On Friday, I attended Positive Nature‘s organized conference on vulnerable children and families. The event, held among several conference rooms at the convention center, was also put together with the Department of Mental Health and the DC Children & Youth Investment Trust Corporation. The bigwigs from CFSA, DMH, DYRS and DCPS showed up and gave upbeat speeches.

The speeches may constitute wishful thinking considering that these agencies are under the microscope either by Colbert King or the courts. The court monitor’s report issued last week on CFSA was not pretty. Judging from the breakout sessions, social workers and advocates have a lot to learn from the children they are paid to protect and nurture.

The breakout session on getting parents involved promised testimony from a young girl in the system. She took a seat in the front of the room and smiled awkwardly as the two panelists talked about her. The two panelists—-Gail Avent, the executive director of the Total Family Care Coalition, and Laurie Ellington, a DMH manager—-could not have been more enthusiastic or engaging on the topic of this girl’s story and the importance of pulling parents into I.E.P. meetings, etc.

Certainly, parent involvement is a good thing. Inevitably, a school worker lamented that some parents didn’t show up for stuff—-that they could be difficult. I could not help but raise the point that often a parent’s first involvement with the system was either through the police or the infamous CFSA hotline. Last year, roughly 30 percent of juveniles with pending criminal cases had been the subject of a neglect/abuse case. The hotline has long been a problem—those calls have rarely resulted in immediate action. Even before the Banita Jacks case, the agency had more than 300 cases in its backlog.

A CFSA worker in the audience jumped in and said my comments were out of bounds. He was upset that his agency had been “singled out.” In other words, the man’s feelings were hurt. He refused to address the points I raised.

Instead, the young girl attempted to do so. Towards the end of the session, it came time to hear from her about her own first-hand experiences in the system.

The girl opened with two complaints: After a month in the system, she stated she had not heard from her lawyer-guardian or CFSA social worker. She also had been given no money for clothes.

The girl got two-three sentences into her story. Then bam. A DCPS worker in the audience interrupted her and started to challenge the girl’s experience.

The girl fled the room. She looked like she was on the verge of tears.

Adults followed her outside and into the nearby ladies room. But it was too late. The girl did not finish her testimony.

It was an enlightening moment but for all the wrong reasons. You’d think DCPS and CFSA employees would be open to criticism without freaking out—-without driving a girl to tears.

In the afternoon, child advocates and city employees were much more open at the youth panel expertly moderated by Jose DeArteaga, a DYRS progam manager. Six kids took turns relating their experiences. They talked about the need for more gay-lesbian-transgendered programs, credited the Peaceoholics with its outreach efforts (the group had a lot of street cred among the panelists), and praised individual mentors with getting them through tense periods in their lives. The audience responded with applause and empathetic questions.

The social workers and advocates looked at the panel for answers on how they could reach kids, how they could improve upon the work that they do. The exchanges were genuine. The kids said they just wanted respect without judgment from their social workers. They wanted them to be there, to show up in their communities if necessary.

The kids seemed particularly drawn to non-governmental groups for support. Positive Nature was praised as being like a big family. Peaceoholics saved another former criminal: “Without them I don’t know where I’d be at right now.”

When the kids were done, the audience gave them a standing ovation.