Editor’s note: This is Jonetta Rose Barras’ last column in the paper. She will be a full-time political columnist at the Washington City Paper.
Who would have thought that any news about the District’s Child and Family Services (CFS) could be a source of relief? During the past week Mayor Anthony Williams was slapped silly by politically motivated D.C. Council members and employees acting as saboteurs not good-government whistle-blowers over the less-than-brilliant decisions of the Department of Parks and Recreation director. But word that an agreement had been reached to return CFS to local government control must have brought a wide-mouthed smile to the mayor’s face. Sometimes, something actually can go right.
From the beginning, Mr. Williams made it known that he intended to snatch back those sections of the government that had been placed under court-ordered receiverships. The city’s public housing agency, mental health commission, parts of the Department of Corrections, and CFS all were under the control of federal judges. Residents, unhappy that agencies were being poorly managed under former mayors Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly, had sought legal redress, forcing the government to provide additional resources and improve services.
In at least one of those cases, public housing residents and taxpayers saw almost remarkable advances. The medical services at the Department of Corrections advanced enough that the judge returned its control to the District earlier this year. Mental health is in transition. The receivership that gained the greatest notoriety was CFS.
Child-welfare advocates and lawyers had filed a class-action lawsuit, LaShawn vs. Barry, in 1989, which later became LaShawn vs. Kelly. By 1995 U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan had had enough of the government’s delaying tactics in repairing an agency that directly affected thousands of children. He selected Jerome Miller as the CFS receiver. Mr. Miller’s ideas were radical and his style was abrasive; he never made a real dent in CFS’ management and service-delivery problems. Judge Hogan appointed Ernestine Jones, a short woman with a more pleasant demeanor. She had served as executive director of Maryland’s Income Maintenance Administration and as the deputy director of the Department of Human Services.
But over the last year the agency seemed to be running backward. There were reports about the lack of sufficient numbers of social workers, social workers not completing legally required reports, social workers not conducting regular visits to the homes where children had been placed; abuse and neglect reports going uninvestigated. A 23-month-old child, Briana Blackmond died earlier this year, after she had been returned to her mother, who had been accused of neglect and who reportedly used drugs. The social worker in the case hadn’t filed the required report; the attorney hadn’t insisted on certain protections; and the D.C. Superior Court judge, lacking documentation, went on her gut instincts.
Fed up, the House subcommittee on the District, at the urging of its chairman Rep. Tom Davis, Virginia Republican, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, held two public hearings on CFS. Last month, they demanded the city and receiver come up with a joint plan to improve services. But congressional representatives were Johnnys-come-lately.
Mr. Williams already was leading that charge. While the mayor and his minions have made more than their share of gaffes, missteps and just plain stupid moves during their first two years at the helm, one of the things Mr. Williams can be saluted for is his foresight to hire Grace M. Lopes even if she costs a hefty penny. A former court monitor who oversaw changes at the D.C. jail and other correctional facilities, Ms. Lopes signed on as special counsel to the mayor; her specific task was to get back pieces of the city the courts had confiscated. Quietly and methodically, working with the mayor, his deputies including Carolyn Graham and Norman Dong and the Office of the Corporation Counsel, Ms. Lopes is earning her keep.
This week, the Williams administration and Marcia Lowry, the attorney for the original plaintiffs in the LaShawn case, signed a consent order that brings the CFS back to the mayor’s control. Under the terms of the deal, CFS becomes a separate, Cabinet-level agency under which licensing, permits and procurement functions are consolidated. The new agency also would be exempt from budget cuts and funded at the rate necessary to effect aggressive improvements, not witnessed during the receivership. If the city falls short of making 75 percent of the court-ordered changes, the government could be held in contempt or the agency could go back into receivership.
The administration has six months to make substantial changes and effect the terms of the agreement. The mayor and council, putting aside their past grievances, will have to work together swiftly and cooperatively to enact legislation that will create a new agency, develop permit and licensing standards and give the CFS its independent procurement authority. The control board could play a useful role in this process.
While the administration may be disinclined to sing its own praises, those of us who care about the welfare of children in this city, and know how long it has taken to reach this point, shouldn’t be shy about expressing our appreciation. Mr. Williams, Ms. Lopes and members of their team have done a good job. But, it ain’t quitting time yet; the agreement must become reality.