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Confirmation Hearing Testimony

Friday, March 16, 2012
Testimony of Acting Director Brenda Donald

Government of the District of Columbia
Child and Family Services Agency

Testimony of Acting Director Brenda Donald

Hearing, Director of the Child and Family Services Agency, Confirmation

Committee on Human Services
Jim Graham, Chair
March 16, 2012

John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 412
Washington, DC 20510-6250
2 pm

Good afternoon, Chairman Graham, members of the Human Services Committee, and distinguished guests. I am Brenda Donald, Mayor Vincent Gray's nominee for director of the DC Child and Family Services Agency—or CFSA. Today, I’m seeking your confirmation for a tough job that I already love.

When I left DC Government in December 2006, I never dreamed I’d be back. I was proud of my five years of service with the District, four with CFSA and one as deputy mayor for Children, Youth, Families and Elders, but a change in city leadership meant my time was up. I went on to other wonderful opportunities, but in one of those twists of fate life throws us, I now find myself looping back with enthusiasm. In my remarks today, I'm going to reintroduce myself briefly, tell you what I've done over the last five years, and then present why I decided to come back and how I plan to take CFSA to the next level.

I’m a native Washingtonian who grew up in Ward 8, living in the same neighborhoods and attending the same schools as many of the families CFSA serves today. Raised in a single-parent family, I was blessed with a strong, loving mother who put her children first and taught us to believe in ourselves. In those days, my brother and I also benefitted from a cohesive community that regarded all the children in the neighborhood as family—an informal safety net, if you will. I realize things are different now, and many of the families we serve are overwhelmed by poverty, substance abuse, and homelessness. Still, I believe these families want the same things all of us want: healthy, happy, and thriving children.

My career of three decades in the public and nonprofit sectors reflects my values of social justice and equity, and my experience is all highly relevant to directing CFSA. For example, my 10 years of city management in Little Rock, Arkansas, at a fairly early point in my career were excellent preparation for managing the public resources invested in CFSA. 

While CFSA's core business is children and families and everything we do supports our frontline operations, we also have to be mindful that CFSA is $260 million a year business that includes the back office functions of human resources, information technology, finance, and facilities. My municipal management experience included most of those functions and positioned me to be a good fiscal steward, something I take very seriously.

After leaving District Government in 2006, I went on to two experiences that strengthened my capacity to lead in the public sector while also redoubling my resolve that government not only should but also can perform at a high level.

In January 2007, I accepted Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley's invitation to serve as secretary of the Department of Human Resources. DHR is Maryland’s human services agency, which includes child welfare, public benefits (such as food stamps), and child support enforcement. At the time, DHR had 7,000 employees and a $2 billion budget, serving over 500,000 residents in 23 counties and Baltimore City.

The centerpiece of my child welfare work in Maryland was a comprehensive reform agenda called Place Matters. Maryland was rightfully concerned about its large number of children in care, so Place Matters was built on the core principles that children belong with their families in their own communities and that when child welfare must remove them for safety, foster care is a temporary stop on the way back to a permanent home. Through acting on these core principles over three and a half years, Maryland reduced the number of children in foster care from about 10,300 to fewer than 8,000—a decline of over 20 percent. Most of that reduction was due to a laser beam focus on permanence. During my tenure, nearly 9,000 children and youth reunified with their parents; were adopted into new families; or entered legal guardianships. That’s 9,000 kids who woke up each morning in their own beds in forever homes with families instead of in the limbo of foster care. We also cut the number of youth in group homes by 50 percent.

How did we accomplish all that? Well, leadership does matter in setting a course and inspiring and directing people to follow. But in a very large venture, no one succeeds alone. Building, investing in, and supporting a great team are critical. It also depends on mobilizing external partners, including service providers, foster parents, the courts, elected leaders, and child advocates. The child welfare agency is one part of a broader child welfare system that ideally has tangible support from a community that truly cares about children and families. In DC, I have many relationships to draw on, as well as new ones to make, but I don’t intend to rest on my reputation. I have to be accountable for delivering, and I intend to honor that through every action I take.

After Maryland, I joined the Annie E. Casey Foundation as vice president over child welfare and juvenile justice systems reform and evidence-based practices. I also oversaw Casey’s direct services operations, which provide therapeutic foster care in New England and Baltimore. As a senior executive in the nation’s largest philanthropy focused on disadvantaged children and families, I was able to act on my passion for older youth involved in the deep-end systems of child welfare and juvenile justice. I created a Foundation-wide agenda on older youth, with a special emphasis on reducing teen pregnancies and supporting teen parents and their children. I explored and funded a number of initiatives around the country, including community college partnerships, workforce development programs, foster youth alumni organizations, and supportive housing. A number of the grants were to promote evidence-based practices that could be incorporated into public systems in the areas of social and emotional well-being and educational achievement.

Turning now to CFSA, I spent the first few weeks on the job getting up to speed and, in the process, conducting my own assessment of performance strengths and weaknesses. My conclusion is that CFSA is a good agency with serious work to do. CFSA improved greatly in its early years as a cabinet-level agency, and the agency today is also vastly more mature and capable than when I was last here in 2006. For example, the LaShawn Exit Plan contains 92 performance standards. It’s little known but needs to be widely recognized that in 2011, the first year of the exit plan, CFSA went from having achieved 28 performance standards to achieving a total of 44— that is, from 30 percent to 48 percent of the 92 standards. Now, the next step is consistently helping the children, youth, and families we serve to achieve good outcomes. This will be the performance leap that I seek to direct CFSA in achieving.

It’s been said that CFSA lacks a coherent vision that everyone can understand. I have laid out a four-point strategic framework to move us from compliance to outcomes. The four points in the strategic framework are: Front Door, Temporary Safe Havens, Well Being, and Exits to Positive Permanence. Here’s an overview of what they mean.

The Front Door is the all-important gateway to public child protection, encompassing taking reports of child abuse and neglect, intervening to protect children, and deciding how best to help them and their families. In the District, we have work to do to keep more families together and to remove children only when they can’t be safe at home. Among several strategies are bringing Differential Response to full scale to provide services that stabilize and support families and vastly increasing use of kinship care. Increasing pre-removal Family Team Meetings will help to quickly identify, locate, and engage relatives.

When we must remove children for their safety, their stay in care should be as short as possible. We can help to ensure that by starting on Day 1 to plan for the child’s return to a permanent home. This view makes foster care what it’s intended to be: not a lifestyle but rather a Temporary Safe Haven. In addition to increasing kinship care, we want to keep more District children in care in the city.

The third point—well being—speaks to taking good care of children on our caseload. Government can never be a good parent, but we must do all we can to support good health and academic achievement for all the young people we serve. For older youth, encouraging avoidance of pregnancy and achievement of high school graduation are essential. We need to make sure the children we serve get what they need to heal, grow, thrive, and achieve and that their childhood while in care is as normal as we can possibly make it.

Finally, Exits to Positive Permanence is about returning children to their parents, relatives, or a new family as quickly as possible, safely, and for good. It includes transitioning older youth out of care prepared to succeed as young adults. We’re also looking at our array of post-permanency supports which can help prevent re-entries into care and give youth who have left care help if they need it.

I said at the beginning of these remarks that directing the District child welfare agency is a tough job I already love. It’s work that’s both important and essential. No child or youth comes into the child welfare system wanting to be there. All these young people have had bad—and some very bad—experiences, and we, as a community, must provide a strong, capable, compassionate, efficient, and effective safety net for them. I like the up close and personal of a local public system, the opportunity for hands-on leadership in guiding, inspiring, and collaborating within CFSA and with our partners on behalf of all the youngsters we serve. I care deeply about what these children and youth have suffered through no fault of their own. At the end of each day, I want to feel I’m part of a winning team that’s doing everything possible to ensure that a rough time early in life does not become a show-stopper for children and youth in reaching their full potential.

Having the ability to make a real difference for kids through innovative, caring, and common-sense approaches is why I'm glad to once again be leading District child welfare. I respectfully ask for your confirmation so we can move full speed ahead.