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Every year, thousands of children in the District are left alone or physically abused by their parents or guardians. But fewer of those cases are making it to D.C. Family Court. Over the past two years, the number of abuse and neglect cases filed with the court has dropped 43 percent — from 1,490 in 2001 to 853 in 2003, according to statistics released by D.C. Superior Court last week. Some child advocates and social service experts say the declining caseload reflects a shift in the way those cases are handled, with an eye toward keeping families together and beyond the control of judges. But with two horrible cases of child neglect and abuse making headlines in the past month, some judges and family court lawyers are questioning whether the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency is making the right decisions. “We are concerned about that drop,” says Judge Lee Satterfield, presiding judge of Family Court. “We don’t know the reasons why and there are a number of cases that have come in [to the court] recently that we thought should have come in sooner.” Officials with the Child and Family Services Agency say they are handling abuse and neglect cases as directed by federal and local law and that child safety remains their top priority. “Children are a lot safer in the District than they had been in the past,” says Olivia Golden, director of Child and Family Services. “This is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing,” says Mindy Good, spokesperson for the agency. Good says the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act requires social service agencies and the courts to keep children from lingering in foster care for years. By keeping the children at home from the start, Good says, the agency has a better chance of stabilizing the entire family. Some child advocates also point out that abuse and neglect filings have dropped in jurisdictions with a similar child welfare policy as the District’s. According to information compiled by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Chicago and Los Angeles both experienced one-year decreases, of 14 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Nashville had a 49 percent drop in just one year, from 3,800 in 2002 to 1,953 in 2003. Two recent incidents in the District, however, illustrate how the system has not served all children well. Last month, Colleen Hooks was charged with child cruelty after her six children were allegedly found to have been living in dangerous conditions without adult supervision. Hooks, 30, had come to the agency’s attention on three prior occasions. Each time, Child and Family Services worked to stabilize the family, rather than take the case to court. Good declines to go into specifics about the case, citing confidentiality laws, but says the agency will make reforms because of breakdowns in that case. “Hooks is a situation where we need to learn a lot,” Good says. A second case involves the death of 10-month-old Symphony Jenkins, who was found unconscious in an apartment in Northwest Washington on Feb. 1. Jenkins died from an overdose of methadone, a drug used to treat heroin addiction. The Jenkins family was also known to Child and Family Services, which had monitored the family for four months before deciding that Jenkins’ mother was receiving help from other government agencies. That investigation also never made it to court. Good says there was no evidence to suggest that Symphony Jenkins was in danger. There were no signs that Symphony or another child in the home was being abused or neglected. When social workers visited the home, they found the place clean and the children healthy. “A whole lot of people in our agency and other agencies were doing the best they could,” Good says. “That is the bad side of child welfare. “Like a hospital emergency room, we are dealing with tragedies,” Good adds. “Even when we do everything we can, sometimes it’s not enough.” JUDGING DANGER As of March 15, there were 2,142 children being monitored at home by Child and Family Services without court supervision, according to statistics provided by the agency. The data also show that 2,921 children are in court-monitored foster care and another 1,448 remain at home with court oversight. Good adds that the agency immediately identifies whether children are in danger of further abuse before deciding on leaving them in their home. “Most children who are at high risk, we are going to take out,” Good says. The agency also points to a survey of cases from 2002 and 2003 in which the agency found abuse and neglect, but left the children in the home. Abuse or neglect continued in about 10 percent of those cases, according to Good. Judith Meltzer, the court monitor in a federal case overseeing reforms of Child and Family Services, says as long as the child is not in danger and the agency can deliver services to the family — such as drug treatment, anger management, and parenting classes — then there may be no reason for court intervention. “There are far too many kids in foster care and too many cases brought to court and left in court,” says Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy. But critics point out that the CFSA is still struggling with a huge backlog of investigations and a lack of training among social workers. By sidestepping the court, some fear that the agency is operating without any oversight. “Unless you have a court case, there is no record of anything,” says Betty Sinowitz, president of the D.C. Family Court Trial Lawyers Association. “By reducing the case numbers, it reduces the accountability.” Golden of Child and Family Services points out that her agency, which emerged from court receivership in 2002, is strictly monitored on a consistent basis by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The falling caseload and the court’s concern highlight an important and complex struggle among D.C. institutions over who should decide what is in the best interests of children abused or neglected by their parents or guardians. Court officials point to the fact that judicial orders can be used to ensure that parents or guardians are seeking assistance for their problems. Judges can also appoint a lawyer to represent the child. The Child and Family Services Agency, meanwhile, says it, too, has the ability to line up families with services. A recent trend has been to get the family help from neighborhood “collaboratives” — social care providers that contract with the agency. The debate has even spilled over to the D.C. Office of Corporation Counsel, which represents Child and Family Services in court and has more than 30 lawyers stationed at the agency. Last fall, a private lawyer was called in to draft a legal opinion on whether the city’s legal shop had any say in how such cases are handled. The lawyer, David Isbell, senior counsel at D.C.’s Covington & Burling, essentially concluded that the Corporation Counsel had to respect the wishes of Child and Family Services about how cases get referred, since the agency is technically a client of the Corporation Counsel. Corporation Counsel Robert Spagnoletti says he is still reviewing the opinion. The entire child abuse and neglect system in the District has undergone tremendous reforms over the past three years — many spurred by the death of 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond in 2000. Prosecutors say Blackmond died after being beaten by a friend of her mother’s just days after a D.C. Superior Court judge reunited Blackmond with her biological family. An investigation revealed critical mistakes by nearly everyone involved in Blackmond’s case, including the court and the child welfare agency. In 2001, the Child and Family Services Agency became a Cabinet-level institution within D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ administration and was given full hiring and procurement independence. The agency also took over responsibility for abuse cases from the Metropolitan Police Department and set up a hot line for abuse and neglect tips. Since then, the agency has been less likely to turn over control of its cases to the courts. Part of the reason for the decline, according to Good, is that under the old system police sought court intervention on nearly every case. But the agency is also less likely to turn to their lawyers. According to Corporation Counsel Spagnoletti, in most cases the city lawyers see the results of an investigation only if the agency is requesting that the matter be taken to court. “I would like the attorneys to be used as a resource in making the decisions,” Spagnoletti says.

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