Nearly 100 foster parents of D.C. children are threatening to return them because the District's child welfare system is several months and millions of dollars behind in payments to day-care providers.
In a petition to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), the parents said their foster children are "suffering a severe and unnecessary hardship" because of persistent problems in Child and Family Services, the agency responsible for the city's neglected children.
Among other things, the parents said more than a dozen D.C. children staying with families in Baltimore were turned away from school for two weeks recently because the agency had not paid the children's tuition. The parents also said the agency's support network for the District's 3,128 foster-care children has crumbled, as dozens of frustrated social workers have fled the agency for jobs elsewhere.
"Children are not being served," said Anne E. Schneiders, chairman of the National Association of Counsel for Children, which represents neglected children. "They are being taken from their parents for neglect, and then being put into the care of a government and neglected. It is totally unacceptable."
Although many foster parents are complaining to Williams, assessing responsibility for the range of problems in the D.C. child welfare system can be difficult.
The mayor's staff says its role is limited because the system is in court-ordered receivership, the result of a class-action suit in which a judge ruled that the city was neglecting its most vulnerable children. The receiver relies partly on funding from the city and says the agency is underfunded.
Meanwhile, foster parents' frustrations are boiling over, and they want Williams, as the head of D.C. government, to be more of a leader on the issue.
Several of the foster parents came out of a meeting with Williams's aides last week and said the mayor wasn't moving fast enough to resolve the problems in Child and Family Services. They want Williams -- who as a child in California was in foster care before being adopted -- to meet with them and designate someone to deal with the crisis.
"There is a little girl or boy out there who won't grow up to be mayor of D.C. because Mayor Williams doesn't understand that without paying for day care, foster children can't find permanent homes," said Nichelle Moorefield, a single mother who works at the Department of Education and cares for three D.C. foster children.
Williams spokeswoman Peggy Armstrong said the mayor understands the foster parents' impatience. "It appears they've come to us at the end of a very frustrating journey," she said.
She said Williams has asked two top aides to "look at what the mayor's administration can do" to help foster parents and report to him by Oct. 25. "The mayor cares about these families," she said. "We want to be responsive and come back with solutions that will work for them."
Some foster parents say the problem is the court-appointed receiver of Child and Family Services, Ernestine F. Jones. In August, nearly two months before the end of the budget year, the agency responsible for the District's foster children and another 3,000 at-risk children ran out of money. The city stepped in, paying some of the bills and helping the agency secure more federal Medicaid funds.
Opinion on Jones, appointed in 1997, is divided. Supporters say the agency's miseries require more time and money than Jones has been given. Critics counter that, measured by the well-being of the children she was hired to protect, Jones -- who declined to be interviewed -- has fallen short.
"We have seen major improvements in the last two years in many of the infrastructure and management areas in need of reform," said Judith Meltzer, the court-appointed monitor of the foster-care system. "They developed a training institute. They have improved their contracting procedures. And they're making improvements in their fiscal operations."
But Karen Howze, an adoptive parent and an attorney for foster children and their caretakers, said that "the bottom line is, the system is not improving."
Schneiders, of the National Association of Counsel for Children, wrote Meltzer on Sept. 27 that "it is hardly a sign of improvement" for the agency to "boast a new building, an anticipated computer system, an expanded administrative component and other top-level achievements, when children are not being served, staff are leaving in anger and frustration, [adoption] is not being achieved, foster homes are not licensed, [and] service providers can't be paid."
Foster parent Kim Tydings said she was not paid by the city for several months after taking in an 11-year-old girl. A therapist finally was sent to see the child last month, after Tydings told the girl's caseworker that she would return the child if no therapy was provided.
Tydings, who wants to adopt the girl, left her job to take care of her, losing income for several months. Now, about to start another job, she is worried that her electricity and telephone service will be cut off -- conditions that could lead Virginia officials to take away her foster daughter.
"I don't get any money to take care of her or buy her food or clothing," Tydings said. "She was put in foster care because her mother couldn't take care of her. If I can't take care of her, isn't that the same thing as being neglected by her mother?"
Foster parents who have called the agency to complain about such problems often have trouble reaching a social worker. Besides having money troubles, Child and Family Services recently has lost dozens of social workers, adding stress to an overburdened staff and hindering the efforts of even the most committed caseworkers.
Disturbed children needing a spot in a therapeutic home typically wait eight to 10 months for placement, Schneiders wrote in her lengthy memorandum to Meltzer. She said clothing allowances are inadequate and mental health services are lacking.
D.C. foster children, 98 percent of whom are black, typically spend at least 3 1/2 years in the system, more than twice the national average. Their biological parents have surrendered their parental rights -- or been stripped of them -- because of drug use, child abuse or inadequate housing.
Jones, the agency's second director, said in a written statement that Child and Family Services, which has an annual budget of $107 million, has a "cooperative working relationship" with the D.C. government, ensuring that "bills are being paid."
When money ran short last summer, Jones worked out an arrangement with Williams and the D.C. financial control board aimed at improving the agency's finances. In return for opening its books to the city's chief financial officer, the agency won a promise that the city would cover its most urgent debts.
Patrick Canavan, a Williams aide on health and human services issues, said the mayor made the agreement because "as a child who was in the foster-care system himself, he understands the importance of consistent, predictable services for kids. . . . And as [the District's former chief financial officer] . . . it is important to him that we pay our bills on time, especially when it comes to children."
Yet day-care bills for D.C. foster children -- most of whom live in Maryland homes -- aren't being paid, attorneys for the children say.
It is so difficult to be paid promptly, said Liz Siegel, co-founder of an advocacy group called DC Action for Children, that many day-care providers no longer accept D.C. payment vouchers. She also said Child and Family Services pays less than most Maryland and Virginia providers charge, forcing foster parents to make up the difference.
"It's incredibly dire," said one foster parent, who like many others didn't want to be identified.
"Many dedicated and loving foster parents are closing their homes and are planning to return children in their care because they cannot properly provide for these children without day care," the Consortium Foster Parent Association said in a letter to Williams. Some parents said they have empty beds but will accept no new children until full day-care payments are provided.
Jones's supporters contend that after years of debate within the District's labyrinthine system, the lines of authority -- and financial responsibility -- remain unclear. In other jurisdictions, for example, the public school administration is responsible for school bills, and other agencies pay day-care and other expenses.
Meltzer, the agency's monitor, agrees with Jones's contention that the agency deserves more money and that Jones deserves room to improve the system and, ultimately, services for children.
"We need to continue pushing for quicker progress," Meltzer said. "We need to stay the course and address the systemic issues that have been here for a long time and will take a long time to solve. We tend in this city to personalize the problems to a leader and assume that a change in leadership will solve the problems."
But many foster parents say staying the course isn't good enough.
"I'm really frustrated right now that the District doesn't have a sense of urgency about this," said Moorefield, who has three foster children. "We would just like for the mayor, the chief financial officer and the receiver to . . . hear the horrific stories of what our foster children are going through."