A recent flurry of articles and media reports commemorated the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Relisha Rudd from the homeless shelter at DC General Hospital. However, many questions remain about Relisha and her family's contacts with the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), the agency responsible for protecting abused and neglected children in the District of Columbia. Despite some very interesting information published by the Washington Post almost a year ago, nobody has answered directly the question of whether the family was under agency supervision when Relisha disappeared. The agency seems to be hiding behind the smokescreen of confidentiality, but that should not prevent the City Council from demanding the full answers in closed session.
In an article published last April 5, the Washington Post reported that “confidential files read to The Washington Post show that the agency sustained complaints at least three times involving Young [Relisha's mother]'s children.” The last complaint occurred in November 2013, when the family was in the shelter. This was only a few months before Relisha disappeared. One of Relisha's brothers had been thrown to the ground and slapped until his lip bled, according to the report read to the Post. A social worker noted lack of supervision and abuse.The Post goes on to report that the police got involved and received conflicting accounts about who hit the boy, and no charges were filed. But the the story did not note that there is an important distinction between the police filing charges and CFSA substantiating the allegation, which is the trigger that is needed for the children to be removed or for the family to receive agency supervision.
The Post stated that the children remained with their mother, and that “only after Relisha went missing were her three brothers placed in foster care.” But as CFSA Director Brenda Donald pointed out in a letter to the Post, “The fact that CFSA does not remove a child as a result of a substantiated abuse or neglect allegation does not mean that we do not provide any services.” That quote confirms something that was unclear from the Post's language that “the agency sustained complaints.” It seems clear that the agency substantiated (or confirmed) one or all of the neglect allegations against the family. And with the above statement, Ms. Donald is strongly suggested that the agency did provide services to Relisha's family.
Unfortunately, the Washington Post reporters did not follow up by asking the right question. Given that the an allegation was substantiated but the children were not removed from the home, they should have asked if a case was opened on the family. Opening a case is the only vehicle for the agency to deliver services, as well as continue monitoring the family. Ms. Donald's response suggests strongly that a case was opened. The fact that there was an open case is further supported by the heavily redacted version of the District Government's Review of Interactions With RR and Her Immediate Family and District Government Agencies, published on September 2, 2014, and available on the internet.1 That report states that
The family was receiving services from multiple social service, ______, education and health agencies and community providers. At the time of RR's disappearance, ___ 's [presumably Relisha's parents'] compliance with ____ and other services was inconsistent; however, the known family circumstances did not satisfy the legal threshhold for removal of the children.
It is very likely that the first and third blank originally read “child welfare” and that the family was a subject of an open case. My conclusion is based on logic as well as on the two recommendations that the District drew from this redacted statement. The second recommendation, in particular, states that CFSA and the Office of Attorney General should establish a policy dictating “when it is appropriate to involve the DC Superior Court in providing judicial oversight on in-home child welfare services when a family is not making adequate progress despite the offer of services.” Usually, when CFSA does not remove a child but opens an in-home case, it does not involve the court, but there has been discussion of the need to involve the court more often in such cases. Therefore, from this recommendation, it seems obvious that a case was opened but the family was not responsive.
So given what we know, it is highly plausible that CFSA opened a case on Relisha's family, probably after the November 2014 allegation was substantiated. If that was true, then the CFSA social worker would have had to say that the the problems had been resolved and the children was safe in order to justify closing the case. Thus, a critical question is whether the case was still open when Relisha disappeared, or whether it had been closed. And here the redacted document provides some hints as well. The report states that: "At the time of RR's disappearance, both _________ [probably CFSA and the Department of Mental Health] were providing services to the family; however, there was no recent assesssment of RR's parents' capacity or of the family's overall functioning.”
Based on that statement, it is reasonable to assume that a case was still open on the family. That means a social worker should have been visiting the family twice a month. That worker should have been checking on Relisha's school attendance and and the parents' compliance with whatever services the agency was requiring in order to close the case, which probably included mental health services. Most importantly, the worker should have been seeing Relisha at least twice a month. Police began to search for Relisha on March 19 and found that she had been with Tatum since February 26, but nobody had reported her missing. What was the social worker responsible for the case doing all this time? (If the family did not have an open case, then the question becomes why not, given that the social worker reported lack of supervision and abuse.)
It is crucial to know exactly what happened so that more disasters can be avoided. In its recommendations, CFSA stresses the adoption of new assessment tools for children and families, a standardized safety plan, and training for workers on “effective visitation.” I'm skeptical of these kinds of quick fixes, which are often an attempt to avoid hiring more social workers and giving them enough time with their clients. If social workers are overwhelmed by too many cases and required busywork, then they simply cannot assess for safety correctly, no matter how many “tools” and “plans” they are forced to complete,. Indeed, such tools may worsen the situation as the time needed to fill them out can come at the expense of critically needed time with the family.
Some information about the quality of CFSA's in-home casework is provided by the most recent report of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), the court-appointed monitor for CFSA.2 In its report, CSSP reported on a detailed review of 20 in-home cases between January and June 2014. Of these 20 cases, only five (or 25%) were rated as “acceptable” on “Implementing Supports and Services.”
I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request requesting information about how CFSA is dealing with families with substantiated abuse or neglect allegations where the child is not removed. In FY2014, CFSA's Acting Director testified that 877 allegations of abuse or neglect were substantiated. I asked how many of those allegations resulted in removals of one or more children and how many resulted in the opening of an in-home case. I also asked what happened to those in-home cases. How many eventually resulted in a removal? How many closed? Of those that closed, how long were they open? CFSA denied my request because FOIA “does not require an agency to create documents that do not exist and ...does not require an agency to answer questions.” The fact that CFSA does not even collect this data, or at least report it in this form, is very troubling.
The City Council should request the systemwide information that was denied to me. The Council should also demand the following information about Relisha's case:.
- A list of all the reports that were filed about Relisha Rudd's family over the years.
- A list of all allegations that were substantiated.
- When was the most recent case opened?. Was it closed? If not, what services were being provided?
- When was Relisha most recently seen on a visit to her family? According to agency files, did the worker ask about Relisha's whereabouts and what was he or she told?
CFSA has been touting the success of its initiative to “narrow the front door” or take fewer children into foster care. The acting director reported proudly in his recent testimony to the council that 62% of the children it serves are at home, as compared to only 51% at the end of FY 2010. That is good news indeed, as long as the children who are at home are receiving the monitoring and services that they need to be safe. And Relisha certainly was not.
- Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. Summarized Findings and Recommendations: Review of Interactions with RR and Her Immediate Family and District Government Agencies. September 2, 2014. Accessed March 4, 2015 from http://dme.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dme/publication/attachments/RR%20Report%20FINAL%209%202%2014_Redacted.pdf
- Center for the Study of Social Policy. LaShawn vs. Gray Progress Report for the Period January 1 to June 30, 2014, page 84. Accessed March 26, 2015 from http://www.cssp.org/publications/child-welfare/class-action-reform/2014/LaShawn-A-v.-Gray-Progress-Report-Jan-June-2014.pdf