The Long Road to Improving Foster Care in D.C.

The 1994 story for which I interviewed Troy Saunders, Tovan Love and several other children in foster care was occasioned by two developments.

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First, Newt Gingrich, who had just led the Republican Party to a majority in the House of Representatives, had recently voiced approval of orphanages, provoking much hostile reaction. In fact, thousands of youths in Washington and elsewhere were living in group homes that approximated orphanages; I was curious about the lives kids led there.

Second, the child-welfare system of Washington, D.C., was uniquely dysfunctional. This year, in reporting on Troy's and Tovan's difficult lives after foster care, I also interviewed several people about the state of Washington's system today. You can listen to excerpts from those interviews below.

The National Outlook

Nationally, there are very few long-term studies that track the lives of children who experience foster care in the United States.

There are an estimated 800,000 children who passed through foster care in 2004. That's about 1 percent of the U.S. child population.

One person who has explored what happens to these children is Dr. Peter Pecora of Casey Family Programs.

Ten years ago, Pecora began tracking foster alumni in Oregon and Washington states. He found successes and resilience among some alumni, but the overall picture was not encouraging: A disproportionate number of the adults were struggling economically, emotionally and educationally. — Julia Buckley

Court Case Filed to Protect D.C.'s Children

In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the child-welfare system of Washington, D.C., on behalf of a girl in foster care. In LaShawn A. v. Barry (Marion Barry, then the mayor of Washington), the ACLU argued that the city failed to protect the constitutional rights of children in its custody.

In 1991, Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the city's responsibility to the children in its care was a "travesty." The city agreed to implement changes to the system. But it failed to do so.

In 1995, the situation worsened when the city was implicated in failing to prevent the murder of a 3-year-old girl named Rhonda Morris.

By May of that year, Judge Hogan, in an unprecedented move, ordered that the federal court seize control of the agency — stripping the city of all authority of oversight.

Setting New Standards for Care

Hogan set new standards to protect the "LaShawn children." At the time, the agency cared for about 5,000 abused or neglected kids.

Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C., became the court-appointed monitor of the system in 1992. She paints a picture of a system that in 1992 was a disaster.

"The system did not even know how many children were in foster care," she says. "They could not tell you on any given day where their kids were."

In addition, there were no licensing standards for foster homes or group homes. Workers, who did not receive formalized training, carried caseloads as high as 90. And she says investigations were "a shambles."

"It's totally different now," she says.

  • caseloads would be reduced to 17 per caseworker
  • investigations into abuse and neglect would be prompt, within 48 hours
  • there would be increased social-worker visits to children in placements
  • there would aggressive hiring of social workers
  • there would be high-quality training of workers and licensing of foster homes, group homes and independent-living facilities

According to a 2002 Washington Post investigation, "229 boys and girls died from 1993 through 2000 after their families had come to the attention of the District's child protection system. And one in five — 40 boys and girls, most of them infants and toddlers — lost their lives after government workers failed to take key preventive action or placed children in unsafe homes or institutions."

As a result of the federal takeover, an Implementation Plan for reform was ordered. Under the plan, the agency was ordered to meet various performance goals and benchmarks. They include the following:

Foster Care Children: What Lies Ahead

One of the greatest failures of the system in the 1990s was its inability to get kids out of foster care and into permanent living situations; group homes were not intended to be the orphanages that Newt Gingrich was taking about.

A child-welfare system can be expected to investigate abuse and neglect, and recognize that a family presents those dangers to a child. But it cannot be expected to eliminate crime, drug abuse, dysfunctional schools, promiscuity or a host of other unpleasant realities that might typify the permanent situation to which a teenager is returned.

We can fault the system for warehousing kids and even for bungling the human warehouse inventory, but not for the facts of life in a poor neighborhood of Washington, D.C., or any other large American city, to which many of the foster children return.

NPR producer Julia Buckley contributed to this report.

In May 2001, Judge Hogan ended federal control over the District's child-welfare system. He agreed to return control of the child-welfare system to the city if it could show during a probationary period that it could effectively run the agency. To regain complete autonomy, the agency must comply with a Final Implementation Plan, successfully meeting benchmarks by December 2006.

On the Path to Reform

Today, interim director Uma Ahluwahlia runs the Child and Family Services Agency, which oversees the city's child-welfare system.

"It's hugely turned around," she says. "We have been on a path for reform. In the last five years, this agency has made huge strides."

Nonetheless, Ahluwahlia is candid when she assesses the agency's progress: "good in some areas, marginally better in others, and not so good in a third category."

The biggest area of improvement that she points to is in finding permanent homes for kids in the system, be it by reunifying families or by finding other caregivers.

Hiring in the department is also up. Only about 8 percent of positions remain vacant as of this year. While this is good news, there is still an insufficient number of workers to meet the mandated 17-1 ratio of cases per worker.

According to the February 2006 progress report on LaShawn, while some workers met the 17-1 ratio, most caseloads ranged from 18 to 27, with 28 cases having no assigned worker.

And the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency again had fallen behind on investigations. There was an "unacceptable" level of backlogged investigations: 259. Timely initiation of investigations had fallen to 70 percent of all cases.

More problem areas: Too many young children remained in temporary or emergency care for longer than 30 days. And, the performance of on-site visits with children and families continued to be lacking.

I also spoke with Janet Bussey, director of social services at St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home, a facility in the Washington, D.C., area that takes in abused and neglected infants. (I had visited St. Ann's and interviewed its director in 1994). Bussey worked in the D.C. system until recently; before that, she worked for many years in Cleveland, Ohio.

"I think we are still in a muddle," Bussey says about the D.C. child-welfare system. She says that consistency is lacking in what she deems a very complex system.

She says key measures of success would be recruiting an adequate number of foster families into the system and offering stronger support to those families willing to care for foster children.

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