Three years af­ter Banita Jacks, has any­thing re­ally changed?

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - CARL FOSTERWASHINGTON

As the vol­un­teer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lit­tle Blue House (LBH) in Ward 1 in the District, I am charged with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of mak­ing sure the chil­dren in our pro­grams learn, grow and are safe. I am­not sure what guides the D.C. Child and Fam­ily Ser­vices Agency. Is it to keep thenum­berof kids in fos­ter care down or to pro­tect the chil­dren? Has the agency re­ally changed in re­sponse to the Banita Jacks murder case?

Re­cently, one of my kids came to the LBH in­stead of go­ing to school, say­ing that his mother told him she didn’t want him any­more and that he should get out. He is only 10 years old. The ar­gu­ment ap­par­ently stemmed from a seem­ingly in­nocu­ous ques­tion:

“Can I have clean clothes to wear to school?” “Get out. I don’t want you.” Nowthat’s re­portable. I’ve been concerned about this fam­ily for­some­time. Other­moms had told­me­this mother was beaten up by drug deal­ers. I had no first­hand knowl­edge of this, so I could not re­port it to pro­tec­tive ser­vices. I wit­nessed this mom hand­ing awadof cash to­someguy while her kids were ask­ing us for food. There is a blan­ket hang­ing just in­side the front door of her home that pre­vents any­one from see­ing what’s in­side. Sus­pi­cious but not re­portable.

This time, af­ter lis­ten­ing to the boy, we con­tacted the child pro­tec­tive ser­vices hot­line, sup­pos­edly much im­proved since Jacks’s four daugh­ters were found dead in Jan­uary 2008. No one would de­scribe the per­son I spoke to as friendly, knowl­edge­able, help­ful or po­lite. But I got what I wanted: some­one to visit that home, some­one to look be­hind that blan­ket. Or so I thought.

A so­cial worker did call us back to get the ad­dress but in­stead came di­rectly to the LBH to speak to the child. Our so­cial worker sat in­on­the con­ver­sa­tion and re­ported to me: “ This guy has no idea how to talk to a child.” She said he was “ lead­ing and bad­ger­ing,” draw­ing the boy to a con­clu­sion rather than lis­ten­ing to what he had to say. The boy did what any other kid would do in this sit­u­a­tion: He stopped try­ing to ex­plain whathap­penedand­started agree­ing to any­thing just to get out of the room. Then the in­ter­viewer ac­cused­hi­mof chang­ing his story.

The boy’s mother was wait­ing when we went to the lo­cal ele­men­tary school to pick up kids for our af­ter-school pro­gram, so I brought her back to the LBH, where she spoke with the in­ves­ti­ga­tor. She speaks Span­ish, so one of our staff mem­bers in­ter­preted for the in­ves­ti­ga­tor. How was he plan­ning to talk to her with­out an in­ter­preter? I won­dered.

In the end, the in­ves­ti­ga­tor told us he thought ev­ery­thing was just fine with this fam­ily. I asked him four times if he planned to visit the home. Each time he said, “It’s part of our in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” but I no­ticed he never said yes. I am con­fi­dent he did not go. Why do I think this? The next day the boy was wait­ing when our staff ar­rived at the LBH at 9 a.m. He was wear­ing shorts on a very cold morn­ing. I asked if the in­ves­ti­ga­tor came to his house; he said no. He had walked to the LBH in the cold even though he knew we were plan­ning to pick him up. He was up­set, but this time he vol­un­teered no in­for­ma­tion about what hap­pened at home.

Three things are clear to me now:

1. I wasn’t go­ing to get what I wanted. No one was go­ing to take a good look be­hind that blan­ket.

2. This story re­in­forces a call I got last year from an­other agency di­rec­tor. The di­rec­tor said she called the hot­line to re­port amom she­was­sure could­harmher child. She was told to look for the child’s fa­ther.

3. I sat be­hind the CFSA di­rec­tor at a Se­nate hear­ing last year and heard him tell the sen­a­tors how the agency’s re­sponses to its abuse and ne­glect hot­line had greatly im­proved.

Re­ally? How? By dis­be­liev­ing chil­dren and dis­cour­ag­ing re­ports? Founded in 1991, the Lit­tle Blue House is lo­cated in North­west Washington. The non­profit agency works to help at-risk youth and fam­i­lies achieve self-suf­fi­ciency.

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