The District's long-troubled child welfare system is doing a better job finding permanent homes for children in foster care and is acting faster in cases alleging child abuse and neglect, according to a report issued yesterday.
The Council for Court Excellence, a civic watchdog group, declared that the District still has "a long way to go" to complete reforms, especially in moving cases through the legal system. But in most ways, its report echoed the recent findings of a court-appointed monitor that the D.C. government is making significant progress.
The report gives additional impetus to a move to return the child protection system to the District's full control for the first time since 1995, when a federal judge put the system in receivership following complaints of chronic mismanagement. U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan agreed to return the Child and Family Services Agency to the D.C. government last year, but he required a one-year probationary period. The court monitor, Judith W. Meltzer, recommended this month that the probation be ended.
In its 20-page report, the Council for Court Excellence reviewed the child protection agency's performance and likewise cited improvements.
"Now we have two different outside reviewers who are saying that there has been progress here -- that we are making a difference for children," said Olivia A. Golden, director of Child and Family Services. "I'm really proud to see the progress, but I think we have a great deal left to do."
The Council for Court Excellence has done numerous studies of the legal system, but this was its first examination of child protection services. Overall, the District has "improved dramatically" in finding permanent homes for abused and neglected children, said Priscilla Skillman, the council's assistant director.
A federal law requires the system to decide on the permanent placement of abused and neglected children within 14 months of their removal from their old homes. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed by Congress in 1997 and by the District in 1999, requires the D.C. Superior Court's new Family Court to comply with that deadline.
In the 14 months leading up to September, judges had made such a "permanency decision" in 55 percent of cases, compared with 25 percent in March 2001, Skillman said.
But D.C. children in foster care still spend a median of 3 1/2 years there, "with 32 percent spending from four to nine years in that legal limbo," Skillman said.
The council found that the system is showing improvement in finding adoptive homes but that more work needs to be done. The system has been able to place only one-fourth of the D.C. foster children who want to be adopted in homes, Skillman said.
Roughly 3,000 children are in the D.C. foster care system. Of those, about 1,000 are seeking adoption, the agency said.
Before a child is placed in foster care in the District, the underlying court case calling for removal from the troubled home must be decided. The council reported that there is a "clear downward trend" in the time to reach trial or settlement and disposition of these cases -- from an average of 149 days in 2000 to 127 days in 2001.
The times in most cases still exceed the D.C. statutory deadline of 105 days from the filing of the case to the completion of trial and disposition.
"We're pleased that the findings show that there have been improvements, and we believe it reflects a turnaround in the child welfare system in the city," said Lee F. Satterfield, presiding judge of the Family Court.
"I certainly think there is much more to do. We have to use this momentum to continue to achieve these better outcomes," Satterfield said. "While this reflects major improvements, we still need to move forward."
Some child advocates agreed that conditions are getting better.
"It's clear that the District has made progress, particularly in increasing adoptions, placing sibling groups together and reducing the number of young children placed in institutions," said Eric E. Thompson, senior staff attorney for New York-based Children's Rights Inc., which sued the agency in 1989 for failing to protect children.