The District's child welfare agency has paid some foster parents and care providers twice for the same services while not paying others at all, a situation that helped create a $16 million deficit for the agency last year, the city's chief financial officer said yesterday.
Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt, in a scathing review of the department that oversees 3,128 foster children and another 3,000 "at risk" youths, also said the Child and Family Services Agency has failed to receive millions of federal dollars because of sloppy or inadequate documentation. Some of the agency's financial practices are questionable enough that Holt said she has referred them to the inspector general's office for investigation.
"We found very serious financial management problems," she said. "In some cases, the agency was duplicating foster-care checks. In other cases, they weren't paying foster parents at all because their names weren't on their payroll [computer] tape. And they don't have one person in a leadership position who is financially trained."
Holt's remarks reflected the frustration that is building in Mayor Anthony A. Williams's administration over problems at Child and Family Services, which is in a court-ordered receivership because of a class-action suit in which a judge ruled that the city was neglecting its most vulnerable children.
The receivership status means that the mayor's office has limited say in how Child and Family Services operates, but foster parents and other critics nevertheless have vented their anger at Williams (D), who has vowed to help the agency pay its current bills and clean up its books. Holt's broadside against Child and Family Services yesterday seemed partly designed to assure foster parents that something was being done to correct the financial problems.
A spokesman for Child and Family Services said no one from the agency would comment yesterday. He said neither court-appointed receiver Ernestine F. Jones nor deputy receiver Milton Grady was available.
Jones has complained that the District was not giving her agency enough money to improve services.
Holt said D.C. officials uncovered the financial problems at Child and Family Services after the agency ran out of money in August--more than a month before the end of the last fiscal year--and she sent in auditors to examine the agency's books. She said that in addition to accounting issues, there appeared to be a general lack of organization in tracking foster children through the welfare system.
Her criticism of the agency came less than a week after nearly 100 foster parents of D.C. children threatened to return the children because the District's child welfare system was several months and millions of dollars behind in payments to them and day-care providers.
Laura MacKenzie, a therapist with a private company that provides services to foster parents, said one family she was working with has returned the foster child to the D.C. government because it wasn't receiving payments. Recently, more than a dozen D.C. foster children staying with families in Baltimore were turned away from public schools for two weeks because the D.C. agency had not paid the children's tuition.
This week, three D.C. Council members wrote to Holt and Williams, accusing them and Child and Family Services of not abiding by an August agreement to promptly pay providers of foster-care services that were left short after the agency overspent its $107 million annual budget.
The letter--signed by Democrats Sandy Allen (Ward 8), Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Kathy Patterson (Ward 3)--said an Aug. 13 memorandum signed by representatives of the Williams administration and Child and Family Services promised to pay the providers for invoices more than 45 days old within four business days. "It is our understanding this has not occurred," the council members wrote. "Why not?"
Holt said the city has covered the foster-care payroll through September for all the invoices it received from the child welfare agency--in part by helping the agency secure an additional $11 million in federal money. The problem, Holt said, is that not all the foster parents who were owed payments were listed on the agency's payroll.
One example, she said, is Kim Tydings--a foster parent whose plight was highlighted in a Washington Post article this week. In an interview, Tydings said she was not paid by the city for several months after taking in an 11-year-old girl. A therapist finally was sent to see the child last month, after Tydings told the girl's caseworker that she would return the child if no therapy was provided.
Grady, the deputy receiver at Child and Family Services, said in a letter to Holt this week that Tydings had not been paid because of "a glitch in the very antiquated [payment] system."
Tydings is among the foster parents who threatened to return children because they haven't been paid for months--and who say they still aren't being reimbursed.
"The problem hasn't been solved," said Judith Sandalow, the foster parent of two boys and one of the parents who asked the mayor for help. "I have not yet received reimbursement.
"The city also has a long history of failing to pay day-care providers," she added. "Foster parents can't find day-care providers to accept their foster children. Until the mayor helps day-care providers feel confident that they will not only start to but continue to receive payment, the problem won't be solved."