths, a new CFSA director was appointed and a new child protection chief was recruited.

The court monitor, Judith W. Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, has routinely been tracking child protection data in the District, but the report released Wednesday is the first in-depth analysis of a large sample of case data in a few years.

Since similar reviews in 2006 and 2007, the agency has made important improvements, starting with much better documentation of its investigations, the report says. In addition, in nearly all cases reviewed by the monitor, investigators interviewed or tried to interview the alleged perpetrators and contacted or tried to contact the person who reported the alleged abuse or neglect. Such basic steps were largely ignored by investigators looking into reports of abuse in the Jacks home in the months before the children's bodies were discovered. And in all of the cases examined by the monitor, all of the children received mandated health screenings.

"These are notable improvements and the Agency should be recognized for its ongoing efforts to enhance the practices of investigative workers," the report says.

Even so, only 44 percent of the investigations met the monitor's standard for "quality" investigations. Although that rate was an improvement from 34 percent four years ago, the amount of cases that don't meet the standard is still too high, the monitor added. In more than 40 percent of cases reviewed, the alleged victim was not seen within 48 hours of a call to the child abuse hotline. And investigators did not consistently contact the people, such as teachers, who would be most familiar with the children and their families.

In an interview after the hearing, Roque Gerald, CFSA's director, said that the targets are appropriate but ambitious and that falling short doesn't mean the agency isn't improving. "I think it's the right thing to do, based on what happened in the past, but realize: We've set the bar pretty high," he said.

The research and analysis for the report were completed before the CFSA layoffs, and the budget pressures facing the agency and the rest of the District government were among the topics that came up at Wednesday's hearing. The D.C. Council also has been weighing proposed cuts to the allowances provided to the city's foster parents.

Any cut to the foster care subsidy is likely to be scrutinized by Hogan. Court orders in the case require a certain level of subsidy to foster families, and some lawyers familiar with the terms of the orders said the cuts would violate the court's mandates.

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