Child welfare demands frank debate
Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of opinions expressed on this page regarding child welfare and child protection in the District ["Taking toys from foster kids won't fix D.C. child services," Jan. 9; "Three years after Banita Jacks, has anything really changed?," Jan. 2; "Sacred cows in D.C.'s child services budget," Dec. 26]. Many criticisms of the imperfect system here and nationally are valid. At the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), we certainly acknowledge the legitimacy of many of these criticisms. But the critics and advocates do not agree on appropriate solutions, and even the most well-intended opinions do not confront the full range of issues affecting child welfare nationally, and especially locally, in all their complexity.
The CFSA is working to address many of the concerns that have been expressed. While we have reduced placements into traditional group homes by 30 percent, we still place too many children in these environments, and we need loving families to volunteer to provide foster care for our children and youths. A reduction of the number of children placed in residential treatment centers, from an all-time high of 148 in 2007 to a historic low of 44 in 2010, still results in many youths entering these facilities. By improving our initial practices, we have also dramatically reduced the rate of children entering foster care as a result of calls to the hot line reporting child abuse and neglect, from one in five to one in 10, but we are not satisfied with that rate, which remains high compared with those of other jurisdictions.
There are further local challenges that must be taken into account. The situation in the District is affected, among other things, by high poverty and teen pregnancy rates compared to those of the states, resulting in many mothers, mostly single, who are unprepared to provide adequate support and care for their families. The current economic climate, local and federal legislative mandates - both funded and unfunded - and court-directed processes all contribute to the challenges for the CFSA and its partners in developing the strongest possible safety net for those we serve.
But we know we must push for continued improvement, and Mayor Vincent Gray's vision of "One City" provides an excellent framework for open discourse and development of lasting solutions that strengthen the local safety net. At the CFSA, we must do our part by deepening our commitment to address these issues, in collaboration with our partners. Constructive discussion that identifies system strengths and seeks solutions to the deeply rooted social ills that place children at risk has never been more necessary than at this critical economic time.
True community development includes investments in infrastructure and human capital. A return to civility in our discourse can help in avoiding complacency and feelings of defeat stemming from the challenges. The child welfare system will benefit most by accepting valid criticism that also acknowledges the social challenges and systemic improvements that form the real-world context for further growth.
No child should be injured by a family or by the system designed to protect him or her. But no system can function at its best in a climate that does not allow for a dialogue involving realistic expectations and balanced, constructive criticism. The Child and Family Services Agency must continue to improve its transparency so that public input and community support can contribute to its ability to fulfill its mission as a critical member of the "One City" safety net.
The writer is director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency.