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More Transparency Required for D.C. Child Welfare

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Just a few weeks ago, the D.C. Court of Appeals revealed that D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) housed one of its charges in a homeless shelter. When the youth turned 21, CFSA sent him into the world without a place to live or any means of affording one.

Here's how it happened:

In December 2010, a youth identified as "D.K." was residing in an apartment owned by the Jones Independent Living Program, a CFSA contractor. In a contracting dispute with CFSA, Jones decided to close its operations. D.K. and all the foster youth then being housed by Jones had to be relocated. D.K.'s probation officer didn't want him to live with his godmother in Virginia. D.K. was going to turn 21 three weeks later, and, according to the Court of Appeals, CFSA "indicated that it did not want to place D.K. in an independent living program for only three weeks." So D.K., CFSA's ward, moved into a homeless shelter.

And then it got worse:

The Jones program had promised to give D.K. funds to find a place to live when he turned 21 and was no longer the District's responsibility. But Jones threw up its hands and pled poverty. With plans to close its doors, the Jones program representative said the program had no money to give to D.K. Judge Judith Smith understood the urgency of the situation, and ordered CFSA to pay, "to prevent [D.K.] from literally being on the street without resources."

CFSA refused, and appealed Judge Smith's order.

The Court of Appeals decided that CFSA was right, legally: according to the Court, the agency was not required under DC law to make the payment. Although there is room to disagree about that legal finding, for now, at least, CFSA and its lawyers can crow that they bested Judge Smith and D.K.'s lawyer, who thought his young client deserved a helping hand into adulthood.

The more salient and tragic point, however, is that CFSA chose to make D.K. homeless, just to score a legal point at the youth's expense. Because even if the agency took the position that they were not required to give D.K. a few bucks to keep him off the street, there was nothing that prevented them from doing so. Youth who age out of foster care experience homelessness, teen pregnancy, incarceration, and unemployment at astronomical rates, so foster care agencies across the country provide supports via so-called "transitional services" as a matter of standard practice. But CFSA appears to have made a choice to save money and let the youth be homeless.

Unfortunately, this won't be the last entry in this blog about the suffering of D.C. children in foster care. As many have known for years, and as Mayor Gray's transition team reported in early-2011, D.C.'s child welfare authorities take away far too many children from their families, "an expensive and harmful practice of unnecessarily removing children from their birth families." Kids' lives are disrupted by the toxic cure of foster care, which, for most, is far worse than any disease they are suffering at home. Most children in foster care are kept from their families far longer than necessary. Yes, most children in D.C.'s child welfare system are done more harm than good when the government gets involved in their lives.

And unfortunately, this won't be the last entry to be filled with holes left by the facts we don't know and can't learn. D.C.'s dysfunctional child welfare system operates in secret, behind doors shut tighter than Fort Knox. So the best we can do is wonder about what happened. The court files about kids in the system contain reports and legal documents which, if we were allowed to see them, would help us understand what happens to children in the government's care.

We can tell that in one respect, D.K. was lucky. Judge Smith (a well-respected, longtime advocate for D.C. children and youth) stood tall for D.K., although even she ultimately was unable to get CFSA to care for D.K. But there is more to D.K.'s story than the shards we can glean from the Court of Appeals' written decision. Why did a youth for whom we are responsible end up on his own, in the street?

Did CFSA search for D.K.'s family members before sending him to a homeless shelter? Had CFSA provided D.K. with vocational training, so that he'd be able to earn a living when he was so unceremoniously pushed out of the nest? Or had CFSA kinda sorta forgotten about D.K. until the last minute, a few weeks before he turned 21? The Court's opinion indicates that D.K. was on probation; did his behavior frustrate the agency, and cause them to cut back on the support they might otherwise have given a vulnerable youth? Did D.K. simply reject efforts to reach out to him? Was the agency all-too-pleased to see him in their rearview mirror?

Secrecy in D.C. child welfare, as in many parts of the country, is an old, sad story. As a Minnesota social worker wrote, "Sometimes decisions that are literally life and death to children are made without full knowledge or deliberation due to the inattention of the judge, the fraternity mentality of the attorneys or the incompetence of the social worker." Without your eyes watching, those of us who work in the child welfare system can forget what's at stake.

And sealed cases and secret transcripts means that you can't hold politicians accountable, can't assess the disbursement of your tax dollars, and can't help the government learn to protect children better. For example, secret court proceedings hid information about Renee Bowman, who killed and froze her adopted children in 2008 -- how did those girls get into her custody, anyway? Did CFSA know she had declared bankruptcy twice, and might have adopted the girls in order to procure a monthly payment for supporting them? Did the agency know Bowman had been convicted of threatening to harm an elderly man? If they didn't know, why not? If they did, why did they place the children in her custody?

Until we can sit in on child welfare court hearings -- as we can in child custody court, domestic violence court, divorce court, and even criminal cases involving children -- youth like D.K., Renee Bowman's adopted daughters, and the thousands of others in D.C.'s foster care system will remain vulnerable. And until we can dig into case files, after the fact, we can't figure out what went right, what went wrong, and why -- and how to do better by the next kid.

Why is D.K. likely somewhere on the street tonight? Could it have been prevented? And which of D.C.'s foster children is next?