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Attorney General Peter Nickles today told a federal judge that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty expects to name a new director for the Child and Family Services Agency “within a week.”
CFSA has been without a permanent director since Sharlynn Bobo resigned in July. She was replaced on an interim basis by deputy Roque Gerald, who appeared alongside Nickles in Judge Thomas F. Hogan‘s courtroom this afternoon.
In remarks to the judge, Nickles cited hopes that the agency, thrown into great turmoil after the Banita Jacks tragedy a year ago, could emerge from 20 years of court intervention within a year. The District filed a motion this morning essentially proposing such an outcome.
Needless to say, the other side in the longstanding litigation were intensely skeptical of that outcome. “Based on our assessment of where we are, I think that is a highly unrealistic expectation,” said Judith Meltzer, the agency’s court-appointed monitor—-particularly so, she points out, because there is no permanent director yet and several senior positions are unfilled.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, who argued against Nickles today on behalf of nonprofit Children’s Rights says very little in the District’s performance has shown it’s ready to assume full responsibility for the agency again. “I can’t believe some of the arguments they make,” she told LL after the hearing. “Hopefully a contempt order will put them more in touch with reality.”
UPDATE, 5:35 P.M.: The hearing today was supposed to be on a contempt motion filed last month over the operations of the Child and Family Services Agency. Hogan, however, declined to hear arguments on that motion, and instead sought to have the parties “speak in somewhat broader terms about the issues.”
The events that leading to the hearing can be traced back to last summer, when Children’s Rights filed a motion for contempt citing CFSA’s massive backlog and continuing poor performance. What came out of that was an October agreement that the District would follow certain guidelines to avoid a finding of contempt; those included allowing Meltzer to approve the agency plan for 2009 and to have a role in choosing a new agency head.
Last month, the District submitted their plan without Meltzer’s approval, in what appeared to be a calculated escalation tactic, and today made an initial petition to be released from court supervision.
But Hogan, for the most part, didn’t seem to buy Nickles’ power move. “I don’t see the point of coming in here today and throwing down the gauntlet,” he told Nickles.
Things did not start out well for the attorney general; he tried to raise what he thought was a “more fundamental issue” with Hogan——a jurisdictional matter, which Hogan swiftly announced he wouldn’t hear at the moment. “If you want to raise such an issue,” he told Nickles, “you can file a motion.”
Nickles tried to convince Hogan that the agency has made remarkable progress since the initial contempt filing, and that the plaintiff are “never satisified” with its progress. He told Hogan that the District had committed massive resources to overhauling the agency.
“You’ve certainly committed a lot of legal resources,” Hogan quipped.
Nickles pressed forward: “We want to turn the ship around,” Nickles said as part of his conclusion, asking Hogan to “try to accept the proposition that if we prove our credibility again in the next six to eight months …to consider the prospect of terminating this case by the end of the year.”
Lowry, in her remarks before the judge, expressed concern bordering on disbelief that the District would petition for a termination of court oversight—noting that CFSA has been unable to meet expectations, even with “a pattern of lowering and lowering and lowering the standards the District’s been expected to meet.”
CFSA has cut its backlog, she stipulated, but that improvement alone is not enough to justify any further loosening of court oversight, she argued.
Nickles did score a point when he countered Lowry’s pint that having a court monitor in place helps the process of recruiting management for the agency. Lowry argued that the court involvement offers assurances to potential leaders of CFSA that their agency will receive the proper budgetary support. Said Nickles, “If you had a great reputation…would you want to get involved in this mess?”
With regard to the hiring of a new director, Hogan asked Nickles what the hiring process should involved. “That means a cnadidate acceptable to the mayor,” he said. “That’s an executive function.”
That, Hogan told Nickles, is “not a common sense reading of the order. The order requires consultation, and that doesn’t mean after the fact.”
At one point Hogan asked Lowry, “Where can this eventually end?”
Said Lowry, “I don’t believe that the standard for dismissal is that the District can be trusted. It’s demonstrable compliance.”
Hogan set a hearing on the contempt motion and other pleadings for March 23.