Credit: Illustration by Julia Terbrock

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On the last day of March, a social worker brought two teenagers who had lost their caregiver to COVID-19 to the headquarters of D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency on I Street SE in Capitol Riverfront.

Employees there were already a little on edge. It was two weeks after the agency had transitioned to a partial telework plan and just days after the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the D.C. area had reached 1,000.

That day, the remaining staffers on site received instructions not to use the bathroom near their communal eating area. Although no reason was provided, they didn’t think anything of it at the time; that bathroom is periodically closed for maintenance.

One of the teenagers, a boy with known behavioral problems, was seen running through the building past the desks occupied by Child Protective Services workers, through the cafeteria, and in the hallways. This kind of sight isn’t out of the ordinary for agency employees. From April to November of 2019, 31 foster children stayed overnight at the headquarters because the agency couldn’t find homes for them, the court-appointed monitor who oversees CFSA told a federal judge last year. “We don’t understand why the number is as high as it currently is,” the monitor’s counsel, Marcia Lowry, said in court last December. “Something is off here.” (In 2010, the year the monitor began tracking this metric, there were many periods when the number was zero.)

The two youths ended up staying at the headquarters that night—because it is against protocol for foster children to sleep at the agency, they don’t have cots for them, so they sleep on the floor, chairs, or couches—and again the next day. But when it came time for a social worker to drive them to the foster home where they were being placed, CFSA employees received unwelcome news. Both children had tested positive for COVID-19, and the vast majority of the staff who worked at the headquarters during the previous two days had no idea. This included the roughly dozen employees who worked nights and members of the cleaning crew who wiped down the car that had transported the teenagers, according to accounts by Child Protective Services employees.

It wasn’t until the night of April 2, when the agency’s director, Brenda Donald, emailed staff at nearly 7:30 p.m. about the situation, that CFSA employees were formally notified about their potential exposure to COVID-19. The children “were contained in one area of the building,” Donald wrote. “This incident was unexpected, and I am grateful to all who were able to support this family during their grief and crisis.”

It was, as social workers would later joke, a caution tape day: Though much of the agency staff now work remotely, the dozens of social workers who continue to make face-to-face family visits still regularly drop by their office. Sometimes they’re thwarted by yards of yellow caution tape strung up around their floor, which cleaning crews use to cordon off areas occupied by sick or symptomatic employees and kids. When they see the tape, employees say, they know to warn each other.

While the agency’s failure to timely place children in foster homes is one of the biggest obstacles it faces in seeking to exit the federal oversight it’s been in for 30 years, the coronavirus pandemic has made the implications of those stays more severe. As of May 29, nine employees had tested positive for the virus and 17 more were in quarantine after showing symptoms, the agency tells City Paper. At least two people who work with the agency have died from COVID-19, according to internal emails and accounts from employees: a female member of the cleaning staff and a female member of the parent-support staff.

“We’re always worried if anyone, of course, tests positive. [But] it’s a very small number relative to the number of employees,” Donald says in an interview. For comparison, CFSA and St. Elizabeths Hospital, D.C.’s public psychiatric hospital, have reported roughly the same number of COVID-19 deaths among their employees. But unlike other city agencies whose employees have contracted the disease, CFSA deals directly with the District’s most vulnerable youth, who tend to live in communities with high rates of coronavirus comorbidities, including hypertension and obesity.

As of May 29, seven foster children who had come through CFSA had tested positive for COVID-19, the director adds. Asked whether those children tested positive for the virus before they entered CFSA’s care or after, Donald says she doesn’t know. (Before the pandemic hit D.C., 25 to 30 children a month entered the city’s foster care system, but Donald says that number has since declined.) In late April, the Washington Post reported that emergency room doctors at Children’s National Medical Center are seeing more severe cases of child abuse: 10 percent of the children referred to Children’s ER for child abuse from March 15 to April 20 this year died, up from three percent over the same period last year.

The virus has also throttled Child Protective Services’ in-person welfare visits, reducing the number of social workers in the field from 57 to 33, an employee with access to that data tells City Paper. Employees have requested telework or gotten sick. Those who are now teleworking say that, though it’s a necessary safety precaution, video chatting with families makes CFSA’s core work more difficult to execute, since virtual interviews offer limited windows into home life. Meanwhile, the Child Protective Services division alone has about 23 vacant positions. The pandemic has “really shown where the cracks are in the agency,” says one social worker who’s been at CFSA for more than two decades.

City Paper reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, including dozens of internal emails, photographs of personal protective equipment distributed to CFSA employees, court records, and analyses of the District’s preparedness for pandemics. The documents indicate that D.C. agencies took a reactive approach to the threat the pandemic posed, delaying interventions that would make vulnerable staff and residents safer.

At CFSA, PPE for client-facing workers came weeks—and in some cases, months—after the pandemic shut down most of D.C. When supplies did arrive, multiple staffers say, it took another several weeks before they were distributed to the appropriate employees. They were also paltry: miniature bottles of hand sanitizer, a pair or two of thin gloves, non-alcoholic baby wipes, and a single disposable mask per worker. 

Two CFSA employees tell City Paper that the masks their supervisors described to them as N95s, the gold standard in PPE, were actually a less sturdy dupe. In fact, Nikol Nabors-Jackson, CFSA’s Deputy Director of Administration, tells City Paper the agency ordered KN95 masks—and they didn’t place their first order for those until April 3, one month after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in D.C. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration revoked its emergency-use authorization for KN95 masks from seven different manufacturers on May 15, citing the masks’ inability to meet federal safety standards.

“They were way late. They were late. They were late,” says Desiree, a Child Protective Services employee who has underlying medical conditions and has been at CFSA for more than 20 years. She and other staff members are resorting to buying their own cleaning supplies. City Paper, which spoke to seven current and former CFSA employees, gave pseudonyms to the social workers quoted in this story, because they fear retribution from agency leaders for speaking with the press about sensitive matters involving the welfare of minors.

The situations CFSA staff recount echo what’s been known about the novel coronavirus since its early days in the U.S.: Black Americans are far more likely to die from and be infected by COVID-19 than white Americans, largely due to systemic racism that precludes black people from receiving proper health and economic interventions. In Ward 8, where CFSA serves most of its clients, 97 people have died from the virus to date—by far the highest number across the city’s eight wards, even though Ward 8 has the fourth-highest number of total coronavirus cases.

“I’m going into communities that are impoverished, communities where people don’t have education about COVID[-19] and aren’t able to social distance and don’t have the supplies,” says Courtney, a Child Protective Services employee who’s still conducting in-person visits. “We’re not making sure that people in the communities that we’re servicing stay safe.” 

“[CFSA leaders] know that I’m dealing with the at-risk populations, but aren’t doing anything to help that population,” she continues. “You’re not doing anything to help me. You’re literally fueling the fire.”

After more than two months of a citywide stay-at-home order, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched the first phase of reopening D.C. last Friday. The criteria her administration used to trigger the reopening, “community spread,” ignored COVID-19 cases in “congregate settings,” such as hospitals, homeless shelters, and jails, based on the claim that those places are closed-loop ecosystems. At public appearances, Bowser also said D.C. has the resources to look after the people who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus’ rampant spread.

But ask the social workers serving some of D.C.’s most at-risk residents whether the city has taken care of its own, and their answers will throw the mayor’s statements off balance. At CFSA specifically, City Paper’s reporting shows that whether it’s equipping frontline workers with basic PPE or keeping the agency fully staffed, officials wasted precious time in the first weeks of the pandemic, at times misjudging the severity of what the next few months would bring. 

***

Who could have seen this coming? 

About five years ago, a panel of emergency response experts convened to answer that question. The group, called the Homeland Security Commission, was created by the D.C. Council’s legislative authority in 2006, and has published a number of reports on the District’s preparedness for different disaster scenarios, including a cyberattack or act of domestic terrorism. 

In the summer of 2015, they published a 36-page report summarizing D.C.’s readiness for a pandemic.

The experts who worked on that study, including Rebecca Katz, a former State Department consultant who now helms Georgetown University Medical Center’s global health science program, and Daniel Kaniewski, the recently departed deputy administrator of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, concluded that D.C. lacked a “policy or mechanism … for partners to share their response plans and to regularly participate in one another’s planning processes, training, or exercises.” Critical response agencies interviewed, like the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, DC Health, and the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, reported “inadequate or strained” relationships with each other.

“There is a need for stronger crisis and emergency risk communication and coordination among partners involved in pandemic planning and response,” the group wrote. “In general, there is uncertainty among response partners as to the funding sources for pandemic planning and response.” 

It continued: “There is concern that the current decentralized distribution of funds will result in individual centers being parceled out and that there will ultimately be a lack of unity and continuity in public health emergency preparedness.” Among other things, they recommended that D.C. work on its interagency information sharing, particularly its plans for emergency health operations plans. (Neither CFSA nor foster children were explicitly mentioned in the report.)

Two years later, in 2017, the panel convened for a roundtable discussion that included Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson. The transcript of that conversation makes clear that not only had District leaders failed to materially implement the bulk of the group’s recommendations, they were still unsure how to do so. 

“You know, we can write a report, but then we don’t implement [it],” Katz said at the time. Brian Baker, then the head of D.C.’s emergency response agency, added his concerns as well: “That is one of the complications when you are looking at Homeland Security. We have the name, ‘the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency,’ but we don’t hold the majority of the capabilities to respond to anything. The preparedness aspects don’t all fall into one agency.” 

In some ways, CFSA had to prepare for a pandemic on its own. The day before Bowser declared a state of emergency in D.C., on March 11, Donald sent the entire agency an email stating that it was working with HSEMA to “identify necessary and available supplies for release to workers going in the field.” Cities and states around the country were in the same boat, and many jurisdictions were actively bidding against each other for medical supplies like gloves and masks. 

“What we’re facing is totally unprecedented, and my whole team has come together and we’ve spent dozens, if not hundreds of hours, trying to plan and put things in place that balance, one, our mission and our mandate to ensure that kids are safe, and our responsibility to our employees,” Donald said in a March interview with City Paper.

Nabors-Jackson says that CFSA first began to put orders in for PPE, like gloves and sanitizing wipes, the second week of March, and that it has distributed 875 “safety supply kits,” or plastic baggies containing single-use items, like a disposable mask and gloves, since then. That’s only about one bag per agency employee, plus a few extras. While some client-facing social workers tell City Paper they have received two or three disposable masks from the agency since March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against the extended re-use of face masks. Even the limited re-use of face masks during times of “crisis capacity,” the CDC says, is a strategy that by its own criteria is “not commensurate with U.S. standards of care.”

On March 18, City Paper published a story detailing the early frustrations of some CFSA employees who were still without any PPE at all, even hand sanitizer, which at that point, vendors were price gouging on Amazon for up to $30 a bottle. Hours after publication, Donald and a spokesperson for the agency called this reporter to discuss the article. In response to a quote from an agency employee in the story—that social workers were “begging for supplies”—Kera Tyler, the agency spokesperson, said: “CFSA is also begging suppliers for those supplies.”

But social workers say they never felt that level of urgency. 

The very same week, City Paper obtained a series of photos that showed one of CFSA’s newly “cleaned” cars—part of a new, ostensibly more robust cleaning protocol for the agency’s headquarters and fleet of cars.

The passenger door was crusted in a yellow liquid that dried in rivulets streaming down from the window. The vehicle’s dashboard and steering wheel were covered in dust and visible fingerprints; the cupholder was littered with debris and visible strands of hair. “I have to be really strategic when I get the vehicle, because they haven’t necessarily been cleaned the way that the agency is saying they are,” Courtney says. 

Desiree bursts into sustained peals of laughter whenCity Paper asks her whether she has been using the agency’s cars. “I ain’t getting in theirs, naw,” she says. “If I’m gonna get [COVID-19], I’m gonna get it in my car.” 

For the rest of March, as COVID-19 cases in D.C. continued to multiply, the guidance social workers received from DC Health and CFSA actually advised against wearing even basic disposable masks and gloves during all interactions with clients. Donald and Nabors-Jackson say that CFSA received guidance in early April from DC Health that distinguished between the level of PPE needed for caseworkers, like Child Protective Services employees, and doctors. “The distinction is that [social workers] do not provide direct health care services,” Donald says. 

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One DC Health directive sent to CFSA staff, dated March 25, reads: “The use of gloves and masks is not recommended for those not having direct contact with sick patients, and should be preserved for healthcare workers … Wear gloves only if you are need [sic] to handle a client’s personal belongings (i.e. clothing).” 

But COVID-19, a virus that primarily attacks the respiratory system, spreads primarily through airborne droplets, according to the CDC. Multiple studies have found that masks are among the most effective ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19. By April, the federal department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau would urge cities to specifically classify social workers as “Level 1 emergency responders”—a designation that would put them in line with other first responders and allow them to receive a more robust supply of PPE. 

“I am urging you to be in touch with your governors and to work with your emergency management and public health leadership to have child welfare workers and service providers classified as Level 1 emergency responders and, thus, have greater access to PPE,” the letter, dated April 17, says. “This is a matter of urgency, given the approximately 437,000 children currently in foster care in the United States.”

At the same time, Bowser’s own recommended metrics for reopening D.C. included making sure that health care workers had a sufficient supply of PPE. “Minimum of N95s for direct care, surgical masks for others,” a slide the mayor’s office published in April reads. By May 13, Bowser would sign an executive order requiring D.C. residents to wear face masks in public.

So when social workers received that no-mask guidance from DC Health in late March, they went ballistic. 

“We go out into the field. We see people face to face. We’re coming in contact with children, who we know have the ability to show less symptoms—that can be just as sick, and can spread the disease—and we’re coming in contact with those people,” Courtney says. “And so very, very early on, a lot of people reached out to management and the union, and said, ‘the CDC is saying that individuals who are doing face-to-face visits need to wear PPE. We need masks, we need gloves. We need all of these things to make sure that we’re safe.’ And, literally, the response [from CFSA was] like, ‘Oh, well, the general public doesn’t need to wear masks, so we don’t see any concerns.’” 

But, as Courtney says: “We aren’t the general public. We’re literally going into people’s homes. And it’s frustrating because my agency knows better[.] When they do those types of things to us, that’s not listening to us, and not taking our health seriously.” 

Child Protective Services employees are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2401, which also represents employees from eight other D.C. agencies, including the Office of the Attorney General, Department of Human Services, Office of Contracts and Procurement, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. 

Its president, Wayne Enoch, told City Paper in March that he would hold periodic calls with CFSA leaders in response to employees’ concerns about their lack of PPE. While Enoch did not respond to email inquiries for this article, AFSCME’s website says that its most recent meeting with CFSA leadership “left several unanswered questions, which we are still requesting feedback about.” Because Enoch represents so many employees, Courtney acknowledges, “Wayne can’t be everyone’s superhero. He’s not Superman. He can’t be all these places at once.” 

Meanwhile, social workers were still making in-person visits with a dwindling number of staff. By the end of May, close to two dozen Child Protective Services workers were teleworking, leaving just over 30 staff members to continue to make in-person visits. Some units, which typically have between four and six employees, only have two employees currently doing field work. 

Although the social workers who make in-person visits to the people they serve aren’t doctors, they are extensions of the health care system. They visit hospitals to check on clients, they judge whether a family’s home is safe enough to raise children in, and they assess their clients’ medical needs and connect them to appropriate services. 

The staff members still doing that work say they are intensely paranoid about getting sick. Courtney describes visiting a clearly ill parent with a runny nose, one of many residents who had come down with the same bug in the same building. “Here I am in this [person’s] house praying, ‘Jesus, don’t let me catch this,’” she says. 

Early on in the pandemic, Desiree had to make a trip to Children’s National Medical Center. “I had on my white coat, my mask, my gloves, and I went in for about maybe an hour and a half,” she says, adding that, with Clorox wipes she keeps in her car, “I wiped my coat, I wiped my car, I almost wiped my face. I was like, shiiiiiiiit.” 

It wasn’t until April 3, according to Nabors-Jackson—more than three weeks after Bowser declared a state of emergency in D.C.—that CFSA put in its first order for KN95 masks. The agency wouldn’t receive them until April 16. 

Once the protective equipment was in the agency’s hands, frontline workers had a difficult time getting it. One email, sent by CFSA administrator Wanda Tolliver on April 23, told a group of Child Protective Services workers they could pick up “N95 face masks” on April 24.  

But it wasn’t until mid-May that Courtney received word that she could stop by the agency’s I Street SE headquarters to pick one up. Someone had laid the masks out for pickup on one of the communal tables in the social workers’ shared space—the same place they leave leftover birthday cake or other snacks. Upon receiving her mask, Courtney says she realized immediately that it was a less sturdy model than what she was promised. 

City Paper obtained photos of the masks that were presented to staff as N95s, which have “KN95” stamped on each cheek. They appear to be made of white cotton, with elastic loops that hook around the ears. True N95 masks––the ones that have a superior filtration capacity––loop around the head and require proper fittings. Neither Courtney nor Desiree were fitted for the masks they were told were N95s, and in fact, the masks very closely resemble some of the styles identified by the CDC as counterfeit respirators that don’t meet respiratory protection standards set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. At least seven different KN95 mask manufacturers of those masks have been cited by the FDA because their products did not demonstrate 95 percent filtration efficiency. Packaging used for the KN95 masks CFSA purchased is imprinted with “GB2626-2006,” shorthand for China’s filtration performance standard; the CDC has reported that some of these products “have poor filter efficiency and are of poor quality.” The packaging also describes them as “disposable.”

Though D.C.’s contracting office does not list the purchase on its website, a spokesperson for CFSA says the order totaled $4,555, and came from Total Office Products, a local office supply company. At an order of 400 masks, they came out to about $11 per unit. Before the pandemic, true N95 masks, sold at places like Home Depot, cost as little as $3 per mask. “They don’t require fittings,” Nabors-Jackson tells City Paper of the KN95 masks CFSA bought. “You can bend them to the shape of your face.” 

With a KN95 mask in hand, Courtney then went into Howard University Hospital to do a wellness check on a 3-day-old baby.

“You want me to go into a hospital—a hospital—to go do a check on an infant that’s like 3 days old without a [proper] mask on?” Courtney asks. “Like, come on, man. At least give me a real mask today. I can make the baby sick!” Even if she’s not sick or symptomatic, she adds, she can pass along the virus to vulnerable kids if she’s come into contact with it via other clients.

It is also impossible, using information currently available to the public and the D.C. Council, to compare CFSA’s response to that of other client-facing agencies. Bowser’s office has remained tight-lipped about when the District placed PPE orders for other first responders. (CFSA has independent contracting authority and can purchase supplies on its own.)

Throughout April and May, at the prompting of D.C. Council members who asked for details about those orders, the director of Bowser’s Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs, Ronan Gulstone, sent periodic emails to councilmembers and some Council staff with charts listing which vendors D.C. has used to fulfill orders for masks and gloves. (As of May 18, the city had spent $14 million on those items, according to a copy of the report obtained by City Paper.) But notably, those updates don’t include the number of units purchased or the order date, and the orders do not appear on the Office of Contracting and Procurement’s website, which itemizes purchases made by D.C. agencies. 

To gauge how early agencies that employ first responders ordered PPE, City Paper asked spokespeople for FEMS and MPD for the number of units purchased. 

A spokesperson for MPD declined to answer City Paper’s request, and instructed this reporter to file a Freedom of Information Act request for that data. (Lawmakers have all but suspended FOIA for the duration of the public health emergency.) A spokesperson for FEMS directed City Paper’s request to Bowser’s office, which directed the request to the city’s contracting office. That response—available here—included specifics about units ordered, but not of the purchase date. In a follow-up email, a spokesperson for Bowser declined to comment specifically on the date OCP executed those purchases, saying only that they were distributed “on an ongoing basis.”

***

In D.C., as in states across the country, calls to Child Protective Services hotlines are plummeting. 

With schools closed to in-person classes and non-essential trips outside the home discouraged or outright banned, the network of people who have regular contact with children and are required to report signs of abuse, like teachers and doctors, has largely disappeared. 

Between March 16 and April 18 of this year, CFSA’s emergency hotline received 897 calls, 30 percent of which came from school staff; during the same period in 2019, the agency received 2,356 hotline calls, with 52 percent coming from school personnel, according to data published last month by Marie Cohen, a member of the panel that reviews child fatality cases in D.C. 

But while social workers at CFSA are seeing a decline in the raw number of referrals sent their way, their caseloads are far from light. “The cases I’ve gotten now are more concerning, or alarming, than my normal cases,” Courtney says.

Among those are what Desiree describes as a spike in sex trafficking cases. Up until last spring, when CFSA leaders disbanded it, the agency had a special abuse unit that would have taken cases like those. It was staffed with social workers who were specifically trained in sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, “they’re just doling ’em out to everybody,” Desiree says. “They will say, ‘Oh, we conducted a webinar, and a question and answer session, and they should be up to speed.’ You really are not up to speed for that crap. You know what I’m saying? But they sort of, you know, hand you the cases and push you out the door and say, ‘go get ’em.’”

Part of that work is complicated by the fact that the employees who are teleworking are relying on video chats to communicate with families. Many of the interviews guardians usually do with social workers in person, during which the social worker can pick up on physical cues and take a look around the home, are now virtual. It’s an imperfect system, albeit a necessary one to comply with social distancing requirements. “I know people’s creativity is being encouraged” when it comes to completing virtual visits, a social worker named Maia tells City Paper. “I would say, on the direct level, with workers and supervisors, it’s encouraged without being said. Like, do what you got to do as long as you can get it done and you can say that you somehow laid eyes on this child.”

Communications from agency leaders indicate that the pandemic has taken a serious toll on the strength of their workforce. In an email sent at about 5 p.m. on May 27, CFSA Principal Deputy Director Robert Matthews sent out a call to the agency for volunteers to interact with families who have tested positive for COVID-19. The group of people who volunteered, the email said, would be called “The A-Team.”

“Even with our best efforts, the increasing demands of the COVID-19 pandemic are beginning to make it difficult for CFSA to complete some key in-person functions,” Matthews wrote. “We are seeking staff volunteers from across the agency who are willing and able to undertake duties, on an as-needed basis, that may put them in direct contact with CFSA clients or providers who are symptomatic for COVID-19 and/or have tested positive.”

Those duties that Matthews asked the entire agency’s staff to volunteer for include work that only licensed social workers are allowed to do, like “conducting interviews with alleged victim children and maltreaters” and “conducting in-person clinical assessment of individuals and families diagnosed with COVID-19.” While some tasks, like the former, require “necessary experience,” others, like monitoring foster children who are staying overnight at the agency, are “open to all staff,” the email says. The result, employees fear, is that agency leaders will either recruit potentially under-qualified staff to perform the work of licensed social workers, or, when they can’t find volunteers, farm the work out to unwilling staff who are already working in the field.  

Though Donald has said in interviews that it’s the “kids we don’t see” whose fates CFSA worries most about, the pandemic has changed many families’ lived experiences and made them more vulnerable to CFSA intervention. In D.C. alone, the pandemic has forced roughly one out of every seven residents into unemployment and worsened many of the factors that play into substantiating allegations of abuse or neglect, like malnourishment, unsuitable living conditions, and parent absenteeism.

A quirk of D.C. law, to take one example, is its “latchkey kids”—children who come home from school to an empty house, or are left home alone while parents are at work. In some Virginia and Maryland counties, Child Protective Services can substantiate neglect against a parent for leaving a child younger than 7 or 8 alone. But D.C. has no such threshold, and technically speaking, social workers could substantiate claims of neglect against a parent for leaving their 16-year-old at home all day. While social workers say that neither they nor their supervisors would dream of doing that, the calculus gets fuzzier the younger the child is, and depending on the rest of the family’s circumstances. 

It’s a tough call to make even in more stable economic times. But what’s to be done now that schools, camps, and child care facilities are closed, and parents still have to work, in a city where the average cost of child care runs between $2,000 and $3,000 per month?

“They’re like, ‘ooh, wow, mom is leaving all these kids home alone.’ The neighbors are calling [us] because she’s working. But Mom still has to work to provide food, and the agency hasn’t addressed that,” Courtney says. “And it’s still considered inadequate supervision[.] But what do you do in this uncertain time? Do you want the [parents] not to have a job at all? Or do you want to come up with a way to address the need for child care?”

Child welfare advocates point to other CFSA policies that remain needlessly punitive. In May, a group of child welfare advocates and attorneys sent a letter to Donald urging the agency to waive a requirement that caregivers applying for child care subsidies must appear in person at CFSA’s headquarters for fingerprinting. Even the federal department of Health and Human Services recommended in April that states waive that requirement during the pandemic. The authors of the letter, who include representatives from the Children’s Law Center, Advocates for Justice and Education, and DC KinCare Alliance, received a response from Donald saying that the policy would remain in place.

Removing children from their homes now, social workers say, is more traumatizing for them than ever. While all parties, including children, their guardians, and social workers, would usually have to appear in court before a judge would authorize their removal, the pandemic has forced even family court to go virtual. Because removal hearings now take place online, children entering the foster system are now picked up directly from their homes. 

For children who have tested positive for COVID-19, like the two teenagers who had to stay at CFSA headquarters overnight, the pandemic has upended their lives even more: They can’t see their friends. They can’t really go outside. And in some cases, they’re so frustrated by what’s happening to them that they’re exhibiting behavioral issues and refusing to comply with rules around self-quarantining. They are, after all, just kids. 

Sharra Greer, the policy director of the Children’s Law Center, says that the group has “heard concerns from the foster parent community about their own safety and taking kids who haven’t been complying with appropriate rules around quarantining.” 

“It’s stressful for a lot of foster families who have seen disruptions. We’ve heard foster parents express that,” she said.

The pandemic has, in other words, scrambled an already delicate process. (As Desiree says, “We’re limping along.”) But Donald emphasizes that the agency is doing just fine: It has followed the Department of General Services’ cleaning protocol for its headquarters and hired a third party contractor to do deeper cleanings, she says, and its community social work partners have helped pick up the slack around community outreach.  

“I think in terms of our safety precautions for our employees, for our children, and for our foster parents, I feel that we have a really robust response, and that we are being very thoughtful and responsive to those needs,” Donald says. 

***

When she returns home every day, Courtney has a routine: She strips down in the entryway, being careful not to move around too much, and tosses her clothes from the day into the washing machine. 

She’s exacting not just because she doesn’t want to become ill herself, but also because she has a sister with a compromised immune system. She can’t bear the thought of getting her sick. 

In the absence of getting the supplies she needs from her office, she buys her own––she’s spent $50 or $60 on Clorox and Lysol wipes so far; $50 on caps for her hair; $100 on disposable masks; and another $100 on gloves. And that’s just for the last two months. There is the gaping maw of the summer months to consider, and then the fall, when health experts predict that a second wave of the virus just as devastating as the first could emerge. 

The $14 in hazard pay she earns each day she goes into the field—maybe two or three days per week—has been eaten up by the supplies she’s bought for herself.  

“CFSA, in my opinion, has literally put us at risk,” Courtney says. “All the things that I thought they were working on, I was like, damn, I was wrong.”

The social workers are all waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the inevitable spike in calls whenever schools reopen, for the slew of overextended employees still working in the field to start requesting time off to recuperate. For their cases to get worse, and more emotionally taxing.

“We’re going to be coming to a crossroads soon,” Maia says. “Parents who are minimally able to hold themselves together and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to get through this is only for a short period of time,’ are getting to the point where they’re like, ‘Fuck this kid. I can’t take it anymore[.]’”

Until then, as Desiree says, they can only do what they can do: Gear up. Take a breath. Press on.  

***

This story was published with the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

This story has been updated to reflect new information about CFSA’s caregiver subsidy application requirements. A previous version of this article reported that a proposed city-wide hiring freeze would apply to CFSA; an agency spokesperson says it will not.