The District's foster care system continues to shortchange children in its care by failing to provide full medical and mental health services and sufficient caseworker visits, a children's advocate said yesterday in U.S. District Court.
Officials from the new administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, promising reform, negotiated an extension of a deadline for improving the child-welfare agency. The city has until Dec. 31, 2008, to make changes that should have been in place by the end of last year or earlier.
"It is troubling to us that, although the District has made progress, they are still as far off as they are," said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group leading the long-running suit against the city. "The agency has still failed to address some significant problems affecting the well-being of these children."
The new timetable marks the latest development in the case now known as LaShawn A. v. Fenty. Filed in 1989, the federal class-action suit has outlasted several mayoral administrations and now represents about 2,400 D.C. children under the care of the Child and Family Services Agency. The suit was named for a 4-year-old who had been in emergency foster care for 2 1/2 years, significantly longer than the 90 days allowed by D.C. law.
Both sides in the case agreed to extend the deadline after lengthy negotiations. The District promised to improve investigations of alleged child abuse and neglect. The city also said it will seek better placement of children in family-like settings and provide more rigorous health and dental care.
Peter Nickles, general counsel for Fenty (D), told Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan that the new administration is "committed to the necessary funding."
"The issue is the quality of care, the outcomes for this vulnerable population," he said.
When the suit was filed, the District's child welfare system was described as chaotic. Hogan wrote about "the indifference" of the administration of then-Mayor Marion Barry (D) and "the resultant tragedies for District children relegated to entire childhoods spent in foster care drift." In 1995, the system was placed in court receivership because of the lack of progress, a condition that was lifted in 2001.
But improvements have come too slowly for child advocates involved in the case.
Lowry told the judge that the agency did not meet 60 of its 105 goals during the last three years. Among other problems, only 56 percent of children in foster care are receiving the prescribed twice-monthly visits by caseworkers, she said. Only 29 percent receive medical exams within 90 days of their placement in the system, although the District earlier had agreed to provide timely screenings for 90 percent of the children in its care by the end of 2005.
"Children are still being damaged on a day-to-day basis by this system," she said.
Richard S. Love, senior assistant D.C. attorney general, told the court that the agency has gone through "dramatic, measurable and, indeed, remarkable" reform. "But it is long recognized that there are things yet to be accomplished," he said.
Hogan acknowledged "the commitment of the new administration" and called the new deadline "logical and enforceable." He set a hearing for June 7 to gauge progress.