This morning in U.S. District Court, Judge Thomas F. Hogan took up the on-going legal battle overthe District’s Child and Family Services Agency. At issue was whether or not the agency could be held in contempt. Hogan devoted much of his consternation on the how the District went about picking Dr. Roque Gerald (pictured) to head up CFSA.

At the time of Dr. Gerald’s selection, City Desk questioned whether the District violated Hogan’s order. We wrote:

“Last fall, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas F. Hogan issued an order stipulating a series of directives. One of those stipulations involved the future selection of a permanent director at CFSA. On Tuesday, Fenty announced his selection of interim director Roque Gerald to take over in a permanent capacity. Hogan had stipulated that “the Court Monitor and Plaintiffs will be included in the selection process for the permanent Director.’…

The Plaintiffs–Children’s Rights–say they were never consulted during the selection process. “We were not included in the process and I think given the problems the agency has had over the last several years the choice of the director was critically important,” says Children’s Rights Executive Director Marcia Robinson Lowry. She adds that this violated the court order.”

While Gerald has gotten high praise from child advocates and has definitively saved the agency from the fallout over the Jacks case, Hogan suggested today that the city had indeed violated his order. Hogan dubbed the city’s following of his order a “blatant” failure. Maybe he too doesn’t like Fenty’s secretive m.o.

The bulk of the nearly two hour proceedings over the contempt motion did not center on Gerald’s selection. Instead, Children’s Rights and the city’s attorneys debated whether or not CFSA had made significant progress in helping kids in care. No kids testified. It was all lawyers debating the whether or not the agency had cleared various benchmarks.

Children’s Rights’ Lowry showed charts proving that the agency had failed to meet the majority of those benchmarks which covered everything from staff training to placing kids in foster homes. She told the court that the agency had “not yet reached a level where they are protecting children.”

Lowry provided a staggering timeline of accepted benchmarks and the agency’s slow and often negligent response dating back several years. She stated that CFSA had only met 15 out of the 68 benchmarks. This was just a mere snapshot of the agency’s problems which were detailed in a recent court monitor’s report.

Lowry’s testimony touched on the court monitor’s findings that fewer and fewer kids are leaving the system through adoption. The monitor also reported that a huge number of children and youth are living in unlicensed foster homes or facilities.

“As of January 31, 2009, there were 1575 children in foster home placements. Of the 1574 children, 74 (5 percent) children were placed in foster homes that exceeded their licensed capacity. Additionally, there were 178 children placed in group homes as of January 31, 2009. Of the 178 children, 39 (22%) children were placed in group homes that exceeded their licensed capacity of 8 children….”

The monitor also reported that of the 1007 foster homes where children were placed, 10 percent of those homes did not have current and valid licenses. Prior to the hearing, Children’s Rights had flagged other aspects of the monitor’s report—-chief among them was the agency’s alleged overuse of group homes and residential treatment facilities as housing options for children in care as well as how quick the agency investigated neglect/abuse allegations.

Again, this was a short hearing. City Attorney Ellen Efros kept her points short. She emphasized that the agency had made progress but that the benchmarks were too old and too tough to actually meet. She argued that the standards are lower in other cities—-in other words, why can’t we just lower our standards? Efros, though, could not cite any other jurisdiction’s standards.

At one point early on in Efros’ testimony, Hogan interrupted her and sounded an exasperated note: “We’ve been at this since 1989.”

Hogan was referring to the agency’s rollercoaster history—-the inception of the class-action case, subsequent receivership and bumpy road since the city agency shedded court oversight in 2003. Hogan did not at all seemed pleased with Efros’ attempts to jettison benchmarks that didn’t fit her theory of a fit agency and denounce other benchmarks as too harsh.

“It seems…oversight by the judiciary is important,” Hogan later stated.

Still, Hogan declined to rule on the contempt motion. He says he is keeping it under consideration. The next hearing is set for July 20.

As he left the courtroom, Gerald had no comment.

Prior to the hearing, Lowry talked about the problems with the city warehousing kids. “The placement process in the District is extremely hit or miss,” she said. “There is not a real effort to develop the kinds of resources that the kids need and certainly there’s a very slipshod process about where the kids should go. There’s no question, there are too few appropriate foster homes and too few foster homes all together.”

Lowry says the city needs to invest in a real plan. “I don’t think there’s anything approaching long-term planning,” she explains. “One thing that’s so alarming about the course that they are now on—-they don’t have any long term plans for the agency and certainly their aspirations for the agency are very insufficient.”