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Child and Family Services Agency Performance Oversight Fiscal Year 2012-13

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Testimony of Director Brenda Donald

Government of the District of Columbia
Child and Family Services Agency

Testimony of Director Brenda Donald
Hearing, Child and Family Services Agency Performance Oversight, Fiscal Year 2012-13

Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Human Services
Jim Graham, Chair

February 26, 2013

John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW,Room 500
Washington, DC 20510-6250
11 am

Good afternoon, Chairman Graham and members of the District Council Committee on Human Services. I’m Brenda Donald, director of the DC Child and Family Services Agency. I came back to this role about a year ago eager to tackle the challenges of local child welfare in a hands-on way. The progress, tone, and opportunities of these last many months have only served to fuel my enthusiasm. I appreciate this opportunity to report on what CFSA is doing to strengthen the city’s safety net for abused and neglected children and youth and their families.

Highlights of Major Progress

While the District has been implementing child welfare reform for more than a decade, progress accelerated in 2012. Four indicators of overall progress stand out.

  • First, CFSA has developed the intense focus, sense of direction, and momentum to make performance leaps. Early in my tenure, I developed and worked to rally CFSA and the local child-serving community around a strategic agenda called the Four Pillars. The bottom line of the Four Pillars is to make CFSA much better at what matters most—and that is, consistently delivering positive outcomes for the District children, youth, and families who need our help. Each pillar represents an area ripe for improvement and features a values-based foundation, a set of evidence-based strategies, and a series of specific outcome targets. I’ll describe key strategies behind these Pillars later in my remarks. But the overall progress highlight is that the Four Pillars strategic agenda is serving to energize, guide, focus, and propel CFSA to higher levels of performance. It is helping to strengthen and improve our ability to succeed.
  • Second, CFSA is forging the authentic partnerships that support real teamwork in serving children, youth, and families. Although CFSA is a leader in local child welfare, we are the child welfare agency, not the child welfare system. In that spirit, we have pulled more chairs up to our table, seeking and gaining genuine collaboration with the many others who play key roles. From the beginning of 2012, I reached out frequently and sincerely to keep providers and advocates informed and to get their input. We have enhanced long-standing partnerships with Family Court and the Metropolitan Police Department while building a closer working relationship with the DC Public Schools. Under the leadership of Deputy Mayor Otero, a new level of teaming among District Government agencies in the “human services cluster” is smoothing the way for joint ventures and vastly improved coordination. More than ever before, local stakeholders seem to be on the same page for children, which bodes well for accomplishing great things together.
  • A third achievement is that CFSA has boosted accountability and transparency. Over several months last year, CFSA gathered input from a diverse group of internal and external stakeholders about how best to measure whether our Four Pillars strategies were making any difference to those we serve. That work resulted in 32 indicators of how well CFSA and the local child welfare system are doing in achieving eight specific outcomes for children, youth, and families.

    Earlier this month, we completed our first report on progress. Our new Four Pillars Scorecard will present data quarterly, beginning with FY13 Q1 (October-December 2012). Taken together, the Four Pillars Scorecard, our LaShawn infographic showing the status of 92 benchmarks, and the monthly scorecard that reports private-provider performance on LaShawn benchmarks provide an overview of child welfare performance that’s substantive and easy to understand. These documents are available on the CFSA website.
  • The fourth overarching achievement is that CFSA has gained independent verification that we’re on the right track. In her November report covering performance from January through June 2012, the Court Monitor in the LaShawn lawsuit lauded CFSA for significant progress. She also found District child welfare closer to shedding Federal Court oversight than at any time in the past two decades. Needless to say, this was very good news that did wonders for agency morale and exerted positive influence on external perceptions. Independent acknowledgement like this helps to strengthen CFSA’s ability to succeed, and we look forward to earning more. Out of 92 benchmarks, we’ve achieved 56 (or 61 percent). We’re proud of improvements in the array and provision of services, placement of children with relatives, achievement of permanence for children and youth, and administrative strength. We’re bearing down to bring about performance leaps in investigations and visits.

Four Pillars Strategies

Turning now to the Four Pillars, I want to describe some of the key strategies we’re using to achieve better outcomes for children, youth, and families and to share how we’re doing.
The values behind Narrowing the Front Door safely are that we want more children to grow up with their families so we remove children from home only when necessary to keep them safe. Mid-year in 2012, I restructured CFSA to align several functions more closely with the Four Pillars strategic agenda. The most extensive change took place at our front door where we brought together three existing and one new administration. This created a more seamless process of entry into, or safe diversion from, the child welfare system while also paving the way to keep families together whenever possible and to remove only as the last resort.

An important modification to practice has been for child welfare to get involved only when families cannot or will not take care of children themselves—and this includes responding to some situations and then walking away without acting when children are clearly safe without outside intervention. When we have to remove a child for safety, we now walk our talk and seek to place with relatives first. From the initial CPS response to Family Team Meetings to our new Kinship Support Administration and through speedy emergency licensing of kin—even in the middle of the night and on weekends, we’re doing much more to identify, locate, and support families.

The pillar of Temporary Safe Haven motivates us to ensure that foster care is a good but interim place for children to live while we work to get them back to a permanent home as quickly as possible. To keep the drive for permanence at the forefront, a team of seven experienced social workers conducts monthly reviews of every foster care case to help remove barriers and resolve issues. In light of the declining foster care population and emphasis on placement with kin, CFSA right sized family-based and congregate care contracts for FY13. This resulted in cutting back from 15 family-based providers with 25 contracts to 11 providers with 20 contracts and from 24 congregate care providers with 34 contracts to 16 providers with 20 contracts.

The Well Being pillar stands for every child’s right to a nurturing environment that supports healthy growth and development, good physical and mental health, and academic achievement. Institutions don’t make good parents. But when we must bring children into care for their safety, this pillar calls on the public agency to be the best parent we can. As part of our internal restructuring in 2012, I created a new Well Being Administration to take the lead in coordinating good-care programs. We also made major strides around substance abuse and mental health treatment.

Chairman Graham, your oversight questions last year revealed that CFSA’s handling of client substance abuse was neither robust nor effective. As a result of your encouragement, we began ramping up our ability to identify and access treatment for substance abuse for both parents and youth. In 2012, we were one of two jurisdictions in the nation selected to receive technical assistance from the US Department of Health and Human Services’ National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare. Over the past several months, a national expert has guided a multi-agency planning process. By the end of 2013, we expect to have procedures and tools in place to routinely screen youth and adults, to refer those who need treatment to appropriate programs, to share data with treatment providers, and to capture treatment outcomes when individuals consent for CFSA to receive that information.

Our focus on overall well being received a major boost in 2012, when CFSA won a five-year, $3.2 million grant to make trauma-informed treatment the foundation of serving children and youth in the District child welfare system. This is the largest competitive federal grant CFSA has ever received. Kids struggling to overcome terrible events and circumstances need special support. The insight and skill of this approach will transform our ability to help them move beyond emotional and behavioral difficulties so they can thrive.

CFSA is collaborating with several others to extend the benefits of this cutting-edge approach to as many child- and youth-serving agencies around the city as possible. At a stakeholder meeting in December, we found widespread interest and enthusiasm to participate. We are also purposefully partnering with the DC Department of Mental Health to align the trauma approach we’re spearheading with their System of Care grant to broaden availability of mental health treatment. Together, CFSA and DMH now have an opportunity to vastly extend and improve local ability to treat traumatized children and youth.

Finally, the Exit to Permanence pillar is about ensuring that every child and youth leaves foster care as quickly as possible for a safe, permanent home or life-long connection and that older youth in care master the skills to succeed as adults. In the agency restructuring last year, I moved CFSA’s Office of Youth Empowerment to report directly to me and worked with the OYE Administrator and staff on substantive reforms. An in-depth assessment of existing programs resulted in moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to tailoring responses to the needs of distinct groups such as youth headed for college or teen parents. We collaborated with the DC Department of Employment Services to organize a subsidized employment program that will initially target youth in care ages 17 and 18 and hired a supervisor to administer the program for CFSA. To address an area ripe for improvement, we stepped up planning for youth to transition out of care successfully, including incorporating use of a nationally-known tool.

Strategies I’ve described today are not the only ones underway at CFSA. But they do serve to illustrate the substantive work going on to improve outcomes for those we serve.


Even as CFSA is seeking better performance today, we have also turned our thoughts to the future. Two trends in particular have captured our attention.

  • Mirroring a national trend, the District’s foster care population had been in steady decline for many years. That rate of decline accelerated in FY12, dropping 19 percent, from 1,750 to 1,420—the lowest level since we’ve keeping count. Just a short time ago in 2011, the number of children served at home versus in care was still about equal (50-50). By the end of 2012, the gap was widening, with 2,040 children served at home and only 1,452 in foster care.
  • Our growing emphasis on child welfare diversion and in-home cases stimulated us to take a comprehensive look at services available for these families. This revealed some promising practices as well as numerous gaps.

CFSA believes that the increase in in-home cases and strategy to narrow our front door are a sea change in District child welfare. This presents the city with the need and the opportunity to strategically reinvest in primary prevention of child abuse and neglect and family strengthening and to reshape the local system to provide appropriate services and supports.

Whenever I talk about narrowing the front door, I get nods of recognition and approval throughout the community. From where I’m sitting, the challenge is simply this. We are a system still geared for foster care. And we must now become a system fully prepared to strengthen families and keep them together.

In closing today, I want to share a step CFSA has taken toward that future. On January 15, CFSA submitted an application for a Title IV-E waiver to the US Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families. Title IV-E is the largest federal reimbursement program for child welfare, allowing states to claim for eligible foster care and adoption expenses. The IV-E waiver replaces claiming with an annual block grant that comes with the flexibility to spend the funds to test innovative and evidence-based approaches to achieve improved outcomes for children and families in addition to paying for foster care/adoption. Gaining the IV-E waiver would support some of the steps we need to take to retool local child welfare for greater prevention and family support. With your support for strategic reinvestment, we could be at the forefront of a new family strengthening movement that would benefit many children and parents and the District community. I hope you will consider that opportunity and the many possibilities it represents as we continue to work together to
deliver the best possible outcomes to children, youth, and families who need our help. Thank you.