Several day-care providers and foster parents of D.C. children say they still have not been paid since the spring, despite Mayor Anthony A. Williams's assurances last week that the District government would immediately cover the bills owed by the city's troubled child welfare system.
Williams's promise came after nearly 100 foster parents of D.C. children threatened to return them because the Child and Family Services agency was several months and millions of dollars behind in payments to day-care providers.
The foster parents--most of whom live in Maryland--depend on monthly stipends from Child and Family Services to help pay for food, clothing and other costs for their foster children. The city, which is responsible for more than 3,000 foster children and another 3,000 "at risk" youths under government supervision, also pays for day care for the children while the foster parents are working.
"I still haven't been paid since the summer," said Judith Sandalow, the foster parent of two D.C. boys. She was one of the parents who asked the mayor for help, and is dissatisfied with his response.
"We asked the mayor's staff to give us the name and telephone number for foster parents to call to resolve crises in day-care payments," she said. "They have not provided such a person. This is an urgent problem."
It's also a problem that has led to much finger-pointing among D.C. officials.
Valerie Holt, the District's chief financial officer, said last week that Child and Family Services 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.
Ernestine F. Jones, who heads the child welfare agency, has blamed the payment problems on a faulty computer system that she says has been replaced. She said the new computer will prevent late payments and other accounting problems, but adds that Child and Family Services--which depends on a mix of city and federal funding--needs more than the $120 million D.C. officials budgeted for it this fiscal year.
Meanwhile, Williams's administration--which has a limited role in running Child and Family Service because the agency is in court-ordered receivership--is increasingly frustrated by the problems in the child welfare system. The agency's receivership status is the result of a class action lawsuit in which a judge ruled that the District was neglecting its most vulnerable children.
Foster parents went to the mayor for help after months of frustrating attempts to get help from Jones's agency. The mayor's office stepped in and paid many of the agency's bills in August through October, under the condition that Child and Family Services undergo an audit by city accountants. That led to Holt's blunt critique of what she called mismanagement at the agency.
Milton Grady, the agency's deputy for operations, said that since Oct. 1, the agency has made $10 million in vendor payments.
"We are continuing to make every effort to get all payments for day-care providers up to date," Grady said in a statement, adding that Jones had "authorized overtime for staff to complete this."
The mayor's chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer, added that despite the management and financial problems, foster parents and day-care providers would be paid.
"Any time children are not getting what they need, that's not acceptable," Omer said. "The mayor is committed to paying every provider, every child and every family. We need to pay these bills and we're going to pay them."
The question the foster parents and day-care providers are asking, however, is when.
"We haven't been paid since March and I'm owed about $3,000," said Eric Franklin, who lives in Prince George's County and is the parent of a 16-month-old foster child. "I personally called Ernestine Jones on Sept. 7, and she said, 'I'll get someone on it and we'll get right back to you.' I haven't heard from her."
Frances Davis, a day-care provider for two foster children, said she has called Child and Family Services repeatedly to ask about the hundreds of dollars owed her.
"One time they told me I was not in their computer system," Davis said. "Another time they said I was in the computer system but there was no money in my account. This has caused me all kinds of problems. I'm behind in almost all my bills. No matter how small the amount may be, it's money I've worked for and depend on."