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Court monitor voices concern over budget for D.C. child welfare agency

Link to Article · The Washington Post · Mike DeBonis

Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposed cuts to the District’s child welfare agency could threaten its recent progress, a court-appointed monitor warned in a report filed Monday with a federal judge.

Under the budget plan Gray (D) released last month, funding for the Child and Family Services Agency would stay largely the same, about $265 million in local and federal money. But because of rising costs, the proposal appears to eliminate nearly $6 million in programs and contracts, including $635,000 for community groups that help at-risk families and a $2.5 million program that provides mental health services to badly traumatized children.

“The impact of the loss of these funds threatens to derail the advances that have been occurring, although slowly, in building the District’s mental health system capacity for children and families,” the monitor, Judith W. Meltzer of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, wrote of the latter program.

A spokeswoman for Gray said that staff members of Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Beatriz “B.B.” Otero’s were reviewing the report.

The report is intended to assess CFSA’s performance in the second half of 2010 and is part of a two-decade-old class-action lawsuit against the District, now called LaShawn A. v. Gray. In December, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan signed off on a plan to remove the District from court oversight, including specific goals to be met. Meltzer’s report found that the city had not met most of the plan’s goals.

The agency has been under especially intense scrutiny since January 2008, when Banita Jacks, a 35-year-old mother of four, was discovered to have killed her daughters, leaving them to rot in their Southeast Washington bedroom for months. A warning to CFSA from a school counselor had gone unheeded.

Although the new report praises the city’s effort to streamline the adoption process and to ease the once-overwhelming caseloads for CFSA social workers, it also found that the agency is having ongoing troubles with its data reporting and in moving ambitious reform proposals into reality.

The latter finding did not come as a surprise to Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, which represents children in the welfare system. “That is the hallmark of CFSA,” she said. “There’s a lot of planning, not a lot of doing.”

Sandalow also raised questions about Gray’s budget plan for the agency, echoing the concerns of other child advocates and city legislators.

At an April 20 hearing, CFSA Interim Director Roque Gerald sought to portray the proposed program cuts as shifts in funding that would have a minimal effect on services. But D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) expressed frustration about a lack of information on the service effects.

“If some of this is flimflam or duplicative or covered under another contract, tell us,” Graham told Gerald. “It might be slightly awkward and embarrassing, but we should know.”

One cut could end $675,000 to support substance abuse treatment for women with children — a move that particularly vexed Graham, who is a recovering alcoholic. “Any reduction in this is something I cannot support,” he said at the hearing last month. “You have come before the wrong chairman to propose a cut in substance abuse.”

The report also renews a perennial shortcoming of the agency — that it is not aggressive enough in seeking reimbursements for its spending fromMedicaid and federal programs to aid foster care and adoptions.

The council is set to revise Gray’s budget over the coming month. Gerald is scheduled to reappear Wednesday before Graham’s committee.

The monitor’s report comes less than two weeks after the District’s inspector general issued a report on the agency that found low morale among its social workers and lax oversight from supervisors. In particular, the inspector general found, a 30-day limit on abuse and neglect investigations imposed after the Jacks case led to inadequate investigations.

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