Brenda Donald is the interim director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)

The head of the District’s long-scrutinized child-welfare agency abruptly resigned last week, leaving behind an organization under fire for failing to investigate reports of potential abuse and promptly place children in foster homes.

Child and Family Services Agency Director Raymond Davidson, who had led the agency since Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) took office, told staff members he was leaving to pursue other opportunities. He declined to elaborate, and D.C. officials would not say whether he was asked to step down.

Advocates for children credit the agency for significant strides in more than two decades of oversight by a federal judge after a 1989 lawsuit alleged that the District failed to protect its most vulnerable children. But they say progress has stalled in recent years.

According to an independent monitor, the agency has not adequately investigated calls to a child-abuse tip line, and the District has struggled to house some teenagers and children with disabilities, leaving a few to spend the night at government offices this past summer.

“We want the progress that had been there two years ago to continue, and we want to be able to move forward to the end of the lawsuit,” said Judith Meltzer, the federal court-appointed monitor and deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

“When we see things moving backward, it’s frustrating,” she said.

District mayors have long been vexed by child-welfare services. In the days of the crack-cocaine epidemic, social workers were barely able to keep up with the surge of children living in dangerous environments. In 2008, the city government reeled after Banita Jacks killed her four children despite repeated warnings to child-welfare authorities.

D.C. officials say no child-
welfare cases in recent years have resulted in fatalities as a result of abuse.

And they insist the agency is on the right track in keeping families together and correcting problems as they are spotted. The court monitor has credited officials, including Davidson, for taking necessary steps for improvement.

“We don’t want to paint the picture that everything is perfect,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Brenda Donald, who is serving as interim director at the Child and Family Services Agency after two earlier stints heading it. “We hit some snags.”

Donald said that the District is trying to do a better job of helping foster children transition to adulthood as they age out of the system. It is also trying to reduce the amount of time children spend in foster care, while continuing to recruit more D.C. residents as foster parents.

Like child-welfare agencies across the country, the District is trying to avoid unnecessary placements in the foster-care system in favor of keeping children with their parents or relatives. About 1,000 children are in foster care at any given time in 2016, half the number five years ago.

Advocates say the rapid downsizing has come with unintended consequences.

Nearly 1 in 4 reports of child abuse to a D.C. hotline that were disregarded by city officials should have been investigated, according to a joint review by government officials and the monitor released in September.

“That means there are children out there in the community who may very well not be safe, even though they’ve been reported to the child protective agency,” said Marcia Lowry, the plaintiff’s lawyer in the federal lawsuit against the D.C. child-welfare system. “They hit a plateau of doing some of the more concrete and obvious things, but they are not improving the agency in a way that protects children.”

Child-welfare officials say they are planning corrective actions for the hotline that will be finalized this week.

In early 2015, the District ended contracts with two private foster-care management companies, expecting that foster parents would switch over to new operators. Many did not, leaving officials scrambling to relocate 46 children while dealing with an unexpected spike of new children in need of homes, stretching the system to capacity.

“The minute there weren’t enough homes, everyone had to focus on that,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center. “Everything else stalled.”

Mindy Good, the longtime spokeswoman for the Child and Family Services Agency, said that the 2015 housing crunch has largely been resolved and new bids are being accepted for companies that provide placements in foster homes.

But advocates say some children continue to struggle to find homes. Most alarmingly, they said, four children had to spend a night at the Children and Family Services Agency building in 2016. Two of the children refused to stay at their assigned placements, while the other two were removed from their homes after midnight, the monitor said.

Donald, the deputy mayor, said that focusing on recent problems loses sight of the agency’s remarkable turnaround. She said the agency has reached a stable position and the remaining requirements to escape federal oversight are the toughest — including improving visits to children and child protection investigations.

“It’s unreasonable to expect we are going to have big leaps as the agency gets to a level of steady performance,” Donald said.

D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), chairman of the health and human services committee that oversees the agency, also defended its performance and said some problems flagged by advocates were exaggerated.

“It’s always a challenge when you are under court monitor for requirements being scrutinized every day,” Alexander said. “They’ve done well. . . . I’ve seen progress.”