Children's Voice July/August 2009

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Moving Forward After Tragedy

CFSA, Nation's Capital Take Steps to Help Families



The last year and a half has been a rocky time for the District of Columbia's Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), a CWLA member, but the agency is on the path to improvement. In fact, several youth service entities in the District are trying to solve long-standing problems at the same time they face new challenges.

Roque Gerald was recently confirmed as CFSA's director after being appointed interim director last summer. Since he took the helm, CFSA has eliminated the record-breaking backlog of 1,700 investigations and hired 40 social workers to fill vacant positions. With star power from Darryl McDaniels of the hip-hop group Run DMC and support from the Freddie Mac Foundation, Gerald and DC Mayor Adrian Fenty launched a foster parent recruitment campaign earlier this year.

Gerald was appointed to his post after his predecessor resigned in the wake of a case that made national headlines. It was Wednesday, January 9, 2008, the middle of the first full week back to work after the New Year's holiday for many people, and U.S. Marshals were serving an eviction notice in Southeast Washington, DC. Just 16 months before, a family had moved into the row house: Banita Jacks, Nathaniel Fogle, their two young daughters, and Jacks's two daughters from previous relationships. Fogle had died in February 2007. At the January eviction, marshals found Jacks living among her daughters' decomposing bodies; authorities believe she killed all four girls as early as eight months before.

CFSA called a critical events meeting the next day to go over the circumstances of the girls' deaths. The agency was one of several to have contact with the Jacks/Fogle family. The DC Office of the Inspector General conducted a systemic review of these interactions; while there are many redactions in the public report, it still clearly communicates that there was plenty of blame to go around.

The main criticism of CFSA is that the agency was working in isolation, when other District entities could have shared valuable information with an investigations worker trying to determine the children's well-being. To change that situation, in early July-shortly before Jacks went on trial-Mayor Fenty announced the Jacks-Fogle Family Preservation Case Coordination Authorization Act, which will facilitate shared information and coordinated care in the city's human service agencies.

CFSA also recently completed an online training for "mandatory reporters," professionals who interact with children regularly and are required by law to report suspected abuse or neglect. The training is a response to one of the key findings from the report on the Jacks/ Fogle family's involvement with DC services, which says that mandated reporters, especially in the school system, did not know their duties in reporting suspected abuse. Court Monitor Judith Meltzer praised CFSA's posting of the training in her most recent assessment of the agency.

Meltzer, who is also Deputy Director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, a CWLA member, reviews CFSA's progress on LaShawn A. v. Fenty, a lawsuit brought by Children's Rights in 1989 on behalf of children in the District's child welfare system. As a result of the ongoing case, DC's system was put under fed-eral management from 1995 to 2000, when CFSA was created. Meltzer measures the progress the agency makes on goals set out in an amended implementa-tion plan; while many benchmarks still have yet to be achieved, Meltzer's April report says "CFSA performance data in several key areas are once again headed in the right direction."

Outside of CFSA, other youth-serving agencies in the District are trying to make similar improvements. The DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services is an example where good intentions were not quite matched by the implementation. In late May the department completed a move of incarcerated youth from the Oak Hill Youth Center, which had developed a violent reputation, to a $46 million facility touted as "the anti-prison" and appropriately called New Beginnings. One juvenile escaped New Beginnings the day after it opened; just over a month later six more followed. All of the youth were eventually found and returned to the center, but Mayor Fenty fired five corrections workers, put two others on leave, and demoted a superintendent after the escapes. New Beginnings has also had security updates, including the addition of razor wire to the fences around the campus.

From a more general perspective, families in and around the nation's capital are facing challenges. Several recent evaluations show that homelessness among families is growing in the District and surrounding counties at a higher rate than the national average. In early July, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that more than $1 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will go to help combat homelessness through rehousing and prevention programs, with a special focus on families. Almost $7.5 million of this money was awarded to DC.

UTAH
In June the Utah Supreme Court heard arguments in a case where the Navajo Nation and a Salt Lake City couple are fighting for custody of a 9-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl. The siblings, who are half-Navajo, were adopted by Suzi and Ricardo Ramos in February 2008 after parental rights were terminated, according to the Deseret News. The children spent time in several foster homes and with relatives on the Navajo Reservation, but no one could care for them long-term. The Navajo Nation argues that the juvenile court judge who approved the adoption violated the Indian Child Welfare Act.

IDAHO

An Associated Press story says that in a new study by the group Feeding America, Idaho is among the 10 worst states in the percentage of children under 5 who lived with hunger from 2005 to 2007, but the state is also among the 10 most improved. Idaho showed the fourth-best improvement, as the number of Idaho children under 18 who experienced hunger in 2005-2007 was 21.7% lower than in 2003-2005. "We may have been a little bit behind the curve, and we're headed in the right direction now," a spokesman for CWLA member the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare told The Spokesman-Review.

WASHINGTON

Foster children in the Tacoma area are able to return to their families thanks to federal grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, The News Tribune reports. The grants are $20 million worth of rent vouchers, which makes housing more affordable for struggling families. National statistics say that up to a third of children in foster care are separated from their families due to a lack of safe housing. The vouchers in Tacoma and surrounding counties will seek to change that. Additionally, the grant for Pierce County will pay for 15 vouchers for housing assistance for youth aging out of foster care.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.


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