- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

Ernestine Jones, the court-appointed receiver heading the District's Child and Family Services (CFS), didn't get into a legal tangle with D.C. Superior Court Judge Kaye K. Christian. But that doesn't mean she's out of trouble or that the city's abused and neglected youth are safe.

What was supposed to be the solution to decades of mismanagement has become a hellacious nightmare; children's lives are threatened, case workers seem to be on permanent vacation, and the administrator charged with fixing the mess was arrested. In a fit of audacity, she threatened to sue a local judge, asserting that she answers only to U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan. Luckily she was advised not to add stupidity to her list of offensive traits.

Mrs. Jones was plucked by Judge Hogan for her position in Nov. 1997 after the previous receiver, Jerome Miller, proved too controversial. Mrs. Jones' selection was celebrated even if she wasn't a District resident. She had served as executive director of Maryland's Income Maintenance Administration and as the deputy director of the Department of Human Services. She began her career in 1962 as a social worker in Baltimore. Sounds good.

But the news from CFS has been mostly bad. At the start of this fiscal year it had a $30 million deficit (in the euphemistic parlance of the city's budget office, it's called "spending pressures"); the feds helped out. For fiscal 2001, the CFS budget will increase by $47 million up from $121 million to $168 million, $97 million of which comes from local taxpayers, according to the city's budget director. Which sends the message that mismanagement leads to bigger budgets. The District slogan during this control board era has become Financial Rewards For Failure.

The most controversial of CFS' failings was the death last year of young Briana Blackmond; social workers and attorneys did not file required reports and Judge Evelyn E.C. Queen ruled the child could be returned to her mother, although the judge lacked sufficient information on which to base her decision. Last month, Judge Christian issued a warrant for Mrs. Jones' arrest after the CFS receiver twice failed to appear in court as ordered. The judge was peeved that a social worker who hadn't visited a child in his care for at least three months also declined to appear. Then, last week Maryland officials said they feared that CFS may place children in unlicensed homes or homes that had not been inspected.

Congress has decided to step in. Rep. Thomas Davis, Virginia Republican, head of the District subcommittee, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, along with other congressional representatives, will hold a special hearing next week on CFS. Mrs. Jones, Deputy Mayor Carolyn Graham and Grace M. Lopes, special counsel to the mayor for receivership and institutional reform litigation, have been asked to attend.

Too bad Judge Hogan won't be there. He must share the blame for the deteriorating state of the CFS and the dangerous position in which District children now find themselves. Oddly, this writer remembers sitting in Judge Hogan's chamber back in 1997 when he saw then-Department of Human Services Director Vernon Hawkins in the audience, listening as attorneys discussed the LaShawn vs. Barry case, which led to the appointment of a receiver. Judge Hogan quipped that the sight of Mr. Hawkins was a reminder of how things were not changing in the city. The continued employment of his receiver Mrs. Jones adds to the travesty of the situation.

What can be done to improve the current state of affairs? Mrs. Jones won't say; she didn't return telephone calls to her office. Judge Hogan, through his secretary, says he doesn't know anything, and his law clerk, Kevin Smith, who admits that the case is on his side of the docket, says "I don't know anything" about the receiver's status.

Help may be on the way. Ms. Lopes says the judge ordered the court monitor to get all sides together and to try to develop a transition plan that may return the CFS to the District's control; they are expected to meet today. She says she hopes it will be a cooperative process. But she adds, "If we're unable to resolve this collaboratively, I will be prepared to move to litigate and ask the court to vacate the receiver." Which means she thinks it's time to get rid of Mrs. Jones and give the District, under a new mayor and city administrator, the opportunity to manage the CFS. A former court monitor who oversaw changes at the D.C. jail and other correctional facilities, Ms. Lopes knows when a receiver is doing good work and when a receiver isn't. We'll leave it at that.

But District children can't wait while lawyers haggle. Judge Hogan could take action today, returning CFS immediately. The city still would operate under a bevy of court orders affecting its treatment of children and its operation of CFS. But it won't have to watch as taxpayer dollars are squandered by horrendous managers. More important, it won't have to watch as its most vulnerable citizens are snatched from one dangerous circumstance only to be placed in an even more precarious situation which is more than enough reason to say bye-bye to Mrs. Jones.

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