Friday, February 20, 2015

Response to Agency Testimony

On February 18, 2015, the DC Council held an oversight hearing on the Child and Family Service Agency (CFSA)'s performance in the current fiscal year. I have already posted my testimony at this hearing. In this post, I respond to CFSA's testimony, delivered by Interim Director Raymond Davidson.

In its testimony, CFSA congratulated itself for bringing down the percentage of children who are in group homes, independent living, or residential care, so that 83% of its wards are in the homes of relatives or licensed foster parents. In my testimony, I raised the concern that many of these homes are not providing the nurturing and attention that these fragile children need. I talked about my personal experience with foster parents who have never visited the child's school, talked to their therapist, or brought them to the doctor. Ideally, most children would be placed in foster families rather than congregate care settings like group homes. But children with complex problems need a truly therapeutic foster home, based on a proven model, in which foster parents are provided with extensive supports, treated as professional team members, and expected to implement precisely tailored treatment interventions and participate in frequent meetings and calls. .The District lacks this type of treatment foster care program. (See Rebecca Brink, Improving the Children's Mental Health System in the District of Columbia. Children's Law Center, May 9, 2012. Available from The District's so-called “therapeutic foster homes” are just regular foster homes that are paid more because the children are considered to be harder to serve. The District also needs more family-style group homes to provide the intensive attention and supervision that many of our older youth need.

Director Davidson lauded CFSA's transformation from “a system with a high child removal rate and geared primarily for foster care” to “a system focused on strengthening families and keeping them together.” This is definitely a good thing as long as the children are kept safe. The question is whether the children who are kept at home, and their families, are receiving adequate services. Other witnesses expressed this concern. I have heard anecdotal information that children who are finally being removed are more disturbed because they have been kept too long in extremely abusive or neglectful homes. Child welfare is always struggling with the balance between too many and too few removals, then changing course after a disaster like a death of a child who was not removed. Let us hope that will not be the case in the District of Columbia.

The Director boasted that “Over the past two years, CFSA has worked with national experts to train nearly 3,000 child-serving the cutting edge techniques of Trauma Systems therapy (or TST).” He stated that CFSA is “now at the point of introducing a set of screening and assessment tools that will aid social workers in identifying child, youth, and caregiver issues and strengths and point them toward service pathways that will help and heal.” So after two years and 3,000 professionals trained (I myself underwent two full days plus four hours of in-person training and six hours of teleconferences), they have not introduced any tools yet. Moreover, I learned in the most recent training session that they were still modifying the tools that they had introduced almost two years ago. It seems like a lot of money down the drain.

In my oral testimony, I raised concerns about the closure of two private agencies as of the end of February. I stated that the two agencies that are closing (Foundations for Home and Community[“Foundations”] and KidsPeace) are not those with the worst reputations among professionals in the system. Director Davidson assured the Committee that the closed agencies are those that scored the lowest on performance. But I still have doubts. CFSA stopped posting the “performance scorecards” for private agencies after September 2013. I have filed a Freedom of Information Act for the actual performance scorecards that were prepared after that time and also for the specific data that CFSA used in making its decision. I know that exits to permanent homes are given a lot of weight. But since Foundations took the oldest and most troubled children, many of whom have been in the system for years, they cannot be expected to achieve permanence at the rate of other agencies. Moreover, exits to permanence should not be measured on a quarterly basis—if that is what CFSA is doing.

I also expressed concern about the young people in Foundations foster homes who may be forced to move because their foster parents will not accept the lower stipends offered by the other private agencies. Director Davidson assured the Committee that CFSA will be extending the contract with Foundations on an individual basis to cover those young people who are close to achieving permanency or who cannot find another placement. That was reassuring, but it still means that those who can find another placement must be moved—even though CFSA is so concerned with minimizing moves between foster homes because of the known negative effect of these moves.

In several instances, I was shocked to learn how little the leadership knows about how CFSA's services actually work. In answer to a question from the Chair, Deputy Director Debra Porcia Usher stated that after children are removed from their families a “Child Needs Assessment (CNA)” is completed to make sure they are matched with the most appropriate foster home. That would be absolutely ideal, but I wonder who would do the CNA (a form which takes an hour) in the middle of the night, when most children seem to come into care. In reality, the placement worker calls around until a foster parent is found who answers the phone and agrees to take the removed child or children based on little or no information. Unfortunately, rather than being used primarily to match children with families, the CNA's are required to be completed quarterly and take at least an hour of a hard-working social worker's time to no evident purpose.

I was also surprised that Deputy Director Michelle Rosenberg thought that the new Catholic Charities Mobile Crisis Services are accessed directly by the foster parent. Actually, the social worker must call the Resource Development Specialist, who then makes the referral to Catholic Charities. The lack of knowledge among agency leadership about how services work is significant. No wonder social workers are hampered by policies and procedures that don't make sense—like completing a “Child Needs Assessment” four times a year rather than only when a child needs a new placement. Everyone at the Deputy Director level should spend at least one day a year shadowing the case-carrying workers who work in the units that they supervise. Then we might see an end to useless and cumbersome requirements and give social workers the time to do their jobs.

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