Reform of child agency pledged

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The Fenty administration yesterday pledged to reform the city’s long-troubled Child and Family Services Agency, a day after the mayor fired six child welfare workers for failing to help four girls found dead last week in a Southeast row house.

“This is not a case in which everyone is to blame so no one is to blame,” interim Attorney General Peter J. Nickles said during a D.C. Council hearing on the city’s efforts to locate the children of Banita Jacks. “This government failed this family. There are no excuses.”

Miss Jacks, 33, was charged with killing her four daughters, ages 5, 6, 11 and 16. Their decomposing bodies were found last week by U.S. marshals serving an eviction notice at the home in the 4200 block of Sixth Street in Southeast. Miss Jacks told investigators that the children were “possessed by demons.”

Mr. Nickles — along with CFSA director Sharlynn Bobo, Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso and others — testified before the council’s Committee on Human Services about the failed efforts of city officials to reach the Jacks children.

The officials pledged to improve training for call takers at the CFSA abuse hot line and form a truancy-reporting agreement for charter schools in the city.

Last year, 8,900 students in the city were truant at least 15 days from school, Mr. Nickles said.

Officials have said that proper procedures in the city’s truancy and home-schooling policies — particularly in charter schools — could have helped save the girls’ lives.

“We have a situation where apparently there’s no requirement for charter schools to report attendance data,” said council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat. “So that’s a process failure.”

Josephine Baker, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said schools under the board’s jurisdiction notify CFSA if a student is absent for 10 days.

She said some school officials have indicated that the agency is “unresponsive” to truancy complaints from charter schools and that they handle complaints only from D.C. Public Schools.

“There must be some agreement that leaves no doubt that” CFSA handles charter-school cases, Miss Baker said.

A social worker from Booker T. Washington Public Charter School, Kathy Lopes, has been commended for contacting child welfare workers after Miss Jacks’ eldest daughter, Brittany, was absent from school for a prolonged period.

Vincent Blount, assistant principal at Meridian Public Charter School in Northwest — where Miss Jacks’ three younger daughters attended — said Miss Jacks sent a note or called the school when the girls were absent.

He said the girls’ godmother, a former employee of the school, was authorized in records to make decisions for the girls. When the children were withdrawn from the school, he said, the godmother claimed Miss Jacks would home-school them.

“That’s chilling to me,” said Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat and chairman of the Human Services Committee. He asked why the school did not speak directly with Miss Jacks. “Where is that safety net?”

The council held its hearing after Mayor Adrian M. Fenty fired six CFSA workers who officials said “touched” the Jacks case. Sources said the employees were two social workers, two hot line operators, a program manager in Child Protective Services and the CPS administrator.

Officials said yesterday that Miss Bobo recommended the firings and that Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, made the final decision.

Miss Bobo also noted that one of the employees, a hot line worker, erred by not providing an agency investigator with enough details about Miss Lopes’ call, including the fact that Miss Lopes said Miss Jacks was holding Brittany “hostage.”

The hot line worker provided a summary of the call but did not provide key words, Miss Bobo said.

The firings have sparked concern among other agency workers, however. Interagency e-mails obtained by The Washington Times contain pleas from employees urging their colleagues to protest the firings. One e-mail said some of the fired employees “were the very employees recruited to make CFSA better — and they did!”

“The last person the city needs protected from is a social worker,” the e-mail said.

Meanwhile, D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Rufus G. King III pledged to conduct a review of breakdowns when a charter school attendance counselor sent a referral to the Court Social Services Division regarding Miss Jacks’ eldest daughter because of her extensive school absences.

“Clearly, neither court procedures and safeguards, nor the conduct in this case, was adequate,” Judge King said.

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