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Several children in the care of D.C.’s child welfare agency stayed overnight at its office and in hotel rooms between January and June of this year, according to the Child and Family Services Agency’s court-appointed monitor, “a reoccurrence of an unacceptable practice that has not appeared at this level for many years.”

The Center for Study of Social Policy’s November report found that “CFSA struggled unsuccessfully to ensure appropriate placements for all children in foster care” during the most recent monitoring period.

“This problem became a crisis over the summer and revealed systematic issues related to CFSA’s ability to maintain accurate and current information on placement capacity and provider skills,” the report states, “as well as communications and contractual issues with private agency providers.” In total, 11 children stayed overnight at CFSA’s office on four separate occasions during the monitored period, and four stayed in hotel rooms on three separate occasions. Information provided to the monitor indicated that these types of placements continued beyond June of this year. 

Judge Thomas F. Hogan appointed CSSP to monitor D.C.’s child welfare agency in 1993 after ruling in LaShawn A. v. Barry that children in the city’s care were languishing. The center and CFSA (as it became known in 2001) created an implementation and exit plan in the early 2000s, which the agency is still working to complete.

While today’s CFSA is virtually unrecognizable from D.C.’s child welfare agency more than two decades ago, the loss of progress in foster placements was disappointing to CSSP Deputy Director Judith Meltzer, the independent monitor since 1992, as well as to Hogan, who has presided over the case for 26 years.In U.S. District Court yesterday,  Hogan said it’s been 15 years since he’s seen children staying at the agency’s office overnight. He praised CFSA’s progress in some areas—including its creation of an app for foster parents, success in creating “timely” transition plans for youth, and opening of new inter-generational housing—but questioned how the agency didn’t anticipate a crisis in one of its core services.

An attorney for the District explained that when the city ended its contract with two third-party foster placement agencies in 2012, it transferred families to other agencies to maintain the level of placements. That did not happen “on the same level” this year, when CFSA ended two contracts with such agencies. (The report notes that the end of the contracts resulted in a shortage of placements for “older youth and those with mental or behavioral health challenges.”)

The city also saw an increase in children entering its care this summer, according to the attorney, including large groups of siblings. Some of these sibling groups were ultimately placed with a licensed relative, which “took time.”

CFSA is “strategically increasing” its foster capacity, the attorney said, in part by using real-time data and putting in better supports. Now, the agency must work to continue implementing these strategies, she added.

The CSSP report notes that “CFSA staff were appropriately alarmed by these events and have been working to develop and execute a strategy plan to increase the number of licensed foster homes for both emergency and longer term stays as well as examining the placement process to ensure that after-hours placement needs are appropriately handled.” But the agency’s annual Resource Development Plan—which “should help to identify what additional placement, placement support, and community-based resources are needed to reverse the recent problems”—is six months overdue. (The District’s attorney said, in light of the crisis, CFSA has been working to “make sure [the plan is] high quality.”; it’s set to be completed this month.)

In addition to raising concerns about placements, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Marcia Lowry of A Better Childhood Inc., highlighted the report’s sections on implementation issues. “D.C. has good ideas,” she said, but the level of implementation during the monitored period was “disappointing.”

This includes the implementation of an “updated case plan [that] incorporates new functional assessment tools,” of consistent [Review, Evaluate and Direct] Team meetings, and of a “redesigned trauma-focused case plan,” which was implemented on July 1. From the report:

There is no information yet available on the functioning of the new case plan, its use in planning for families, or its impact on case planning with families. Additionally, no data has been provided to the Monitor on the completion of the new functional assessments and their use in case planning. CFSA has identified that there has been an inconsistent use of the 30-day case planning RED Team meetings within CFSA and the private agencies, which they are hoping to fix by January 2016. However, as noted above, it is unclear to the Monitor why there has been no routine data collection to assess implementation of the new functional assessment tools and case planning documents.

Ray Davidson, CFSA’s director, said the agency is continuing to “right size” its “continuum of placements.” He also pointed to the agency’s progress on crisis intervention through its HOMEBUILDERS program, the filling of key positions, ongoing leadership training, and a review by an independent consultant.

“We don’t have a perfect system,” he said, but CFSA has “a strategy in place to address those challenges.”