Last week, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless reported that a D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) social worker had attempted to force a homeless mother to make a brutal choice: Either get on a bus out of town or risk having your three children put in fostercare. City Desk followed up on the story and interviewed the mother’s Legal Clinic attorney who said she directly heard the ultimatum from the social worker:

Julie Broas [the Legal Clinic attorney]  recalls the social worker explaining: “Because she is not being placed in a shelter, therefore she is unable to provide a safe place for her children to stay. If she does not agree to accept the arrangement that has been made for her [the bus out of town], we will be forced to take her children away from her.”

City workers put “tremendous pressure” on her to get on the bus, the lawyer explains. “The social worker was pacing saying ‘we’ve got to go right now. She has to make this choice.'” This was at 4:30 p.m. The bus wasn’t leaving until roughly 11 that night.

Broas requested an emergency hearing on the city’s refusal to provide this District family shelter during hypothermic conditions. Based on the mother’s original documents that she had been trying to show the intake workers for days, the Department of Human Services finally agreed that the family had a right to shelter.

The mother’s plight suggested the District workers had sunk to a new low in how they treat homeless families. Last year, families suffered through massive overcrowding and horrible conditions at D.C. General. I wanted to hear from CFSA. Did they in fact offer this mother a bus ride out of town or the loss of her children?

Mindy Good, CFSA’s spokesperson, sent back a lengthy reply essentially denying the Legal Clinic’s overall representation of events. But Good doesn’t explicitly state that the social worker never threatened to place the mother’s children in fostercare.

Good writes:

“CFSA is well aware of the child abuse/neglect laws since they guide our daily work. Neither poverty nor homelessness alone is grounds for removal of children. Parents have rights. At the same time, neither poverty nor homelessness eliminates parental responsibility to protect, shelter, feed, and clothe children and to fulfill their educational and health needs. This may mean parents need to draw on whatever personal means they have while also seeking public, charitable, or other services. That’s O.K. as long as parents continue to act in the best interests of their children—for example, taking advantage of services available and doing everything necessary to receive the services.

The perspective in the blog came from someone who came into the situation after other services providers had been working with the family for many weeks and CFSA had been involved for several hours. It is our understanding that the family had gotten help from the District. Remarks attributed to CFSA are an overly strong and misleading interpretation taken out of context. In fact, our social worker discussed with the parent several options other service providers had offered. The parent needed to choose one in order to take care of her children.

Most child welfare cases involve multiple service providers, so CFSA social workers are used to collaborating with others. Finger pointing and animosity waste time better spent on working together to help children and families in need.”

Do you see in this any denial that the social worker offered the bus ride out of town or the removal of the mother’s children? The agency seems more rankled by the tone of the Legal Clinic—-and our—-blog posts.

Patricia Mullahy Fugere, Executive Director of the Legal Clinic, stands by her staff’s representations, and issues her own harsh assessment of CFSA’s explanation. Fugere writes via e-mail:

“While we can not speak to what other services may have been offered to our client before the Legal Clinic got involved, by the time that Julie connected with the client at VWFRC, the only option presented was to accept the bus tickets to another state, or lose her children to the CFSA worker.  Given that there was a hypothermic alert that night and the right to shelter was in effect, Julie was incredulous that this ultimatum was on the table.  She specifically repeated these options to the CFSA worker, who confirmed her understanding.

If ‘taking advantage of services available and doing everything necessary to receive the services’ requires getting on a bus and traveling 1,000 miles away to get into shelter, then we have a very broken child welfare system.”

Photo of a Greyhound bus used with an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license