All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 2002

Why Children Are Dying in the Nation’s Capital

D.C.'s Child and Family Services Agency Is Shockingly Incompetent

The recent anxiety about terrorism seems to have led the public to look to government with a new confidence, as if it were a father figure capable of taking care of us. Before we get too enthusiastic, however, we ought to remind ourselves what we have learned from many decades of experience with Washington, D.C. Private companies may have shortcomings, and voluntary arrangements may not cover all the bases, but it doesn’t follow that government is the solution. The record shows that government agencies often fail, and fail miserably. It also shows that when a government agency goes sour, it can be very difficult to fix.

For several decades, Washington has had on its own doorstep a glaring case of agency failure: Child and Family Services, the unit of the city government that is supposed to take care of abused and neglected children. Policymakers and editorialists who expect government to save us would profit from a close look at the history of this agency.

In this day and age the public doesn’t have high expectations for a government welfare agency. We don’t expect it to provide love. We don’t expect it to build character, or to inspire children, or even to teach them good manners. All the public demands, really, is that it keep its charges alive. D.C.’s Child and Family Services hasn’t even been able to accomplish that.

As newspaper headlines have been reminding the city for years, the children in its care die–or are killed–in alarming numbers. An investigation by the Washington Post found that from 1993 to 2000, 229 children ended up dead after coming under the supervision of this agency. In some cases, government workers were informed that a child was in a life-threatening situation and they ignored it. In many others, social workers placed a child in a foster home or institution that was neglectful or abusive. This program, the Post concluded in an editorial back in 1991, “has abused the children almost as much as the battered families and broken homes from which they were rescued.”

Washington is a city laden with democratic political institutions and also with democratic (small and large “d”) politicians; so, in theory, the “children’s ordeal” (as the Post called it) ought to have been quickly ended. Well, it hasn’t been, not by the District’s elected mayor and elected city council, nor by the federal government, which supervises and funds the District.

Jolted by screaming headlines, the politicians have thrown money at the problem, but that hasn’t worked. With a budget of $147 million, Child and Family Services spends $610,000 per social-worker employee, and $45,000 a year for each child under supervision. (When a bureaucracy tries to take care of children, it is expensive!)

Some say that the way to fix agency failure is to write regulations that clearly instruct the employees on what they must do in each case. That’s been tried, and it hasn’t worked. In fact, overregulation may have made the problem worse. In the early 1990s it emerged that a social worker dealing with a custody case had to write up and submit nine documents within 24 hours–a huge deterrent to action. An effort was made to streamline these regulations, but it backfired. The new, comprehensive regulations issued in 1995 were 400 pages long.

When all else had failed, the lawyers came with their lawsuits. In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action suit on behalf of abused and neglected children. That lawsuit dragged along until April 1991 when the U.S. District Court judge hearing the case, Thomas Hogan, concluded that the agency was a “travesty” that was creating a “lost generation of children whose tragic plight is being repeated every day.” This court decision led to a treaty-like agreement between the city government and the ACLU lawyers, stipulating a number of formal targets (like preparing the aforementioned book of regulations) that Child and Family Services agreed to meet.

Missed the Targets

Years passed. The agency failed to meet most of the targets, and lawyers, agency staff, and the judge were bogged down in incessant wrangling. Even the ACLU lawyer who had filed the lawsuit was disenchanted. “There was just an endless process and no results,” she said. “We have to go back to court on almost everything.” And the system kept on abusing children.

So in May 1995 the judge took full control of the agency and put it in the care of a receiver. At first there was euphoria. “This is fantastic,” said one foster parent familiar with the incompetence and abuses of the agency. “There’s no way a bureaucracy is going to stop me,” said Jerome Miller, the newly appointed receiver.

Brave words, but they amounted to little. In 2001, six years later, Child and Family Services has been through three receivers, yet it remains, according to the Washington Post, “one of the most dysfunctional child protection agencies in the nation.” Its adoption and foster-care functions are still snarled in delay and misunderstanding, leaving hundreds of children in a perpetual and stressful limbo. Children in the system spend an average of 3.7 years being shunted around in temporary care. (The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 mandates that permanent arrangements be made within one year.)

The court supervision continues, producing Kafkaesque tangles as the judiciary attempts to micromanage the hapless agency. For example, in October 2001, a federal judge ordered an employee to be jailed for “willful disregard of a court order” requiring her to file reports on two neglected children. The social worker claimed that, being overworked, she didn’t have time to write the reports.

She had a point. For more than a decade, the agency has had a problem of inadequate staffing, and every administrator, judge, and lawyer connected with the program has promised to correct it. But they haven’t succeeded. Today the agency has 90 unfilled caseworker positions. It has the money, it just can’t retain workers. In 1999-2000, one-third of its social workers quit, turned off by incompetence, red tape, stress, and micromanagement. After all, who would want to work in an agency where judges send you to jail for not filing reports?

So Child and Family Services limps along despite the best-intentioned efforts to reform it. Judges and administrators keep promising, and editorialists wring their hands, yet children keep dying while under the supervision of this agency. There have been seven more deaths since last June.

For those feeling the urge to set up government programs, it’s a case history to keep in mind. From afar, government may seem a reassuring father figure, but up close it can prove to be shockingly incompetent.

Contributing editor James Payne is the author of Overcoming Welfare: Expecting More from the Poor-and From Ourselves (Basic Books).