Monday, October 17, 2011

Foster care in DC: District’s own expert panel blasts widespread needless removal of children

            It’s not unusual for outside agitators – like me – to say that a given child welfare system is taking away a whole lot of children needlessly.  It’s quite unusual when the charge comes from a panel of experts named by the community’s own government leaders.

            But that’s what happened last month in Washington, D.C., in the form of a scathing report about the D.C. Child and Family Services Administration.  The report was issued by the District’s child welfare Citizen Review Panel (CRP).  Federal law requires at least one such panel in every state to examine child protective services agencies. 
            The D.C. panel was appointed by the mayor and the D.C. Council.  It’s quite a distinguished group.  Members of the panel include a former social services administrator in Maryland who now is the legislative policy associate for the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators – a trade association for agencies like CFSA.  Another member spent 23 years in human services, including five years as a CPS caseworker.  Another is a senior attorney for the D.C. Children’s Law Center – the group that represents children in child welfare cases in the District.  Another served as Coordinator of Child Abuse and Neglect for the D.C. Public Schools.

            The Review Panel was disturbed by the large numbers of children taken from their parents by CFSA who were sent home again within four months.  Typically, anywhere from 18 to 35 percent are sent home that quickly.  Depending on how you run the numbers that’s an average of anywhere from 161 to 225 children per year.

 It’s not that the CRP doesn’t want children returned home quickly.  But it raised an obvious question: If the children could be returned within four months, did they really need to be taken at all?  After carefully reviewing a random sample of such cases, the CRP concluded that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer was no. Said the panel:

This study concludes that, when children leave foster care quickly – a significant and longstanding feature of the Districts child welfare system – it is likely that CFSA removed the child unnecessarily.

            Indeed, the report found that only 25 percent of removals met the legal standard for taking a child away on the spot, without even asking a court’s permission first.  Such removals are supposed to take place only when CFSA “has reasonable grounds to believe that the child is in immediate danger” and removal is necessary to eliminate the danger.  Yet CFSA uses this grab-the-child-first-ask-the-court-later power in 97 percent of all removals.

            Now consider the implications:  75 percent of the cases did not meet the standard for an emergency removal, and that’s pretty much the only kind of removal CFSA does.  That means that every year, D.C. tears anywhere from 121 to 169 children from their families unnecessarily. 

            But that’s probably an underestimate.  Because when families get decent lawyers, the number of children sent home fast soars.

Nearly three years ago, Prof. Matthew Fraidin of the University of the District of Columbia Law School presented the results of his law students’ work representing families whose children had been taken away by CFSA.  (His findings are included in material he released at a joint news conference with NCCPR in January, 2009.)  In fully 60 percent of the cases the children were returned within three months – and in most of those cases, they were returned within a week.

            If the real number of children who can go home that quickly is 60 percent, then the real number of wrongful removals every year is nearly half of all the children taken away by CFSA.

            “For these children,” notes the report, “these are severe, possibly life-changing events.” 


            The review panel and Prof. Fraidin are not alone in sounding the alarm about wrongful removal in the District. 

            ● Organizations that provide “guardians ad litem” for children in child welfare cases typically only complain when a child welfare agency isn’t taking away even more children.  So it speaks volumes that Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center - the group which provides such representation in D.C. wrote a letter to The Washington Post in which she estimated that at least 100 DC children every year are taken from their families unnecessarily.  She writes that "These removals traumatize children and devastate families." 

            ● The independent monitor overseeing the long-running class-action lawsuit settlement in the District also examined a sample of cases. The CRP report points out that the monitor found that CFSA’s action in immediately removing the children was justified in fewer than half of those cases.

One of the strongest features of the CRP report is the case examples, like this one:

In one case, CFSA refused to release two children to their own mother who had done nothing wrong. The children’s maternal grandmother was a recovering substance abuser and had been clean and sober for a substantial amount of time. Their mother reasonably relied on the grandmothers babysitting. Unfortunately, the grandmother relapsed one evening and left the young children alone. CFSA could not immediately locate the mother and reasonably took custody of the children. But when the mother showed up at CFSA that same day, CFSA inexplicably refused to release her children to her, despite its legal obligation to release them to her “with all reasonable speed.”Instead, CFSA kept the children in foster care for three days and then released them.

The report provides an excellent discussion of precisely what child welfare agencies so often forget – the need to balance harms:

Many parents have had the experience of a toddler crying when dropped off at preschool – even with a parent giving him a goodbye hug, assuring him that she will return within hours, and turning him over to a classroom full of unfamiliar faces.

Now imagine that same child taken away by a stranger, over the parents objection, and without anyone able to tell him what will happen next or even when he will see his parent again. Days pass and people still cannot explain what will happen next, or why he hasnt been able to see mommy for a long time. Weeks pass, and he gets to see his mom for brief visits, and then is taken away again, with no idea when he will see her again. It is not hard to see the emotional toll these separations impose on children or their parents.

On the other hand, very real safety concerns are at stake. Some children do suffer serious abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents and in some cases the only available response is to separate the child from the parent because the emotional harm of that separation is less than the harm inflicted by the parent
s abuse or neglect.

But over and over again, the report found, CFSA flunks this balance-of-harms test.


In a response to the repot most notable for its sheer snottiness (read it and see for yourself – it’s included with the report) CFSA insists that every single decision it made in every one of these cases was the right call.  On the other hand, in a very good story about the report in The Washington Post, CFSA’s acting director talks about how it’s reduced entries into care this year (though even at the reduced rate, children in Washington D.C. are torn from their homes at a far higher rate than in New York, Chicago and Miami, among other cities, even when rates of child poverty are taken into account).  She also discusses new programs to keep families together.

So apparently CFSA’s position is: Look at all we’re doing to fix the problems we deny ever existed in the first place!

In a future post: More case examples, and CFSA’s appalling response to the report.