As states continue to implement a federal child welfare reform law, local organizers have joined a national movement to compel local and state child welfare agencies to stop the removal of children from homes that could benefit from additional resources.
Melody Webb, an attorney and advocate for low-income families, told The Informer most cases referred to the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) over the last couple of years have involved what a federal government report earlier this year defined as “neglect only.”
While she has yet to receive information regarding the neglect cases, Webb said that her clients’ experiences hint at the strong possibility that what government agencies define as “neglect only” oftentimes stems from housing instability, food insecurity and other symptoms of poverty.
“It astounds me that we live in the richest country in human history that takes people’s kids away because, in part, parents can’t afford stable housing,” said Webb, executive director of Mother’s Outreach Network and representative of indigent parents seeking reunification with their children.
During the summer, while circulating information about the child tax credit to families, Webb contacted parents who appeared on the Child Protection Register, a confidential database of people known or highly suspected of abusing and neglecting children in D.C.
She took this step to gain insight into the circumstances that triggered a CFSA home visit.
“It’s important that we dig deep into the reasons for these removals that are called ‘neglect only,’” Webb said. “I would imagine most people would take some pause if they understood neglect is related to poverty and poverty is driving these removals.”
Figuring out How to Keep Families Together
In the six months leading up to the pandemic, CFSA completed investigations of more than 2,800 referrals of abuse and neglect.
Out of those cases, investigators designated nearly 65 percent of those referrals as not meeting the legal requirements to confirm abuse or neglect, while 21 percent had been deemed as abuse or neglect.
In the first four months of the pandemic, calls to the CFSA hotline dropped nearly 55 percent, in what some child advocates speculated as a result of children staying at home and out of the sight of mandated reporters at schools and daycares.
Nearly 40 percent of those calls had been accepted for investigation.
At the end of 2020, CFSA experienced a steady increase in hotline calls. As of June, the agency received 10,765 calls this year, nearly 20 percent of which have been accepted for investigation.
According to CFSA data, as of June there remain 624 foster children in the District, more than half of them removed from homes located east of the Anacostia River. Parents of the children placed in foster care declined to speak, either on the record or on background, to The Informer.
In 2018, Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act [FFPSA] to pay for evidence-based programs to prevent or reduce maltreatment of children. Once enacted, the law resulted in the federal government’s disbursement of $500 million to help states bring these new models to fruition.
As of May, the District and at least 15 states have either submitted or achieved federal approval of five-year prevention plans. Under its plan, the District invested local dollars via Families First DC to launch 10 family success centers in Wards 7 and 8.
CFSA acting Director Robert L. Matthews hinted at plans to build another center in Ward 5 in response to data showing an increase in child abuse and neglect some of what are considered social determinants of health and crime increases there.
Breaking Down the Neglect Referral Process
CFSA follows the legal definition of child neglect, as found in D.C. Code § 16-2301, which describes it as abandonment and abuse of a child, deprivation of education, sustenance and parental care or failure to prevent a child or adult from inflicting harm on a child in the home.
Other definitions center on parental drug abuse, incarceration and a lack of effort on parents’ part to maintain a relationship with the child.
When CFSA receives calls outside of its purview, the agency refers families to community-based resources or the Mayor’s Services Liaison Office which works in partnership with D.C. Superior Court Family Court. Otherwise, investigators dispatched to homes conduct investigations and collect evidence to determine whether abuse or neglect exists. If that appears to be the case, then CFSA either opens an in-home case or places the child in foster care.
Reuniting parents with children taken out of the home requires a parent’s cooperation with a social worker and the court system on an assessment of the parent’s ability to provide a stable home environment.
Last month, as he spoke about the District’s FFPSA compliance at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s legislative conference, Matthews, CFSA’s acting director, said many Black parents in resource-starved households don’t trust child welfare agencies to keep their best interests in mind.
That’s why he espoused a commitment to following a process that prevents child neglect and abuse while keeping families together.
“There are scenarios like homelessess, childcare [needs] and access to food and clothing,” Matthews said. “We get those types of calls but they don’t result in a CFSA investigation. It’s not neglect. It’s just families who lack certain resources to provide basic needs for their kids.”