Friday, July 25, 2008

More than enough “contempt” to go around

The group of adults that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR) wants a federal court to hold Washington D.C. in contempt because the District has failed repeatedly to live up to terms of an agreement to fix its child welfare system.

    It's not clear what this will accomplish, since no one knows what remedy the court might impose if, indeed, it finds D.C. in contempt. But at least it almost certainly won't make things worse. Washington was held in contempt before, in 1994. That time the court put the entire child welfare system into receivership, and it was run by a court-appointed receiver. In the 20 years since this litigation began the period of receivership and the time just afterwards, when the District was still "on probation" and had to be on its best behavior, were the only times the district's child welfare system actually improved.

    So if there is another receivership, odds are things will get better again – if only because everyone from top administrators to frontline workers won't have to live in constant fear of Mayor Adrian Fenty's grandstanding as he tries to score political points by making them scapegoats.

    But legal definitions aside, the city is not the only entity that has shown contempt for Washington's vulnerable children.

    Aside from Fenty himself, no one was in a better position to stop the system from spiraling into chaos than the people at CR. They had to know this was going to happen. They had to know that Fenty's Queen of Hearts response to the tragedy of the Jacks children, whose bodies were discovered in January - his firing of anyone who had come anywhere near the case – would set off a huge foster-care panic. They had to know the panic would drown workers in so many cases that it would be impossible for them to do their jobs. Yet they remained silent for more than six months.

    What could they have done? In court, perhaps, not much. You can't go marching into court and say: "Your honor, precedent from all over the country tells us that, because of how Mayor Fenty responded to the Banita Jacks case the entire system will collapse in six months – so please hold them in contempt now."

    But CR takes pride in working its will through media as much as through the courts. Very early in her career CR's executive director, Marcia Lowry, was a reporter, and she likes to say she still is. Had CR raised hell early on, had CR condemned Fenty's approach in the wake of the Jacks case, had CR insisted on a rational method of screening the influx of calls to the D.C. hotline, had CR condemned the foster-care panic and demanded that it stop, had CR said it wouldn't tolerate a take-the-child-and-run response to the Jacks tragedy, and had CR used its media-savvy to put these points across, the system almost certainly would not have collapsed. Untold numbers of children would have been saved from the trauma of needless foster care – and others would have been saved from abusive parents, because caseworkers would have had the time to make better decisions.

     But it's been a long, long time since CR was a progressive force in child welfare. The group is so much a part of the establishment that its board once was chaired by corporate raider Carl Icahn. (See The Children wronged by Children's Rights) CR is as much a captive of a take-the-child-and-run mentality as Mayor Fenty. Faced with a stark choice of reconsidering its anti-family bias or seeing the D.C. system collapse, it said nothing about curbing the foster-care panic while the D.C. system collapsed.

    The bias is reflected in the contempt motion itself. The motion complains about the Washington system's failure to live up to commitments concerning getting children adopted. But there is not a word about the system's failure to keep families together, and its failure to reunify families.

    At one point, the motion complains about the District's failure to live up to its agreement concerning visits between caseworkers and children, caseworkers and parents, and siblings. But it says nothing about another vitally important form of visitation – visits between children and parents. And while the motion lists several reasons why visits are important, it omits any reference to their importance for reunification.

    As I said, CR was a better organization long ago than it is now. And the D.C. litigation is so old that the underlying agreements actually are better than anything CR likely would negotiate today. The D.C. decree also has a particularly good court monitor. So even with all the problems in CR's approach, holding the system in contempt just might do some good.