Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mayor Fenty wins the “Arrogance Bowl”

I used to think Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty couldn't accomplish anything in child welfare. I was mistaken. This week, Fenty managed something I thought was impossible: He managed to "out-arrogant" the group that so arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights." Indeed, were there a Super Bowl for arrogance, I'd always bet on Adrian Fenty.

    A quick recap:

CR has a longstanding consent decree in Washington. For many years, the decree was ignored, to the point where the system became the first in the nation taken over by a federal court. But under the administration of former Mayor Anthony Williams the District's Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA) earned its way out of receivership. It continued to make improvements –agonizingly slow improvements but improvements nonetheless.

Then along came Fenty. First he ignored warnings of serious problems ahead, warnings from the independent monitor named to oversee compliance with the consent decree. Then he plunged the agency into chaos with his demagogic response to child abuse tragedies. (For details see the press release and other materials issued by NCCPR at a news conference earlier this month.) Fenty's latest party line is that he deserves enormous credit for allegedly improving the agency. But to the extent that there has been any recent improvement it consists solely of undoing the damage he did in the first place. Thus, Fenty repeatedly cites eliminating a backlog of uncompleted investigations. But it was Fenty who caused the backlog.

And all along, some of us feared that the backlog was eliminated at the expense of CFSA's other responsibilities, including its most important, core responsibilities to children.

New data show that is exactly what happened.

The data come from the independent monitor, and they compare CFSA performance in April and November 2008.

In roughly half of the categories monitored, CFSA either was unable to provide data to show if performance improved, provided data the monitor believes are inaccurate, or actually performed more poorly in November than in April.

Areas where performance declined were among the most important, including:

Percentage of cases where caseworkers made monthly visits to families receiving in-home services.

Percentage of cases in which workers met with parents as often as they should.

Percentage of children forced to move from home to home more than once.

Percentage of children able to visit their own siblings at least twice a month.

In many cases the declines were small – but you don't reward an agency for going in the wrong direction (and I'll get to the reward Fenty is seeking below).

Even where there were improvements, often they weren't anything to brag about.

Nothing is more important to getting a separated family back together again than regular visits between parents and children. CFSA is supposed to be able to ensure that such visits take place weekly in at least 85 percent of cases. (Weekly, in fact, isn't nearly enough, especially since visits tend to be short and supervised – it's a bare minimum the agency must meet). But in April, CFSA managed this in only 33 percent of cases. Yes, it improved in November – to all of 36 percent.

That means that if CFSA were able to maintain this same rate of improvement – and who knows if that even could be done – CFSA would be in compliance with minimum requirements for visits - in about 9.3 years.

So the whole Fenty argument - look how wonderful we are, we eliminated the backlog – is a sham. Not only was it stunningly arrogant on its face, the "accomplishment" was achieved at the expense of children already trapped in the system.

Yet it is based on this claim and one other that Fenty has outdone even the Fenty standard for arrogance.

As The Washington Post reported this morning, Fenty wants out of the consent decree completely.

The District was supposed to come up with the latest in a series of reform plans this week and get approval from the monitor. The monitor didn't think the plan was good enough. So, in violation of the terms of its agreement with CR, Fenty simply marched into court and asked that his plan be approved anyway. He also is demanding, again unilaterally, an exit plan to be released from the consent decree with which he has failed to comply. CR says it will seek to hold the District in contempt of court.

Fenty bases his demand on two arguments: The first is the one about undoing the damage he did in the first place. The other is to cite progress over the past eight years. In other words, Fenty is saying that because his reckless response to child abuse tragedies didn't undo everything CFSA accomplished before Fenty became mayor, Fenty should be trusted to run the agency without court supervision.

    Fenty goes on to accuse CR of trying to "micromanage" CFSA. It could be a potent charge, since CR is known for trying to do that sort of thing. But not this time.

    First of all, it's not CR that said the latest plan wasn't good enough, it was the court monitor.

    The monitor is a neutral arbiter who determines if terms of a settlement, agreed to by both sides, are being met. She is analogous not a prosecutor or a defense attorney, but to a judge.

Assuming you have a good monitor, the monitor's views should have greater weight than either plaintiffs or the District.

    And few people in child welfare are more knowledgeable, more respected – and more reasonable – than Judy Meltzer, the court monitor overseeing this case. Her reports have been rigorous – and measured.

    So it is, in every sense of the word, contemptible, for Fenty to throw a tantrum and simply refuse to implement reform plans to get CFSA where successive D.C. administrations have pledged it will go.

    As for that micromanaging charge, the only example Fenty could come up with is a claim that the monitor and CR want to approve the selection of a new permanent director for CFSA. I don't know if that's true – but I certainly hope so. The only hope for CFSA is getting a director with enough backbone to stand up to Fenty. And whatever else you may call this, it is certainly not micromanaging. Choosing the leader of the agency is the ultimate broad-scope, big picture decision.

    D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles told the Post that "It's important for everyone to realize we are not a bunch of washed-up government servants that need to be monitored."

    Actually, when it comes to child welfare, Fenty and Nickles need more than monitoring. They need adult supervision.