- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2012

Despite a D.C. law that requires a social worker’s license to perform “psychosocial evaluation and assessment, counseling, and consultation” for those who work with youth offenders, only five of more than 30 case managers in the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) possess such a license.

Based on a database search of all professional or occupational licenses issued by the D.C. government, The Washington Times documented five licensed social workers employed at DYRS, which has more than 1,000 youth offenders committed to its custody — 75 percent of whom live in community settings under DYRS monitoring.

The legal requirement that social workers evaluate, assess and counsel youths dates to the early 1980s, during the first administration of Marion Barry, a Democrat and D.C. Council member who now represents Ward 8. For years, until an agency overhaul in the 1990s led to a push to hire more case managers, DYRS had an “aftercare” division fully staffed with licensed social workers, according to labor officials who represent both types of professionals.

In time, those officials said, case managers began performing the same functions and carrying the same caseloads as social workers.

Some veteran DYRS administrators acknowledge that the functions of a social worker and a case manager are identical under the rehabilitative models practiced in the District. But they say both are practicing what amounts to case management, defined by DYRS as supervising and supporting youths in the safest, least restrictive environment that fosters a transition to adulthood.

But Charles Tucker, general counsel to the D.C. Department of Human Resources (DCHR), said in a letter to The Times this week that case managers, who handle more than 30 youths at a time, are not subject to the same licensure requirements as social workers.

“Social workers diagnose psychosocial problems according to theory and methods gained from education and licensure,” he wrote. “They also practice prescribed treatments according to industry standards. Case managers interact with individuals and families, and follow the prescribed instructions of the social worker.”

DYRS officials and Deputy Mayor B.B. Otero, who oversees DYRS, did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Bonnie Rampersaud, executive director of the D.C. boards of behavioral health, one of which licenses social workers, declined to comment.

Out of harm’s way

In recent years, DYRS has struggled to connect with its offender population and keep the youths out of harm’s way, much less rehabilitate them. As The Times recently reported, more than 50 youths committed to DYRS either have been killed or found guilty of killing someone else over the past five years.

A group home licensed by the District is defending a $20 million lawsuit by the family of Neil Godleski, a Catholic University student killed in 2010 in an incident that led to the arrest of a DYRS ward and resident of the home.

Based on an internal study released in December, on any given day more than 300 youths classified as a medium to high risk of re-offending are placed in a community setting to be monitored by a DYRS case manager — or a grass-roots agency with even less formal training.

Labor unions that represent case managers and social workers have been pressing DYRS for years to fall into compliance with D.C. law by training its case managers so they can become licensed as social workers, which have many different categories and specialties.

John Walker, national representative for the 14th District of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), said case managers routinely perform functions identified in the social worker licensing statute.

Those functions include psychosocial assessment, which focuses on lack of personal development, often amid dysfunctions that may be physical, emotional or cognitive, he said. Assessments, he said, are performed by both social workers and case managers “to guide the agency in making the critical decision whether to detain or release a committed youth.”

Such decisions require case managers to assign points for various risk factors and then produce a total score indicating whether the youth is eligible for secure detention, for a non-secure alternative detention program, or for release home, he said.

Case managers and social workers at DYRS both perform counseling functions, Mr. Walker said, which may include providing advice, instruction, skill development, process consultation or opinion to youths who have major life problems.

Both groups of professionals routinely engage in community organization, he added, including attempts to secure the highest services from specialists, organizations, agencies and the institutions within the D.C. metropolitan area and beyond.

Not in D.C. code

DYRS workers perform everything else in between including referral, advocacy, mediation, consultation, research, administration, and education referral,” he said. “All are defined by D.C. Code as social work practice. Nothing in the D.C. Code defines case management practice. But there is an occupation known as social work case management.”

Mr. Walker has testified before the Board of Social Work, to no avail. He said he confronted the DYRS director in 2005, Vincent N. Schiraldi, and Mr. Schiraldi said, “I don’t give a [expletive]. I just need people who can do the work.”

In 2009, DYRS implemented educational requirements for case managers, Mr. Walker said, after AFGE worked with DCHR to develop a standard that case managers could transition into — with training paid for by the agency — and eventually test to be grandfathered as “social work associates.”

That has not happened, he said, suggesting that time has come to convene a panel “to clarify the practice of social work in the District of Columbia before it creates serious liability questions for the workers, DYRS and the District government.”

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, the Ward 1 Democrat who oversees DYRS, did not take a firm position on professional licensing this week, but said he has concerns about a lack of youth services.

“The case manager-to-youth ratio is very much on our radar,” he told The Times. “We must invest in DYRS employees and their professional development as case managers, social workers and youth-development representatives. Employees must be properly supervised and given the opportunity to grow.

“Everyone must buy into this system in order for it to work,” he said, noting that DYRS follows a rehabilitative model that has been successful in Missouri. “We saw the importance of ongoing professional development in Missouri and the difference it makes in the rehabilitation system and the impact it has on the young people.

“If front-line workers feel respected by the system and feel a part of that system, that positive spirit filters its way to the young people.”