Brenda Donald’s introduction as the new director of the Child and Family Services Agency was as much a reunion as a news conference.
After Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) announced her appointment, Donald spent much time hugging old colleagues at the agency where she worked from 2001 until 2005, including two years in the job she now takes for a second time.
Donald said she was “thrilled” to be returning to D.C. government after spending three years running Maryland’s social services agency and more than a year as a foundation executive. She initially agreed to advise Gray on his search before accepting an encore stint as director.
“Most of my career I’ve been a mile wide and an inch deep,” she said. “Now I want to go that inch wide and a mile deep.”
The agency remains in need of deep attention, according to an independent report filed this week as part of the long-running federal lawsuit against the city child welfare system. While hailing “essential foundational work,” a court-appointed monitor said that “overall performance is still not achieving the outcomes expected” under a 2010 agreement.
Among other shortfalls, the report found the agency has not done enough to place children in troubled homes with relatives as an alternative to foster care. It also said the city has been unable to provide necessary data to judge the quality of its encounters with children and families.
Donald, 56, expressed confidence she can rebuild an agency still reeling from the 2008 Banita Jacks tragedy, when city social workers failed to respond to concerns about the welfare of Jacks’s four daughters. They were later found dead.
“While there are still challenges, there is nothing there that scares me,” Donald said.
She said the end of the agency’s court supervision under the two-decades-old lawsuit, known as LaShawn A. v. Gray, is “within striking distance.”
Marcia Robinson Lowry, head of Children’s Rights, which represents the plaintiffs in the suit, said in a statement she was pleased Gray has moved to fill the post, the last major unfilled cabinet position in his administration.
“The agency has a lot of work to do to make its system safe for foster children, and that work cannot be done without a permanent leader,” she said. Lowry said Donald “has the right background and qualifications for the job.”
The appointment also won generally positive reviews from advocates for children and youth, who said Donald has a welcome familiarity with the agency and the city.After heading CFSA in 2004 and 2005, she served as a deputy mayor under Anthony A. Williams (D) overseeing the city social service agencies.
“Brenda is incredibly well respected by people across the spectrum of child welfare,” said Susie Cambria, a policy consultant and former child advocate. “She knows the city well.”
Matthew Fraidin, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, said he is hoping Donald takes swift action on a recent report from an oversight board that found the agency has needlessly removed some children from their homes. “It’s been business as usual for too long,” he said.Donald will make $179,096, the maximum allowed for mayoral appointees without special approval by the D.C. Council. She said she is taking a pay cut from her previous job as an executive at Baltimore’s Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Her appointment is subject to D.C. Council approval.