Thursday, October 6, 2011

D.C. child welfare agency often acts too quickly to remove children, study says

By Teresa Tomassoni, Published: October 5

The number of children removed from their homes by child abuse investigators in the District has fallen in the past year, but a recent review of some cases concluded that children are still regularly separated from their parents without adequate justification.

The study, conducted by a federally mandated panel of volunteer monitors, examined 27 cases involving 41 children over several years. In many of the instances examined by the panel, children who were placed briefly in foster care should have stayed with their families, the report concluded.

The Citizens Review Panel said the District’s Child and Family Services Agency has not done enough to keep families together and urged the agency to do better.

“CFSA’s child removal decisions must balance the need to protect children from serious abuse or neglect with the need to protect children from the significant emotional trauma that comes from the government separating them from their families,” the report, released last week, stated.

The review, released last week, is the latest examination of the challenges that CFSA, like other child welfare agencies, faces in balancing the inclination to remove children when neglect or abuse is suspected and the imperative to leave them in the home unless they are in imminent danger.

In more than half of the reviews conducted, panel members found that the case record did not justify removal.

In one case cited in the report, a social worker removed a child upon discovering suspicious marks on the child’s body, most likely from being whipped with a cord. The social worker placed him and his three siblings, who did not show signs of abuse, into foster care without obtaining a family court order.

After the removal, the social worker met with the mother to work out a strategy, known as a safety plan, for addressing the problems in the home. Less than a week later, the children were back at home. The report said that if this conversation had taken place before the children were taken, foster care would not have been necessary.

CFSA’s statistics show that even as the number of removals are on pace to be their lowest in years, the percentage of children who are being returned home within four months is at 35 percent, roughly the same rate as last year and a higher rate than in any of the previous three years.

Debra Porchia-Usher, the child welfare agency’s interim director, said how quickly children are removed from their families and how quickly they are returned is an issue the CFSA continues to monitor. “We all agree fewer removals are better,” she said. But she does not agree that the problem is as prevalent as the report suggests.

In an effort to make better decisions about removals, the agency recently launched a pilot program of a strategy known as differential response, which acknowledges that not every abuse or neglect report is an indicator of imminent danger.

Earlier this year, the agency also completed a policy manual on conducting investigations. All social workers, supervisors and program managers have been trained using this new resource, Porchia-Usher said.


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