The District's child welfare agency is in danger of failing to meet a December 2006 federal court deadline for improving services to foster children, according to a new report from the court monitor in the case.
Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, said in her report that despite the agency's accomplishments in reuniting children with their birth parents, finding adoptive homes and improving administration, "it is our concern that the progress may not be sufficient to meet a significant portion of the Court-ordered benchmarks by Dec. 31, 2006."
Meltzer shared details of her findings yesterday with a D.C. Council committee as part of a hearing to assess how well the agency is complying with the court order.
The city's Child and Family Services Agency, which has about 2,700 foster children in its custody and monitors an additional 1,300 children in their homes, has been under legal scrutiny since 1989 when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit now known as LaShawn A. v. Williams. For a six-year stretch that ended in 2001, the agency was removed from city control and placed under a court receivership.
In 2003, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan approved a plan that outlined how the agency would improve. Every six months the court monitor reports on its progress.
According to the report, which covers a period up to June 30, 2005, the agency has made several important strides, such as placing a stronger emphasis on education and job training of teenagers in foster care, some of whom have spent more than a decade in the system. In addition, social workers are seeking more input from birth and foster families and involving them in decision-making, more children have cleared legal hurdles and been put up for adoption, and the agency has started to work with the city's mental health agency to create new mental health programs for foster children.
But Meltzer testified that there are also serious problems, which in some instances had been addressed successfully but reappeared.
On 10 occasions between April and October, children had to spend the night at agency headquarters on Sixth Street SW because of a shortage of foster care placements, a situation that Meltzer described in the report as a crisis. Eighteen children spent at least one night at the headquarters during that period. The agency had expanded its contracts with private firms to make 143 more beds available, but the beds were not ready because of licensing and staffing requirements.
Meltzer noted that the agency also had children sleeping at its headquarters several years ago.
Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who chairs the Human Services Committee, which held the hearing, said the practice was unacceptable.
"Can you assure the committee that this will never happen again?" Fenty asked, questioning Brenda Donald Walker, former director of the agency and now deputy mayor for Children, Youth, Families and Elders, and interim director Uma Ahluwalia.
Ahluwalia said the agency has taken steps to prevent a recurrence, including recruiting several social workers who would stay in a hotel with a child as a last resort.
"It will not be the norm," Ahluwalia said of the overnight stays at headquarters. "It will be the exception if it happens."
The report also noted that 6 percent of the foster children who are considered good candidates for family reunification had weekly visits with their birth parents, compared with the court's goal of 85 percent for June.
In addition, 45 percent of child abuse investigations were completed within the required 30 days, far short of the benchmark of 80 percent. Problems included turnover in that unit and investigators' lack of access to a government vehicle, the report said.
Donald Walker said that the agency is going to set a higher pay rate for the investigations unit beginning in January and has asked the council to release $1 million to pay for additional staff positions.