Three years after Banita Jacks, how much has changed?
As the volunteer executive director of the Little Blue House (LBH) in Ward 1 in the District, I am charged with the responsibility of making sure the children in our programs learn, grow and are safe. I am not sure what guides the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Is it to keep the number of kids in foster care down or to protect the children? Has the agency really changed in response to the Banita Jacks murder case?
Recently, one of my kids came to the LBH instead of going to school, saying that his mother told him she didn't want him anymore and that he should get out. He is only 10 years old. The argument apparently stemmed from a seemingly innocuous question:
"Can I have clean clothes to wear to school?"
"Get out. I don't want you."
Now that's reportable.
I've been concerned about this family for some time. Other moms had told me this mother was beaten up by drug dealers. I had no firsthand knowledge of this, so I could not report it to protective services. I witnessed this mom handing a wad of cash to some guy while her kids were asking us for food. There is a blanket hanging just inside the front door of her home that prevents anyone from seeing what's inside. Suspicious but not reportable.
This time, after listening to the boy, we contacted the child protective services hotline, supposedly much improved since Jacks's four daughters were found dead in January 2008. No one would describe the person I spoke to as friendly, knowledgeable, helpful or polite. But I got what I wanted: someone to visit that home, someone to look behind that blanket. Or so I thought.
A social worker did call us back to get the address but instead came directly to the LBH to speak to the child. Our social worker sat in on the conversation and reported to me: "This guy has no idea how to talk to a child." She said he was "leading and badgering," drawing the boy to a conclusion rather than listening to what he had to say. The boy did what any other kid would do in this situation: He stopped trying to explain what happened and started agreeing to anything just to get out of the room. Then the interviewer accused him of changing his story.
The boy's mother was waiting when we went to the local elementary school to pick up kids for our after-school program, so I brought her back to the LBH, where she spoke with the investigator. She speaks Spanish, so one of our staff members interpreted for the investigator. How was he planning to talk to her without an interpreter? I wondered.
In the end, the investigator told us he thought everything was just fine with this family. I asked him four times if he planned to visit the home. Each time he said, "It's part of our investigation," but I noticed he never said yes. I am confident he did not go. Why do I think this? The next day the boy was waiting when our staff arrived at the LBH at 9 a.m. He was wearing shorts on a very cold morning. I asked if the investigator came to his house; he said no. He had walked to the LBH in the cold even though he knew we were planning to pick him up. He was upset, but this time he volunteered no information about what happened at home.
Three things are clear to me now:
1. I wasn't going to get what I wanted. No one was going to take a good look behind that blanket.
2. This story reinforces a call I got last year from another agency director. The director said she called the hotline to report a mom she was sure could harm her child. She was told to look for the child's father.
3. I sat behind the CFSA director at a Senate hearing last year and heard him tell the senators how the agency's responses to its abuse and neglect hotline had greatly improved.
Really? How? By disbelieving children and discouraging reports?
Founded in 1991, the Little Blue House is located in Northwest Washington. The nonprofit agency works to help at-risk youth and families achieve self-sufficiency.