Poor Planning and Lack of Oversight Lead to Foster Care Crisis in District of Columbia

The latest report from the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), the agency monitoring the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), contained a startling revelation. For the first time in 15 years, children in the District of Columbia have spent the night in agency offices (and even motels) because there were no foster homes available.

Foster homes are scarce around the nation, but the crisis in the District was a direct outcome of decisions made by the child welfare agency. Like many other jurisdictions, CFSA has historically contracted with private agencies to provide foster homes to District youth. As a social worker in one of these agencies, I watched this placement crisis unfold.

Over the past few years, CFSA has been been ending contracts with one or more private foster care agencies every year. Late last year, CFSA announced it was ending its contract with two agencies that served mostly older youth with challenges. One of them, Foundations for Home and Community, was known for taking almost any youth, no matter how difficult their behaviors.

There is a reason Foundations was able to take the hardest-to-serve youth. Using private funds, the agency paid its foster parents considerably more to care for the most difficult-to-serve youth. We don’t want to think about foster parents as mercenary, and most of them are not. But working with hard-to-serve youth should be treated as a profession, as I discussed in a previous column. It requires time and it is often inconsistent with having a full-time job.

When the contract’s end was announced, Foundations’ foster parents were told that they would have to transfer to other agencies if they wanted to continue fostering CFSA youth. I began to hear that these foster parents were refusing to transfer to other agencies with lower payments. Instead, they were staying with Foundations and becoming foster parents to Maryland youth.

I heard that CFSA was pressuring private agencies to find homes for the young people whose foster parents were leaving the system, but most homes were full or not able to take such challenging youth.

When I left my position last January, I tried to spread the word about the impending crisis. CFSA had not issued a press release about the closures of the two agencies, and there had been no media coverage. I testified before the city council oversight hearing on CFSA in February 2015, but there was little interest and no follow-up from the legislators and advocates who were present.

In the spring, I began to hear about kids sleeping in offices but nothing appeared in the press until CSSP issued its report, revealing that 11 children stayed overnight at the CFSA office and four children stayed in hotel rooms while awaiting an appropriate licensed placement between April and June of 2015. According to the report, the placement problems continued in the second half of the year. After CSSP issued its report, an article appeared in City Paper  but there was no reaction from other media or advocates.

CSSP’s report blamed the placement crisis on CFSA’s decision to end contracts with the two private agencies, which “resulted in a shortage of foster care placements available to serve specific populations, including older youth and those with mental or behavioral health challenges.” At about the same time, entries to foster care increased.

Even without a placement crisis, removing young people from stable placements would be a serious concern. I tried to obtain the number of youth who were displaced but was told that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does not require an agency to answer questions or create documents. So we don’t know how many of our most traumatized youth suffered yet another loss, this time at the hands of the agency tasked with protecting them.

This whole episode raises several questions. First, how was the decision to close Foundations made? In response to another FOIA request, CFSA again refused to provide a narrative response. Instead it sent a report showing the percent of contract slots that were actually utilized by private agencies. CFSA gave no reason why this should be considered as a principal measure in determining which agency should be closed as CFSA does not pay for unused slots. In any case, Foundations did not appear to have the lowest overall utilization rate.

Another question is why CFSA did not reverse its decision once it saw that it was losing foster parents. The lack of transparency and the absence of concern among legislators, the press and the public meant that there was nobody to question the decision or press for it to be revoked. Our children deserve better.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.