School re­form’s watchdog

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - The writer is di­rec­tor of the D.C. Child and Fam­ily Ser­vices Agency.

Kwame R. Brown, the new chair­man of the D.C. Coun­cil, on how its over­sight can help keep the ef­fort on track.

Over the past few weeks, there have been a num­ber of opin­ions expressed on this page re­gard­ing child wel­fare and child pro­tec­tion in the District [“Tak­ing toys from fos­ter kids won’t fix D.C. child ser­vices,” Jan. 9; “Three years af­ter Banita Jacks, has any­thing re­ally changed?,” Jan. 2; “Sa­cred cows in D.C.’s child ser­vices bud­get,” Dec. 26]. Many crit­i­cisms of the im­per­fect sys­tem here and na­tion­ally are valid. At the D.C. Child and Fam­ily Ser­vices Agency (CFSA), we cer­tainly ac­knowl­edge the le­git­i­macy of many of these crit­i­cisms. But the crit­ics and ad­vo­cates do not agree on ap­pro­pri­ate so­lu­tions, and even the most well-in­tended opin­ions do not con­front the full range of is­sues af­fect­ing child wel­fare na­tion­ally, and es­pe­cially lo­cally, in all their com­plex­ity.

The CFSA is work­ing to ad­dress many of the con­cerns that have been expressed. While we have re­duced place­ments into tra­di­tional group homes by 30 per­cent, we still place too many chil­dren in these en­vi­ron­ments, and we need lov­ing fam­i­lies to vol­un­teer to pro­vide fos­ter care for our chil­dren and youths. A re­duc­tion of the num­ber of chil­dren placed in res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ters, from an all-time high of 148 in 2007 to a his­toric low of 44 in 2010, still re­sults in many youths en­ter­ing these fa­cil­i­ties. By im­prov­ing our ini­tial prac­tices, we have also dra­mat­i­cally re­duced the rate of chil­dren en­ter­ing fos­ter care as a re­sult of calls to the hot line re­port­ing child abuse and ne­glect, from one in five to one in 10, but we are not sat­is­fied with that rate, which re­mains high com­pared with those of other ju­ris­dic­tions.

There are fur­ther lo­cal chal­lenges that must be taken into ac­count. The sit­u­a­tion in the District is af­fected, among other things, by high poverty and teen preg­nancy rates com­pared to those of the states, re­sult­ing in many moth­ers, mostly sin­gle, who are un­pre­pared to pro­vide ad­e­quate sup­port and care for their fam­i­lies. The cur­rent eco­nomic cli­mate, lo­cal and fed­eral leg­isla­tive man­dates — both funded and un­funded — and court-di­rected pro­cesses all con­trib­ute to the chal­lenges for the CFSA and its part­ners in de­vel­op­ing the strong­est pos­si­ble safety net for those we serve.

But we know we must push for con­tin­ued im­prove­ment, and Mayor Vin­cent Gray’s vi­sion of “One City” pro­vides an ex­cel­lent frame­work for open dis­course and devel­op­ment of last­ing so­lu­tions that strengthen the lo­cal safety net. At the CFSA, we must do our part by deep­en­ing our com­mit­ment to ad­dress these is­sues, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with our part­ners. Con­struc­tive dis­cus­sion that iden­ti­fies sys­tem strengths and seeks so­lu­tions to the deeply rooted so­cial ills that place chil­dren at risk has never been more nec­es­sary than at this crit­i­cal eco­nomic time.

True com­mu­nity devel­op­ment in­cludes in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture and hu­man cap­i­tal. A re­turn to ci­vil­ity in our dis­course can help in avoid­ing com­pla­cency and feel­ings of de­feat stem­ming from the chal­lenges. The child wel­fare sys­tem will ben­e­fit most by ac­cept­ing valid crit­i­cism that also ac­knowl­edges the so­cial chal­lenges and sys­temic im­prove­ments that form the real-world con­text for fur­ther growth.

No child should be in­jured by a fam­ily or by the sys­tem de­signed to pro­tect him or her. But no sys­tem can func­tion at its best in a cli­mate that does not al­low for a di­a­logue in­volv­ing re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions and bal­anced, con­struc­tive crit­i­cism. The Child and Fam­ily Ser­vices Agency must con­tinue to im­prove its trans­parency so that pub­lic in­put and com­mu­nity sup­port can con­trib­ute to its abil­ity to ful­fill its mis­sion as a crit­i­cal mem­ber of the “One City” safety net.

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