Jacks Case, Rise in Reports Might Chip Away at Strides

Banita Jacks's girls were found decomposing in her District home. (AP)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008; Page C05

The District's child welfare workers are closing cases quickly but not always carefully, a court monitor warned two months before the bodies of Banita Jacks's four daughters were found decomposing in their Southeast Washington home after a city social worker had closed their case.

Moreover, the monitor warns that a dramatic increase in child-abuse reports prompted by the grim discovery may cost the beleaguered child welfare agency progress and lead to new strains after a decade of reform.

After years of federal receivership, D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency remains under the scrutiny of the federal court-appointed monitor, whose report in November foreshadowed the cracks in the agency through which the Jacks girls eventually fell before their mother was charged in their deaths.

The agency had been making strides in becoming more efficient and accountable in dealing with about 4,500 children every year. On paper, the Jacks case appeared in order, because the social worker responded within 24 hours of a report and made several attempts to reach the family. The case was closed in 16 days after the social worker heard that the family had moved to Maryland and notified authorities there.

The case highlights the difficulties that come with applying box-checking standards to a profession that deals with a population as fragile, volatile and emotional as the city's imperiled children. "Really, you should never close a case until it's ready to be closed," said the court monitor, Judith W. Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

For most social workers, that means seeing the child. It's a mantra that many social workers repeat, even though a caseload of 12, for example, can mean they are dealing with 50 to 70 members of 12 dysfunctional families.

Applying that standard after the Jacks incident, the agency reopened 309 investigations from last year that had been closed and labeled "incomplete," about 7 percent of the total.

Five types of contacts are required to close a case: the victim, the alleged abuser, the person who reported the incident, doctors or teachers, and all household members. In the 309 reopened cases, the five required contacts for each case were not all reached, said Mindy Good, spokeswoman for the Child and Family Services Agency. In some cases, she said, the child and the parent were never contacted.

The Child Welfare League of America, the country's oldest child welfare group, and Casey Family Programs, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, have sent a team of seven experts to the agency to review the cases and determine whether further investigation is necessary.

The league often plays this role across the country, sending social workers and experts to places where a high-profile case can lead to a spike in reports and the added caseload threatens to bury an agency. "Washington, D.C., is not alone in this. We have been working in Connecticut and Colorado as well," said Joyce Johnson, a spokeswoman for the league.

The court monitor's November report took a snapshot of 40 random cases from 2007 and analyzed the agency's investigative performance. It found that in half of the cases, the five contacts necessary to close the case were not made.

And in four of the five individual cases in which a parent should have been referred to a specialist for mental-health treatment, no action was taken. The court monitor's analysis didn't explain why.

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