The head of the District's child welfare system yesterday blamed an antiquated computer for the widespread financial troubles at her agency and lashed out at D.C. officials who she said broke an agreement to work with her and not criticize her agency publicly.
Ernestine F. Jones, the head of the Child and Family Services Agency, also said that the agency needs about $137 million this fiscal year, $17 million more than D.C. officials have approved for it.
Jones's remarks came a day after D.C. Chief Financial Officer Valerie Holt unloaded on Child and Family Services, saying that inept accounting and possible misuse of funds contributed to a $16 million deficit in the agency last year.
Holt said the financial problems led the agency--which oversees 3,128 foster children and 3,000 "at risk" youths--to pay some foster parents and care providers twice for the same services, while not paying others at all. Holt added that because of sloppy paperwork, Jones's agency has missed chances to collect millions of dollars in federal assistance.
"I was shocked by her comments," Jones said. "I thought we had an agreement with the chief financial officer to work together to resolve the issues between us. Since it wasn't honored, I feel an obligation to respond on behalf of this agency and the many competent people who work their behinds off."
The rift between Jones and Holt is an indication that the battle to improve the District's long-troubled child welfare system also has become a scramble among D.C. officials for political cover.
Child and Family Services already is in a court-ordered receivership because of a class-action lawsuit in which a federal judge ruled that the District was neglecting its most vulnerable children. The agency is funded by the city, but Jones's status as the court-appointed receiver gives her more autonomy than typical agency heads in D.C. government.
Although Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has a limited say in how Jones's office is run, the mayor last week was inundated with complaints from 100 foster parents who threatened to return their D.C. children because Child and Family Services was several months and millions of dollars behind in paying the children's food, clothing, school, day-care and therapy bills.
After vowing to make sure the bills are paid, Williams's administration has turned the spotlight on Jones and her agency, noting that an audit by Holt's office found a range of irregularities.
The audit found no documentation to support the spending of $2.1 million by Child and Family Services. The audit also said agency officials "wasted" $4.5 million on a computer contract that was terminated after the vendor wasn't performing adequately. The money was never recovered, Holt said.
Holt said the agency also failed to retrieve nearly $11 million in federal funds because of sloppy paperwork, and said there were no senior managers at Child and Family Services trained in finance.
"I absolutely disagree," Jones said yesterday, adding that several top managers in her agency have financial backgrounds. But Jones acknowledged she has had to let several employees go because they lacked management skills.
Jones said a new computer system will prevent duplicate payments and future backlogs of checks to foster parents and day-care providers. She defended her two-year tenure, saying it has taken nearly a year to get a modern computer system in place.
Jones also said that she could have retrieved the federal funding more quickly but agreed to wait until the Williams administration hired a firm that would help D.C. agencies get more federal funding.
"I came to this agency two years ago because it was a mess," Jones said. "That was the reason it was in receivership."
Jones said she has improved training and personnel at the agency, but said insufficient funding has prevented her from carrying out other programs, such as providing substance abuse treatment to parents of abused and neglected children.
Holt, meanwhile, rejected Jones's contention that the criticism was unfair.
"As far as not publicly criticizing the receiver, I don't know what she's talking about," Holt said. "I was asked questions about the agency and I had an obligation to answer them honestly."