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Joint Public Oversight Hearing: Truancy Reduction in the DC Public School System

Thursday, February 28, 2013
Testimony of Director Brenda Donald

Government of the District of Columbia
Child and Family Services Agency

Joint Public Oversight Hearing: Truancy Reduction in the DC Public School System

Council of the District of Columbia
Phil Mendelson, Chairman, Committee of the Whole
David Catania, Chairperson, Committee on Education

February 28, 2013

John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 123
Washington, DC 20510-6250
2:30 pm

Good afternoon Chairman Mendelson, Chairperson Catania, and Councilmembers. I am Brenda Donald, Director of the DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). I welcome the opportunity to update you on our collaboration with the DC Public Schools to address the issues around school attendance, or truancy. It is heartening to see a citywide response on such an important child well-being issue.

As you know, CFSA has a very specific role regarding truancy, and it fits within a broader educational neglect statute. When mandated reporters—or concerned neighbors, for that matter—believe a school-aged child is not in school because of abuse or neglect, they are obligated to call our Hotline. Even more specifically, Title 5 of the District of Columbia Municipal Regulation requires reporting to CFSA whenever a student between the ages of five and 13 has ten unexcused absences within a school year. While the vast majority of the reports under this requirement result in no findings of abuse or neglect, we readily accept this responsibility because educational neglect may be a window into the life of a child in danger. When a young child is chronically absent—and the parents haven’t responded to the calls and letters from the schools that precede their Hotline reports—it is a family issue. More than likely, it is something that can be resolved with one-time resources or ongoing services, but sometimes it truly is abuse or neglect, and we must step in to protect the children.

When I testified at the Attendance Accountability Act hearing two weeks ago, I gave an update on the 819 truancy referrals we received from all sources from the beginning of this school year to January 15, 2013. Between January 15 and February 8, we received an additional 321 reports, for a total of 1,240 (844 from DCPS). At this rate, the reports are trending 50 percent higher than last school year. We are averaging 250 plus reports a month to our Hotline. Of these reports, only about 35 percent are substantiated, which means that they meet the legal standard for child neglect. This is consistent with last year’s findings, so although the volume of reports has doubled, the rate of neglect findings is about the same.

Approximately one-third of the reports are filtered out because they are out of jurisdiction, the absences are actually excused, or for some other administrative reason. The rest of the cases are addressed by one-time immediate fixes or referred to community-based organizations for ongoing assistance. As we have reported previously, CFSA and DCPS have made significant strides to ensure compliance with the reporting requirements, as well as to build a partnership that shares information and works together on strategies to address truancy. The first part of this school year, our focus has been on compliance. Last school year, DCPS only referred 21 percent of the required cases to our Hotline. As of January 15, the compliance rate was up to 74 percent. And each month, CFSA and DCPS have a standing meeting to review the data to ensure that all referrals that should have been made were actually made, and those that were not are subsequently and immediately referred.

Now that we have a systematic way of checking compliance in real time, we are able to start focusing on what the data show. Over the next few weeks, we will be sitting down with DCPS to compare notes about what we are finding, whether or not our knocks on the door are resulting in kids going back to school, whether there are discernible trends in particular schools, and so on. We believe this level of data analysis and feedback is necessary to help all of us understand what the real barriers are and what interventions are needed to impact school attendance.

A Children’s Research Center literature review of studies on the effectiveness of a child protective response on educational neglect reached this conclusion:

While a response from child protection may appear appropriate for educational neglect, given the lack of understanding of the mechanisms by which these factors influence truancy more evidence is needed in order to establish child protective services as an effective intervention to school attendance-related issues.

I believe we have shown how serious we all are in efforts to reduce truancy. While we will continue to respond to reports of educational neglect, we also need time to analyze the data and evaluate the effectiveness of our interventions. We appreciate the Council’s interest and oversight on this important issue, and we look forward to working with you to get better results. Thank you.