As chair of the Committee on Human Services, Councilmember Tommy Wells presides over one of the toughest tasks facing any local politician: conducting oversight of the Child and Family Services Agency. The last few years have not been kind to the city’s social workers. Banita Jacks could have served as a catalyst for sweeping reforms. Instead, it drove the agency into a ditch with a huge backlog of cases, an agency director on the outs, and morale within its ranks at an all-time low. Two years later, the agency continues to earn its place as a defendant in its long-standing federal court case. In late November, the Center for the Study of Social Policy released another in a long line of scathing reports, this one scrutinized lapses in the agency’s foster care.
So when Wells orders up another hearing on CFSA, it amounts to a real test of patience. Progress is incremental. Answers are evasive. There’s a lot of lowering of expectations. And there’s always a lot of sad stories, and really sad statistics. On Friday, Wells held a hearing on the issues District wards face as they age out of the child-welfare system. The hearing was full of strong testimony from kids, pointed testimony from advocates, and the councilmember’s own glass-is-half-full optimism.
Toward the end of the hours of testimony, Wells was stuck congratulating agency director Roque Gerald for at least visiting all the agency’s group homes. Talk about setting the bar pretty low.
Kids dominated much of the hearing. These were kids who had overcome group homes, fostercare, abusive parents, and, well, the Child and Family Services Agency. They testified in business clothes. They spoke eloquently. They tempered criticism with praise for a social worker or a confession about their own emotional problems. In other words, these kids represented the system’s best and brightest outcomes.
And yet, here’s a brief summary of their testimony:
*One boy admitted that if it weren’t for a friend’s family, he’d be homeless. He’s currently unemployed. This is a kid who had worked at CFSA and said that he had been privately counseled by Gerald.
*Another, a young mother, testified about her multiple placements. Wells asked her: Why would you need to move from one placement? “The environment. I don’t want my son growing up in a not so good neighborhood witht he drama, the fighting. It’s just a lot.You all could have helped me by giving me moral support..It’s actually on me. You all helped me..It was just me. I had just too much on my load. It was just me.”
*Another young woman testified about the staff at her old group home. The counselors would yell at kids, make fun of them, share confidential information about other girls in the house, threaten to cut off their allowances. In another home, the staff spent a lot of time gossiping about the residents.
*In an independent living program, a woman tesetified: “I received a lot of services however it was really up and down,” she said, explaining that her social worker had too big a caseload to give her much focused attention. She left the system at 21, a single mother. “I had no preparation,” she said. “I currently live on my own and it’s not easy.”
*A teenager testified that he had several relatives that wanted to take him in and care for him. And yet, CFSA made it too difficult for his relatives to house him. He is now 19 and lives in a group-home type facility. He enrolled at UDC but couldn’t attend classes due to finances. “I haven’t had a transitional meeting with anyone,” he says.
Wells took in this testimony with patience. He made sure that whatever the kids wanted to say, they had the time to say it even if they went over the time limit. He gave them words of encouragement. He seemed genuinely moved by their testimony. Gerald also seemed quite taken with the kids. He didn’t just show up at the end of the hearing or sit there and play with a Blackberry. He sat through all their statements and appeared to actually be listening.
Early in Gerald’s testimony he made it clear that he wants to set a high standard for his agency. Sending kids off to vocational training or college is his “baseline.” He talked up a trip his agency had organized in which they would be sending 15 fostercare kids to South Africa. And he highlighted a new Office of Youth Empowerment that would be focused on addressing the needs of the city wards and helping their transition out of the system. “I know the value of Facebook,” he boasted with his usual earnestness.He also stated that city wards could access his new youth-empowerment office online. Another CFSA worker stressed that they were working on developing a new Facebook page.
And yet, Gerald, when questioned by Wells, couldn’t exactly say whether the city’s contracted group homes and independent living facilities had working computers and an Internet connection. Nor could he say exactly how many teenagers 16 and up the agency had in its care.
What about employment for the kids that are aging out, Wells prodded. How many youth are employed between the ages of 18 to 21? “I’d like to say 100 percent,” Gerald replied.
Not exactly a straight answer. The director added his own watered-down version of that goal: All the kids that are aging out must at least be aggressively moving toward employment.
Wells then praised the director for at least visiting all 33 group home and independent living facilities. “I don’t believe your predecessor did that,” Wells noted.