District Is Facing Contempt Order

A memorial appeared in January at the home of Banita Jacks, whose four daughters were found dead. The case produced a surge in abuse reports.
A memorial appeared in January at the home of Banita Jacks, whose four daughters were found dead. The case produced a surge in abuse reports. (By Jacquelyn Martin -- Associated Press)
By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

Children's Rights, the group behind a nearly 20-year-old class action lawsuit that forced the District's child welfare system to be in receivership for six years, asked a federal judge yesterday to hold the city in contempt for failing children.

The request for a contempt order comes a week after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) ousted the director of the city's Child and Family Services Agency following the deaths of six children in six months under the agency's watch. A recent backlog of cases has saddled most social workers with more than 30 cases each, compared with national standard of 12.

"It's unfortunate circumstances that leads us to this," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of the New York-based Children's Rights. "The management has not been there to move this agency ahead, but the problems go beyond one manager. . . . We're asking the courts to step in."

Lowry said the city has not developed a 12-month plan to address the backlog and other issues, such as failing to train workers and to get children adopted. "It's really soup to nuts beyond child protective services," she said.

Children's Rights filed its motion with U.S. District Senior Judge Thomas F. Hogan, Lowry said.

The last time the group filed such a request, the judge found in favor of Children's Rights and CFSA was placed in receivership from 1995 to 2001.

Interim Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said he had asked Lowry to work with the city as CFSA struggles with a caseload that increased after four girls were discovered dead in January. A previous court order gives the city a deadline of June 2009 to improve the agency, Nickles said, adding that efforts are underway to curb the backlog by Labor Day.

"I had looked to Marcia and the plaintiffs as partners to improve the agency," Nickles said. "This has sort of taken my invitation and said we'll hold you in contempt."

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a former social worker and chairman of the Committee on Human Services, said he sympathizes with Children's Rights' concern that the city has not presented an improvement plan. He questioned the legal move, however. "I'm not sure how finding them in contempt will improve the agency," Wells said.

Lowry said the city's tardiness and lack of cooperation are at issue. The plan was due July 1, a deadline established through compromise when CFSA was in the national spotlight because of the Banita Jacks case.

Jacks was charged with murder in January after the grisly discovery of the decomposed bodies of her four daughters in the family's Southeast home. A school social worker's warnings that the children were being held hostage by a mother who might be mentally unstable, went unheeded by the agency. After a series of mishaps, a social worker closed the case.

The Jacks case caused a surge in reported abuse, increasing the backlog that Nickles said now stands at some 1,600 cases.

On June 25, a 6-month-old boy was found dead three months after he was reported to have been neglected. A cause of death is still pending. A CFSA social worker, whose caseload had jumped from four cases in January to 50 by the summer, never visited the child. In an interview with The Washington Post, she said she ran into issues with a wrong phone number and then the case got lost in her overwhelming workload. She was fired, as were six employees involved in the Jacks case.

On July 14, a 5-month-old boy died, possibly having suffocated, when his teenage mother rolled over on him as they slept on a couch. Though a social worker had visited him and recommended proper sleeping habits to the mother, the case was another blemish for CFSA. Director Sharlynn E. Bobo resigned three days later.

She has been replaced in an interim capacity by Deputy Director Roque Gerald, whose past behavior has created public relations issues for the troubled agency. Nearly two decades ago, Gerald had sex with a depressed patient in his office when he was working as a psychologist. She later sued and settled.

The agency's recent strife was not the only factor that spurred Children's Rights into action, Lowry said.

The motion also cites slippage in many areas that could be seen in November. In addition to the backlog, poor adoption rate and untrained workers, CFSA has not been providing children with required medical and dental screenings, has been moving foster children from home to home and has not been meeting the required number of visits with foster children, according to the motion.

"The child welfare system in the District of Columbia is at a crossroads," the motion reads. "After years of planning, reorganization, investment of additional resources and capacity building to improve the system, the District's executive leadership has allowed the child welfare system to return to a dysfunctional state."

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