Children at risk: Foster care in DC is no safe haven
Part 4 of an investigative series by The DC Line supported by SpotlightDC: Capital City Fund for Investigative Journalism
THE child who arrived at the home of Magdalena and Gabriel Acevedo entered the city’s foster care system, managed by the DC Child and Family Services Agency, at only three months old. Now, at 2 years old, the Acevedos’ was the child’s eighth placement.
“We were warned that [the child] had severe behavioral problems,” recalled Magdalena Acevedo, whose husband died last year. Later they learned the child was traumatized. It took a lot of education to learn how to deal with a traumatized child because none of the parenting rules you learn apply to kids who have experienced trauma.
“I know that other foster parents have had difficulty obtaining services for their kids. Some social workers may think, ‘Well, the child’s only going to be in care for X amount of time — why bother starting services now?’” Acevedo said. “Experiences like that do impact the child down the road throughout their entire life.”
It’s hard not to think that a 2-year-old child in these circumstances may have been maltreated or neglected. Certainly, being placed in seven different foster homes at such an early age could lead to adverse consequences.
Receiving foster children who have experienced abuse and neglect cases can be extremely difficult, Acevedo said, because “there really is no way of knowing the depth of their injury problem: Was the child deprived of food? Was the child denied a bath? Was the child verbally or physically abused?
“Whatever the issue is, you need to know, and you can be told things without invading the privacy of the [biological] parent,” she said.
However, foster parents often don’t get enough information about the children placed with them. They are just dropped off, Acevedo explained. But, “Foster parents aren’t just hotels.”
When children are in trouble — perhaps finding themselves with parents who can’t take care of them for various reasons, or parents who are abusing and neglecting them — society always hopes there is an escape hatch, a safe haven. Foster care was intended to be that protective cocoon.
The District has rarely provided that warm, protective haven, notwithstanding a few bright spots. Historically, the city’s foster care is a troubled program inside a failing child welfare system, which is comprised of the Metropolitan Police Department, Department of Human Services (DHS), Department of Behavioral Health (DBH), DC Health Department, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, DC Office of the Attorney General, DC Superior Court’s Family Court Operations Division, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).
Currently, DC has nearly 2,500 children who have been placed in either traditional or in-home foster care, although that does not encompass all of the children whose lives are touched by the foster system. That number is very close to what the population was 32 years ago when a class-action lawsuit was filed against the District. Years of litigation revealed that conditions in foster care can be perilous, with children living in unlicensed homes or with unrelated individuals who lack critical resources — conditions that experts say still characterize life within the District’s traditional foster system and its non-traditional ancillaries:
In fiscal year 2021, 1,757 children were in what could be described as fostering-in-place. A prior CFSA investigation found abuse, neglect or maltreatment by a parent, a parent’s paramour, relative or caregiver; however, the agency is allowing the children to remain in those dangerous environments, asserting that the risk is low or that the city lacks the legal authority to remove them.
An untold number are part of a diversion program that advocates call “hidden foster care.” Many of them live with relatives who have been coerced into the role by CFSA, often without legal protections provided through the court and without the resources they need to properly care for the children. In many cases the children are not receiving the required visits from case managers or social workers.
At least 11 children died while in some form of foster care in 2019 and 2020.
Those are a few of the findings from The DC Line’s six-month investigation of the city’s child welfare system, which included an extensive examination of government documents, court records, published and unpublished external reports, and agency operations and programs as well as dozens of interviews with key DC officials, government insiders, a whistleblower and former ombudsman, and child welfare experts and advocates. It showed that the system is failing in nearly every area of its operation and mission even as thousands of children suffer abuse, neglect and maltreatment.
What particularly troubles Marla Spindel, co-founder and executive director of DC KinCare Alliance, a nonprofit organization created to support relatives who care for children outside of the traditional foster care system, is that the focus is not consistently on the children.
“Everyone’s talking about the [biological] parents,” she said, adding that people are especially concerned about the government “policing families.” If nothing is wrong in those families, Spindel said, then the government shouldn’t be involved.
“If, however, something is awry, protecting the child should be the most important consideration,” Spindel added during a recent interview with The DC Line.
Agency directors and other government officials may praise the city’s work re-creating what they call a “system of care” and a “system of prevention.” Others, however, paint a portrait of a system that lacks the capacity to proactively prevent harm to children. The foster care system is one of the areas that has caused the greatest concern for many of those The DC Line spoke with for this series.
Spindel and others describe DC’s foster care as a system where the safety and well-being of children are too often shortchanged to serve the interests of elected officials or government managers; where the success of a nascent racial equity movement determined to push back against white supremacy takes precedence over the individual needs of Black and brown children; and where protecting children is subjugated to the demands of parents. Sometimes, those children can’t escape their abusers. District law protects the rights of biological parents — even those who lack the capacity to properly parent — as long as their child is in foster care and has not been adopted.
“What that means is that even if there’s been a court hearing that has determined that reunification is not an option — it’s not safe, it’s not beneficial — the parents still have rights until the moment of adoption,” explained Acevedo.
Consequently, she offered as an example, if a child’s parents “don’t believe that child has emotional or mental health issues, parents can object to services and thus cause delays. The Office of the DC Attorney General can ultimately ask a judge to override the parent’s decision,” but OAG may or may not prevail, Acevedo continued.
“Most parents don’t want to recognize that their child may have serious issues or that they may have caused those issues through their care of that child or through drug exposure” in the womb, she added.
The District runs foster care on multiple tracks. Some children are in standard foster care, where most placements are with families or in institutions that were approved through the DC Superior Court’s Family Court Operations Division.
In fiscal year 2020, there were 768 children with 520 families in this formal foster care program, according to CFSA. (A report by the agency’s court monitor lists a smaller number: 667 children.) Almost all of the children were Black (82%) or Hispanic (16%). Fifteen were listed as unknown, and one was white.
However, the agency runs a second foster care system as well; it is called in-home foster care, a seeming oxymoron that is comparable to sheltering in place. There were 1,764 children and 661 families in that second grouping in FY 2020.
“What that means is that [a family] has come to our attention through a [Child Protective Services] investigation,” CFSA Acting Director Robert Matthews explained during one of two recent interviews. “We have substantiated that parent on a finding. However, it didn’t rise to the level or meet the legal threshold to where the child had to be removed.
“So, we are providing in-home services and monitoring that family in hopes of closing the case so long as the parents meet their case-plan goals,” added Matthews.
To unpack: In-home foster care has children living in spaces with parents or parental paramours or relatives who have been found to have abused, neglected or maltreated them. The agency didn’t consider the infraction sufficient to remove those children from those homes. Instead, a plan was developed with an aim of preventing future offenses.
That may be a risky proposition. Some families can have multiple open investigations. In 2019, for example, of the 5,005 hotline calls accepted for investigation, 588 of the families involved had been the subject of previous investigations, according to CFSA data. Moreover, four children in foster care placement were victims of abuse or neglect homicides in 2019, according to CFSA’s annual Child Fatality Review Report for that year.
In its 2020 annual fatality report, CFSA reviewed 40 deaths: Nine were from natural causes; five were accidents; 20 were non-abuse homicides, all involving guns; three were abuse or neglect homicides; and one was suicide. One cause of death was unknown and another deemed undetermined, according to CFSA’s 2020 “Internal Child Fatality Report: Statistics, Observations and Recommendations.”
Nine of the 40 families were involved with CFSA at the time of the fatalities, according to the internal report. Seven of the nine families had “open foster care cases,” meaning a removal was pending; three of the children who died were actually “in foster care at the time of their death.”
The CFSA spokesperson was unable to provide more details around the deaths of those children in foster care.
CFSA’s 2019 fatality report examined 13 deaths that year of children involved with the agency, 11 of whom were living at home and two of whom were living with relatives. As a result of the fatalities, CFSA moved a total of eight children — siblings of the deceased — from their homes. Three of the children were “formally removed by Child Protective Services” and “five were informally placed with relatives.”
While CFSA officials don’t mention it, there is also a third foster care system, which they call diversion. Spindel and others call it “hidden foster care” instead. In these cases, children are placed with relatives, without any authority from the DC Superior Court’s Family Court Operations Division; after a fatality, agency personnel seek to persuade or coerce relatives into taking children when the family is in crisis, according to sources familiar with the process.
“We call it ‘hidden foster care’ because they’re not in foster care. Nobody knows how many kids there are that are in this situation. Nobody keeps track. Nobody knows the outcomes,” said Spindel, whose group is involved in several court cases related to the issue.
She said her organization has asked CFSA to track the children in its diversion or hidden foster care program. “Before July , they either claimed they didn’t do it or they claimed they did do it, but not in the situations we were talking about. Then I think they finally agreed they did do it.”
It appears to be purposefully hard to track the information, according to observers.
“Even if they admitted that they engaged in this practice, it’s probably somewhere in their records, but you need to conduct a forensic review to pull out and figure out what the words the child welfare agency is using when diversion or hidden foster care happens. Or find out if there was a safety plan,” Spindel added. “They use that word a lot — safety plan. But there’s nowhere in the records where they could punch in and say, ‘How many diverted kids were there, and what happened?’ There’s nothing like that in their software. You’d have to go in and pull it out. And you’d have to have someone that knows how it works in there to even know what words are being used.”
Other states appear engaged in a similar practice. In December, ProPublica and The New York Times published an article about two sisters — Molly and Heaven — from Cherokee County, North Carolina, who thought they had been placed in foster care. Years later, after Molly tried to commit suicide and eventually became homeless, they learned they were never formally in foster care. By some estimates, a quarter million children across the United States may share a similar story of diversion from formal foster care. While the government in Cherokee County settled a different family’s lawsuit for $4.6 million, shady foster care operations continue elsewhere with little public scrutiny.
“I think in DC there’s likely more kids in hidden foster care than in the foster care system,” said Spindel.
The District’s foster care system has long been chaotic, unreliable and frightening. Some three decades ago, the Children’s Rights Project, a national child advocacy organization based in New York, and the American Civil Liberties Union’s DC affiliate filed a federal class-action lawsuit, initially known as LaShawn A. v. Marion Barry Jr. Acting on behalf of approximately 2,500 children, the organizations built their complaint on the debacles of foster care — many of which still exist, although CFSA has become adept at camouflaging that reality, according to child welfare experts and lawyers.
The stories of the named plaintiffs, the oldest of whom was only 11 years old when the litigation began, ring hauntingly familiar: LaShawn A., then 4 years old, entered “emergency” foster care on Sept. 9, 1986, because her mother had become homeless, according to the original lawsuit filed on June 20, 1989. Despite requirements imposed under federal and local laws, the District government didn’t develop a plan for her to be reunited with her mother or put up for adoption. She lived in a foster home for more than two years, although emergency care was limited by law at the time to 90 days. Further, in June 1987, an initial assessment found LaShawn to have “potential serious psychiatric or psychological problems as well as potential developmental problems.” It wasn’t until November 1988 that the DC Department of Human Services arranged for an assessment.
“As a result of these violations of her rights, LaShawn has been deprived of the opportunity for healthy development and a normal childhood and has been and continues to be irreparably harmed,” the lawyers with the ACLU and Children’s Rights Project wrote.
Demerick, a 3-year-old boy, entered the system in 1986. The city placed him at St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home (now known as St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Families) in Hyattsville, Maryland. Four months went by, and he was still there under the claim of “emergency care.” St. Ann’s staff told the city he should be moved to foster care. On Dec. 13, 1988, St. Ann’s wrote that “Demerick is suffering emotionally and developmentally because of prolonged institutionalization,” according to the court brief. St. Ann’s recommended moving him “as soon as possible to prevent further emotional damage.”
When the lawsuit was filed, he still had not been relocated. Moreover, not one worker at the city’s Child and Family Administration — the precursor to CFSA — ever visited Demerick during those three years.
Brothers Leo C. and Gary C., ages 6 and 5 when the lawsuit was filed, entered the system at different times — Leo in November 1982 and Gary in June 1984, when each were infants. They were accepted to St. Ann’s on an emergency basis and repeatedly returned to their mother. Leo was signed in four times and returned to his mother three times. Gary was signed in three times and returned to his mother twice.
While the children were at St. Ann’s, a psychiatrist there recommended on Aug. 11, 1987, that the brothers be “placed in a setting in which they would get individual attention from a single caretaker.” For more than a year, officials at the orphanage made similar pleas to the government for better services for the brothers, including mental health treatment and more appropriate living conditions.
It wasn’t until Nov. 15, 1988, that a neglect appeal was filed against the mother on behalf of the children, according to the lawsuit. Finally, some 15 months after a psychiatrist wrote his first letter requesting a more appropriate placement, the children were moved from St. Ann’s on Nov. 30, 1988, and placed in a foster home. Despite reports that Leo needed ongoing therapeutic services, the department didn’t provide them for three months after the boys left St. Ann’s.
By the time Leo entered a therapeutic nursery program, his behavioral issues had progressed and he was expelled. Later, the government enrolled him in a weekly therapy program, which was wholly inadequate given that he needed more frequent and intensive therapy.
MEET NEW CHAOS
District leaders assert that foster care has been greatly improved since those days. They claim they know how many children are in the system. They know where the children are. They have minimized the removal of children from the custody of their biological parents by prioritizing family services. “We’re on a pretty positive trajectory,” said Matthews.
Of the 768 children living outside their own homes in foster care in FY 2020, 50% are in institutions or homes beyond DC’s boundaries, according to the agency’s website — mostly in Maryland (46%), but also as far away as McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania; Dillon, South Carolina; Monroe, North Carolina; and Melbourne, Florida.
Matthews is an evangelical for in-home foster care, which includes placing children with relatives. “The removal experience and process [are] so traumatic for the child and even the parents,” he told Baltimore-based nonprofit A Second Chance in an interview around the time of his appointment in July 2021. He contrasted his views with those of advocates who often see removing children from “unsafe environments” as the appropriate first response rather than helping to support those families. In his view, a “removal first” approach has exacerbated a lack of trust in the government among many families.
Sometimes, however, “foster care must be relied upon” — particularly if there is evidence of a “cycle of abuse and neglect,” he told A Second Chance.
Matthews said families have greater comfort and trust when that foster system relies on relatives rather than strangers. He insisted that CFSA does not leave children in homes where abuse or neglect is taking place. When there is a removal, he said, there are visits between social workers and foster parents — whom he referred to as “resource parents” — to ensure “the child is in a stabilized environment.”
“We have different visitation metrics for foster care. So for instance, when they first enter care, they’re to have a visit within the first four weeks,” Matthews told The DC Line about in-home foster care. “And we, of course, use those visits to assess the parent’s ability to parent, as well as working through their case plan. Depending on what it is, if it’s substance use, if it’s physical abuse or whatever the case is, just to assess clinically.”
There are also visits with foster parents in traditional placements. Those often occur with what is called “resource parent support workers,” he said, adding that they happen “twice a month.”
“All of it’s geared toward trying to reunify the child back with the parent,” Matthews said.
For a child scurried away to live with a relative, thus bypassing the traditional system, such mandates don’t necessarily apply, however. What’s more, sources interviewed for this series said that even in the standard arrangement, many parents — foster as well as biological — never meet with social workers or the third-party contractors hired by CFSA to assume the job of social workers, although most are neither trained nor licensed.
Further, the court monitor’s report for 2020 indicated that CFSA did not meet the goal set for visitations for new foster care placements. Agency staff are supposed to meet four times with the children in the first four weeks; the standard established in the LaShawn A. litigation calls for this to occur 90% of the time. In August 2020, the required visits occurred only 66% of the time. If half of the children are fostered outside of the District, as CFSA documents indicate, it’s not surprising the goal isn’t being met.
In his interview with Second Chance, Matthews revealed his prime motive and philosophy, asserting that throughout the country “many of the challenges right now with child welfare [involve] our statutory definition for it. Because in some examples, a family who lacks resources in many jurisdictions becomes a hotline call because of statutory definitions of neglect, which is very wrong.
“We’re going to have to reform what our mandate will look like and what our approach and response should be and where interventions should be,” Matthews added.
Mostly, CFSA has advocated working with parents to help improve their parenting and, if necessary, using relatives as foster care placements. The agency calls the latter option kinship foster care, which means biological relatives or “fictive relatives” — the latter referring to people who are unrelated to the child but who have a connection to the parents and may know the child as a result — become the child’s foster parents.
“DC is at the forefront of many states in recognizing the need for preventive efforts to reduce the need for children [to have] protective interventions,” said Judith Meltzer, president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy and former court monitor for the LaShawn A. lawsuit. Her organization appears to have been paid more than $400,000 in 2020 for compliance review services it provided as court monitor, according to a document CFSA sent to the DC Council’s Committee on Human Services during its performance oversight process.
Meltzer told The DC Line earlier this year that CFSA’s increased placement of children with relatives is a “best practice CFSA has been working to improve for some time.”
She may be complimentary in some regards, but she is also critical of the agency’s foster care programs. In her final report as the official court monitor, she wrote that DC’s data on “placement stability remains mixed.”
As part of the court order in the LaShawn A. lawsuit, the parties devised a plan for reforming DC’s child welfare system, including foster care. Specific goals were set to enable the city to exit the lawsuit. While those were adjusted multiple times, that “exit strategy” guided CFSA and the court monitor over much of the lawsuit’s three-decade trajectory.
One standard aims to provide stability for children by requiring “a specific percentage of children to have two or fewer placements within a 12-month period, depending upon how long they have been in foster care.” The goal for that standard is 83% for children who have been in foster care between eight days and 12 months; however, the agency achieved a range of between 76% and 81% in 2020. “Placement stability for this cohort of children has been in decline over the past two reporting periods,” the court monitor noted in its report for 2020.
Further, at the time of this series’ development, CFSA had not yet fulfilled several of the obligations outlined in the 2020 settlement agreement resolving the case. These included “commitments” for CFSA to contract with a provider to “develop a specialized psychiatric residential treatment facility (PRTF) with the capacity to serve up to eight children”; establish a foster home recruitment and retention plan; and ensure accessibility for clinical and therapeutic services.
Efforts are underway to establish a DC-based “short-term psychiatric treatment” facility, Matthews said, adding that “the kids we are seeing now have higher needs.” Many of them have been traumatized and are exhibiting “oppositional defiant behaviors” that without treatment could result in them becoming more violent and more likely to engage in criminal activity.
The agency recently hired a full-time staff person to support foster parent recruitment and retention. In FY 2020, as many as 243 prospective foster parents attended recruitment conferences. There were 145 submitted applications, of which 103 were accepted, according to CFSA documents.
Meltzer also reported that CFSA has an “in-house team of four behavioral health therapists, a clinical supervisor, and a psychiatric nurse practitioner.” However, there are still problems with how long it takes for children to be assessed and for services to be delivered.
Such initiatives may seem like progress — except many advocates and lawyers insist that the District’s push to reduce its foster care census in compliance with the LaShawn A. court order has resulted in a deliberately inaccurate representation of the quality of the programs and the number of children actually in foster care placement.
These sources contend that CFSA’s approach has circumvented the safeguards of the courts and has jeopardized the welfare of children by keeping them in homes that are unsafe or reuniting them with parents who are unable to care for them. Matthews acknowledged that in some cases, in-home placements may involve parents who have been the subject of multiple investigations in which at least some of the allegations have been substantiated.
“At some point there may have been an open foster care case to where that parent may have had a child removed from them, but successfully reunified,” he explained. “And it could mean that another call may have come in on that family for either the same or a different reason.
“But it may not have met the legal requirements to where that child or any other children had to be removed,” he added.
Advocates say this requires some children to remain in risky environments with parents who are known abusers or who have previously neglected them or engaged in maltreatment. They say something is terribly wrong with that process.
As a foster parent, Acevedo doesn’t see children’s interests as the prime motivation. “It’s for statistical reasons and politically motivated reasons. DC wants to push reunifications, and I am in favor of reunifications. If reunifications can be accomplished safely, the best place for a child is with their biological parents or biological family,” she said, noting that “failed reunifications are avoidable.”
“I’ve seen multiple cases where a child is in care, the child has had siblings adopted out from foster care, or there have been failed reunifications, but the government still pushes reunification for years,” continued Acevedo. “When a child is reunified, [CFSA] closes that case. So, for statistics purposes, they have an incentive to close cases quickly.”
The 2020 DC Family Court Annual Report noted that the “fluctuations in the number of referrals to Family Court are often attributed to policy changes at CFSA, such as handling more ‘in-home’ cases.”
“In-home supervision of cases by CFSA provides the family and the agency with an opportunity to address the family’s needs without Court supervision,” continued the report, noting that CFSA’s strategic “Four Pillars” agenda “endeavors to improve outcomes for children and families by reducing the number of children coming under Family Court jurisdiction.” Pillar One “was designed to decrease the number of entries into foster care through differential response and placement with kin.”
When asked about the court report, CFSA spokesperson Kera Tyler said she “needed to reach out to my counterparts at the Family Court to better understand their statement regarding this rationale behind the court’s fluctuating case numbers to provide an accurate response on behalf of CFSA.” She promised to “try to follow up … within the week” but has yet to provide the additional response.
Lawyers and advocates also raised questions about placing children in homes with relatives without providing those individuals the resources they need, including the standard payment made to foster parents.
“When the government is placing their responsibility back on the community, it is inappropriate,” said former CFSA ombudsperson Christian Greene, who filed a whistleblower lawsuit in 2018 and has urged the DC Council to take strong, proactive steps to protect the city’s children and transform the child welfare system. “The federal law is very clear: When a parent has failed their duty to the child, then the state must step in to protect the child.
“It doesn’t say, ‘When the community has failed the child.’ It is when the parent or the legal custodian has failed,” she said.
THE RACE FACTOR
There is a growing debate, locally and nationally, over the removal of children of color from their homes when there is abuse and neglect. Some advocates have argued that such action is another example of institutional racism, with different standards applied whether consciously or unconsciously based on the family’s race. Others contend that the best interest of the child is the prime directive and must be zealously guarded, even if the results are uncomfortable.
Marie Cohen, a child welfare expert and CFSA social worker from 2010 to 2015, said many people who are against protective removal have a “very anti-child welfare bias.” Although the current debate intersects with the national anti-racism effort, she said, white children account for the largest share of foster children in the United States.
According to a national point-in-time count published Sept. 30, 2019, by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families’ Children’s Bureau, there were 423,997 children in foster care. Of those, 44% were white; 23% were Black and 21% were Hipsanic. The report noted that 46% of those children were in nonrelative placements while 32% were with relatives and 6% were in institutions.
“People are asserting that the child protective services are like the police, and that they are interfering with families and ripping children away from their families,” said Cohen.
“I feel like it’s not a service to children,” she added, saying she has heard from attorneys and others that some children are “more damaged because they had been left for a long time at home.”
Cohen criticizes arguments and practices that are “pro-parent” rather than pro-child. “It’s a real parent’s rights approach. It’s not just in DC, but nationally.”
Matthews and Meltzer both fall on the opposite side of the debate from Cohen. “There’s loads of research that shows that what we really need is to do much more to support these families so the kids can stay with their families — with a much more expanded definition of relatives, and supporting relatives to take care of them,” said Meltzer.
“There’s strong evidence that Black kids are the ones who have been most hurt by aggressive family separation and that, because of the link between poverty and child neglect, poor families in low-income neighborhoods are over-surveilled. So, many children and families get caught up in the child protection system when middle-class white families with the same problems wouldn’t have been,” added Meltzer.
However, that doesn’t prevent the need for governmental action in some instances, she said. “I believe there are times when children need to be removed from their families, and when that happens, the system needs to act decisively and in ways to place children in a stable placement where they can be [with] relatives if possible and with all the services they need. So, it’s a complex and difficult question,” Meltzer said.
Matthews said strategies like in-home foster care or kinship foster care are designed to prevent families from becoming “part of our formal system.”
“Many families don’t necessarily want a handout from [the] government. They just want the landscape to be equitable and fair — that gives them the opportunity to make decisions for their own family,” added Matthews.
Acevedo, who has experience from the foster parent side, said she supports placing a priority on reunification — as long as it’s done appropriately. “What troubles me the most is that there are times when I’ve seen a child is reunified with family — or to be clear, with a parent — and that reunification is pushed when the parent is not able to take care of the child or does not receive adequate support to make the reunification successful.
“That reunification fails, the child goes back into foster care, and reunification is pushed again,” she continued. “I do know of cases where children have been reunified and have been hurt or have died.”
The push to keep children with their families has led to what CFSA and others call diversions. That’s when cases that may involve abuse, neglect or maltreatment are not routed through Family Court. Instead, there are so-called informal efforts — sometimes creative and extraordinary