At the Performance Oversight Hearing the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA)
Committee on Human Services
February 18, 2015
My name is Marie Cohen and I was a social worker in the District of Columbia’s foster care system until January 30, 2015. Eight years ago, I gave up my career as a policy analyst and researcher to go to social work school and work in child welfare. I wanted to make a difference to our city’s most vulnerable children. After five years working in the District’s foster care system, I am exhausted, frustrated and depressed. Clearly, working with our city’s most troubled children and families is difficult. But my burnout is due as much to systemic problems as due to the inherent difficulty of the work. I’d like to tell you what I have learned.
As a foster care social worker, I had to spend much of my time complying with numerous requirements which had virtually no benefit for children. Each child in the system is required to have up to three types of multi-page plans, none of which are useful in real life. I was constantly peppered with “urgent” requests for information from desk-bound bureaucrats so that they could complete reports that were then filed away. One more example. Children must undergo a health screening every time they change placements. Even if they are going to respite care for three nights, they have to be re-screened. This can take hours, as the staff of CFSA's clinic will take an hour-long lunch break at 1:00 regardless of whether they are in the middle of examining a child and of how many children are waiting.
Sadly, much of the busywork I have described is due to a twenty-year-old court-case, which has resulted in continuing supervision by an outside agency, the Center for Law and Social Policy. With its focus on process-oriented benchmarks rather than the outcomes that really matter, I believe that the court mandated monitoring is actually hurting children.
It was bad enough that I had to spend so much time engaged in useless paperwork. But it was worse that I had to see clients placed in loveless homes with foster parents who could not be bothered to pick them up from school when they were sick, attend school meetings, or take them to their therapy session. Believe it or not, paid staff usually take the children to therapy so that there is no contact between the foster parent and the therapist. Thankfully, not all foster parents are like this. The best ones treat their charges like their own children. But there are simply not enough people like that today. Instead, many foster parents are providing foster care in order to meet their expenses.
Therapeutic foster parents in the District are supposed be trained to work with more disturbed children and are able and willing to offer more intensive support. Unfortunately, I have seen little difference between “traditional” and “therapeutic” homes and many homes are licensed for both. The Children's Law Center has pointed out that the “therapeutic foster homes” in the District of Columbia are very different from the treatment foster care models that have been shown to be effective. In these models, foster parents are treated as professional team members, provided with extensive supports, and expected to implement precisely tailored treatment interventions and participate in weekly meetings and daily calls.
The District also needs to recognize that some teenagers could benefit from placement in family-style group homes such as those run by Boys Town, in which professionally trained couples care for six to eight children. But these are more expensive, and they violate the accepted wisdom that children should be placed in the “least restrictive setting.” For whatever reason, there are only four such homes in the District of Columbia, and we need more.