Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The definition of insanity…

…is, of course doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. By that definition, a story in today's Washington Post proves that the administration of Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is certifiable.

Let's review:

The decomposed bodies of four children, allegedly killed by a mother who apparently went mad, are found on January 9. The D.C. Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA), knew about the family. They had chances to save the children, though some of those chances are apparent only in hindsight. At the crucial turning point in the case, a social worker might have been lazy – or she might simply have had too many other cases that looked more urgent. At precisely the time when horror and fury needed to be channeled into real solutions, the mayor opts to yell "off with their heads!" instead, and fires anyone who came anywhere near the case. The head of CFSA, Sharlynn Bobo, stands with the mayor when she should be standing up to him. For details see: Return of the Queen of Hearts and The floggings will continue until morale improves.

The thought of a civil servant in D.C. actually getting fired sends such paroxysms of joy through the city's power elite that their feelings of vicarious revenge for anything that's ever happened to them at, say, the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, overwhelms any other consideration – such as whether the mass firings of people without first finding out if they actually did anything wrong will plunge the agency into chaos. And sadly, CFSA is never all that far from chaos to begin with. (The war between the power elite and the civil service in D.C. is something I'll try to get to in a future post.) The Post offers up a vicious editorial suggesting that everyone who works for CFSA is lazy, incompetent or both. And the chair of the relevant City Council committee, Tommy Wells, proves that, to steal a line originally used about a certain U.S. Senator, the most dangerous space in D.C. is the distance between Tommy Wells and a television camera and/or reporter's notebook.

The mass firings do indeed plunge CFSA into chaos. CFSA is perhaps the only child welfare agency in America to require that every caseworker have an MSW degree. Workers who know that MSWs are very much in demand in child welfare and they can get jobs elsewhere leave to get jobs elsewhere. Social work graduates CFSA wants to recruit say "no, thanks." Meanwhile, every "mandated reporter" terrified of being blamed for the next horror story calls in anything and everything to D.C.'s child abuse hotline. So even as children are traumatized, sometimes, perhaps, for life, by needless foster care, and even as they are placed at considerable risk of abuse in foster care itself, average caseloads for CFSA workers soar from 12 to 20 – with many carrying more than 30 cases.

All of this was laid out on June 3 in this excellent story in the Post. The story virtually predicted what would happen next. And now it's confirmed:

Another caseworker tries to reach a family where abuse is suspected by phone two or three times. But once again, as in the case last January, the caseworker never makes face-to-face contact. Another child dies. It's all in the Post today.

So guess how Mayor Fenty responds? He fires the caseworker. The supervisor is merely placed on leave (perhaps the mayor's way of showing he's acquired a sense of nuance?)

As is true with the workers in the previous case, I can't tell you for sure that the mayor is wrong. Maybe in this instance the caseworker was lazy; sitting around with her or his feet up on the desk shooting the breeze, when s/he should have been knocking on the family's door. Or maybe s/he was simply too overwhelmed to get to every case. Support for the latter theory comes from the fact that this worker reportedly had a caseload of 50 – that's fifty – and had not made contact with the children in 17 of those 50 cases.

And here comes Tommy Wells, promising to hold a hearing on Monday and demanding to know "How did this happen…?"

How did it happen, Councilmember Wells? Read that Post story from June 3; it explains exactly how it happened. It happened because, while it can happen in any child welfare system at any time, you made it more likely to happen in D.C. now – you, and Sharlynn Bobo and, especially, the mayor.

And the mayor already has set in motion events which, if they're not stopped, make it even more likely to happen again.