Sharlynn E. Bobo needed to come up with something good. Real good.
She was head of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, perhaps the most embattled organ of city government these days. Things were bad enough in the aftermath of the Banita Jacks affair in January. And then, in late June, 6-month-old Isiah Garcia died. Though Garcia had been assigned to a CFSA social worker, no investigation ever happened, thanks to a huge, unsurprising agency backlog.
So she aimed for a tried-and-true strategy in righting her ship. In an e-mail issued by Bobo and her “Executive Team” on July 14, the plan to take care of the backlog was as follows: “All Hands on Deck.”
Call this one a local classic. “All Hands on Deck,” of course, is the name of police Chief Cathy Lanier’s favorite strategy for dealing with your average citywide crime crisis. Cops get hauled in to work extra shifts and can’t take vacation; flooding the streets with boys in blue, the thinking goes, stops crime cold.
The CFSA version of the strategy goes something like this: The crisis exists in CFSA’s Child Protective Services division, but the agency has scores of social workers in other parts of its shop. Bobo planned to take those non-CPS social workers and have them work unfinished cases.
That plan was sent out the morning of Bobo’s appearance at a council hearing before Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, chair of the human services committee that oversees the agency and a former CFSA caseworker himself. (It was also the day a 5-month-old under agency scrutiny died, further fueling the firestorm.) The plan came with a start date: Aug. 1, more than two weeks after the hearing.
To Wells, that sounded like a long vacation. “I was not happy about that atall,” Wells says. “The urgency should have been there since right after the Banita Jacks case. Everybody talked about a surge in cases, and then it happened.”
And if a two-week gestation period didn’t impress Wells, just imagine how it looked to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. In this administration, failure to act before thinking is a felonious management practice. It often seems not to matter what solution a problem deserves, as long as it’s addressed post-haste. On Wednesday, the mayor’s office announced Bobo’s resignation in a nighttime press release.
Perhaps Bobo figured she’d need those two weeks just to twist all the requisite arms to actually put all the agency’s hands on deck. As in any good bureaucracy, opposition to the plan was afoot, according to one official.
”There’s a lot of concern in the agency as to what it means, that it’s going to mean a problem with people being told to go do something that they really don’t know how to do,” a CFSA official says. “We were being told that it was in addition to our own jobs. How was that going to occur when were trying to deal with the rest of our jobs?”
Bobo, reached at her home, declined to comment on CFSA matters.
Wells says that “All Hands on Deck” demonstrated Bobo’s reticence to seek help from outside the agency and an inability to effectively manage the agency’s workforce. The overworked social worker in the Garcia case had been operating without a supervisor because her previous supervisor had been fired after the Jacks case. Almost six months later, a new one had not been found.
“Supervisors make good money, and there are some social workers there who would love to be supervisors,” Wells says. “I was distraught that she had not replaced her.”
The “All Hands on Deck” memo had no word on such management issues, but it did wrap up with this inspirational message: “The Chinese language uses one written symbol for both ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity,’” staffers were informed. “That is a very good description of the crossroads at which CFSA stands right now.”
It happened to be an opportunity for another crisis, anyway.
Last Friday, an outfit called Youth Today reported that Roque Gerald, appointed to replace Bobo atop CFSA, had sex with a patient during a 1989 counseling session and was later sued in a case that wound its way to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Gerald was not available for comment, but he did issue a statement to CFSA staff on Monday morning via e-mail: “Twenty years ago, I made an error that I recognized, regretted, and admitted immediately. I have continued to regret it ever since. That one-time lapse was a painful lesson, but it strengthened my commitment to the high standards I lived before and have upheld every day since.”
As for “All Hands on Deck,” it seems to have been decked. Gerald sent a memo to CFSA staff the morning after Bobo’s resignation in which he laid out his strategy for dealing with the agency’s backlog. He proposed putting out an “urgent call” for retired social workers to work cases for two or three months, appointing a panel of experts to advise the agency, and bringing in consultants for further assistance. There was no mention of “All Hands on Deck” or having non-CPS employees do CPS casework.
Asked about the fate of “All Hands,” Fenty spokesperson Dena Iverson says only that Gerald has an “excellent draft plan” and that he has “full support and resources” to implement it. That includes a fresh $600,000 infusion into the CFSA budget.
Wells says Gerald has assured him he will focus on completing investigations of neglect and abuse reports. “He said, ‘Tommy, we will just start with the basics,’” Wells says. “I like that.”
Additional reporting by Jason Cherkis
Show Them the Money!
The D.C. Democratic State Committee has a pat response to any financial crisis: Throw a gala dinner.
That’s what the committee did last fall, after the group’s budget had dropped into the triple digits. The dinner worked; at last week’s committee meeting, chair Anita Bonds told the crowd that the organization’s accounts held in excess of $70,000.
But the members of the committee essentially had to take that on blind faith. For months, no financial report has been submitted by treasurer Lenwood Johnson to the membership, and it came out at Thursday’s monthly meeting that the city Office of Campaign Finance levied a $2,000 fine last year (later reduced to $200) for not filing required reports.
“I’m not totally satisfied, but I’m satisfied that we’re filing reports at this time,” Bonds said at the meeting. Those reports, however, aren’t yet publicly available on the Office of Campaign Finance’s Web site; the most recent available is from last summer. LL’s inquiry with the office revealed that penalties are likely for a still-unfiled March report.
Johnson, for his part, said at the meeting, “To my knowledge, no one from the Office of Campaign Finance has notified me that this committee has been fined anything while I’ve been treasurer.” According to an OCF order issued last August, Johnson did not show at two hearings on the matter held in the spring of last year; at last Thursday’s meeting, he explained that the notice had been sent to the committee’s old offices.
Committee members voted to direct Johnson, who did not return a phone call, to complete a financial review by early next month.
Bonds hints that the airing of the financial difficulties has its roots in the internal power politics of the committee, with two major slates of candidates competing for control of the body in this fall’s elections. Bonds is running on the
“Obama for D.C.” “Obama for Change” slate; vice chair Jeff Richardson and allies, who raised the issues at Thursday’s meeting, are on the “Obama4UnityBeatsMcCain” ticket. Richardson says he has no reason to think funds have been used improperly, but that the lack of transparency is concerning.
Bonds, asked whether she has confidence in Johnson as committee treasurer, replies, “Don’t ask me that!”
“You have to take initiative,” she says. “I think what happens, with a voluntary organization, is that you run out of time.”
• Late Saturday afternoon, LL donned his linen picnicking pants and headed to Hillcrest to crash the summer D.C. Council barbecue thrown by Chairman Vincent C. Gray.
Guests chowed on ribs and chicken from Fat Face BBQ in Capitol Heights, dipped goodies into a chocolate dessert fountain, and sipped perfectly moderate quantities of Yellow Tail Chardonnay as Gray played host in his own well-groomed backyard, looking sharp in white polo and denim. At-Large Councilmember Kwame R. Brown also gets sartorial kudos from LL for his white linen shirt and seersucker pant combo.
But the fashion story of the evening was, believe it or not, At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson. Sure, Mendo’s an oxford-shirt-and-Dockers kind of guy—that is what he was wearing—but the real news was his headwear: a green fenty democrat for mayor baseball cap.
Mendelson, the council’s leading mayoral kvetch, says he was just giving an underutilized wardrobe item some overdue use. “I last used it for the 3rd District [police] fundraiser dunk tank,” he said.
The centerpiece of the occasion was the distribution of long-term service awards to members and their staff. The real veterans, with 20 years of service or more, got a crystal paperweight. Folks with three years got a certificate; five, 10, or 15 years got you a nice pin. That wasn’t enough for Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who was honored for his 17 years of council service. “I think I should get a watch, not a pin. How long do you have to be here to get a watch?” he joked to the crowd, before turning to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry and his decades of government paychecks. “Marion, how long before you get a watch?”
Barry had rolled in fresh off the campaign trail, not only wearing one of his own campaign shirts, but carrying a pair of green-and-white campaign signs, which he proceeded to plant in Gray’s front yard—of limited utility, granted, seeing as Gray lives in Ward 7.
Evans, not to be outdone in impromptu politicking, planted a campaign sign of his own on his way out of the party.
• Ballot petitions for the Sept. 9 primary are in, and that means a fresh set of signature challenges. Sure, the usual suspects are at work; Ward 8 council candidate Sandra “S.S.” Seegars disputed the petitions of no fewer than four of her fellow Barry challengers.
Then there’s Ward 1 resident and state committee candidate Lynn C. French, representing the “Obama’s Ward One Democrats” slate, who is challenging four candidates on the competing Obama4UnityBeatsMcCain slate. Among the challenged candidates: Ian Martinez and Jason Barry, who happen to be actual live Obama staffers! Also noteworthy is that one of the signatures that French is challenging belongs to Cecily E. Collier-Montgomery, director of the Office of Campaign Finance. She forgot to fill in her address, French alleges.
The real show, though, is in the shadow senator race. Current Shadow Sen. Michael D. Brown and former Shadow Sen. Florence Pendleton are challenging the petitions submitted by Phil Pannell, the ubiquitous Ward 8 activist who is challenging two-term incumbent Paul Strauss.
Brown, who is not up for re-election until 2012, says the effort is about making sure that Pannell’s signatures are “up to snuff,” and says that the challenge was led by Pendleton.
“Florence wanted to do this, and I wanted to back her up,” he says.
Strauss, both Pendleton and Brown report, had nothing to do with the challenge, though Brown has no trouble admitting he has a horse in the race. “I’d like to see Sen. Strauss re-elected,” he says. “I’m not hiding my loyalties.”
Pendleton, for her part, says her challenge was motivated by not only what she sees as faulty petitions, but her distaste for the candidate who submitted them. “I think Phil Pannell lacks the qualities that are necessary for him to be the senator. He just lacks what I think he should have. But I don’t want to go into it.”
Brown speaks in similarly oblique terms: “This is not something that I enjoy doing, but I think this is an important thing. It really has to do with the personalities involved as much as anything else.”
Allow LL to parse their words: Pannell is enjoying a taste of his own medicine. Two years ago, when Pannell ran for a shadow senate seat, he challenged incumbent Pendleton’s petitions and managed to knock her off the ballot, clearing the way for Brown’s victory.
Pannell claims that what he did to Pendleton is nothing like what she’s doing to him. “My stuff is very well-based. Mine wasn’t to throw out charges and hope something sticks,” he says.
An initial ruling Tuesday held that Pannell had enough valid signatures, but Brown and Pendleton, alleging forgeries, planned to continue the challenge at a Wednesday hearing (after LL’s deadline).
“This is really adversarial,” Pannell says. “They still want to push it. They just want to mess with me.”
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