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Public Roundtable Truancy Reduction in the DC Public School System

Thursday, November 8, 2012
Testimony of Chief of Staff Michele Rosenberg

Government of the District of Columbia
Child and Family Services Agency

Testimony of Chief of Staff Michele Rosenberg

Joint Public Oversight Roundtable, Truancy Reduction in the DC Public School System

Committee of the Whole/Committee on Judiciary
Phil Mendelson, Council Chair

November 8, 2012

John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Room 412
Washington, DC 20004
9 am

Good morning, Chairman Mendelson and Councilmembers. I'm Michele Rosenberg, Chief of Staff of the DC Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). We appreciate this opportunity to report on the role of child welfare in responding to reports of truancy and educational neglect.

To prepare for the future, children need a quality education. Regular school attendance supports learning and positive social development. So when younger children are chronically truant, their educational progress and ability to contribute positively to our community is in jeopardy. What's more, it may signal that family difficulties are getting in the way of getting children to school regularly and on time. The family may be struggling, and this may be an opportunity to help. This is the sound thinking behind the District of Columbia Municipal Regulation that requires reporting to CFSA whenever a student age five through 13 has 10 unexcused absences within a school year.

Today, CFSA is better prepared to help struggling families than ever before. We are less inclined to remove children from their home environment, except when necessary for safety. For many years and for many reasons, District child welfare had an overly broad front door. We are now seeking to narrow that door safely, as other jurisdictions have done successfully, by providing more services that keep families together while overcoming their difficulties. Over the past few months, this has resulted in a shift for CFSA to serving more children at home than in foster care.

A key strategy in that effort started in September 2011, when we launched the best practice known as Differential Response. It means we now have two options for acting on reports to our 24-hour hotline at 202-671-SAFE. Reports of high-risk situations and serious abuse, either physical or sexual, always get a traditional investigation that results in a finding; identification of a maltreater; and usually opening of a child welfare case. However, the majority of reports we receive are about neglect, which generally indicates a struggling family in need of a hand up. In these situations, we now have the option to assess the situation and gain the family's voluntary participation in services, which can come from CFSA, the DC Department of Human Services, or the Healthy Families/Thriving Communities Collaboratives. With an assessment, we don't label anyone as a maltreater, and the family gets help without entering the child welfare system. Calls about truancy and educational neglect almost always qualify for this family assessment option. Thus, as our growing Differential Response resources allow, we provide a non-threatening response that still addresses issues impeding a child's regular attendance at school.

Key points I've just shared are the same ones we've stressed to our educational partners as we collaborate to address truancy in the District. CFSA is an active member of the city-wide Truancy Task Force and the Executive Committee of the Task Force co-chaired by Deputy Mayor for Education Da'Shawn Wright and Judge Zoe Bush of the DC Superior Court. We had two conference calls with the DC Public Schools over the summer, and as the school year got underway in September, those calls became monthly. In August, CFSA's Director and our Administrator for Child Protective Services (CPS) presented at the DCPS school-year kickoff for principals. Our Administrator for CPS also presented at DCPS teacher orientation. This partnership is resulting in productive actions to address truancy.

  • As a child's unexcused absences begin to climb, DCPS has a protocol for reaching out to the family to resolve issues before absences reach 10 and trigger a mandatory report to CFSA.
  • CFSA is ramping up our Differential Response capacity. We recently added two Family Assessment Units for a total of three, with one dedicated to reports of educational neglect. As we shift resources, more of the families who qualify get an assessment rather than an investigation.
  • DCPS is working to track and regularly share data on their educational neglect referrals.
  • Over time, both CFSA and DCPS want to identify the main issues behind chronic truancy as a foundation for undertaking targeted prevention.

CFSA has also reached out to the Public Charter Schools. Deputy Mayor Beatriz Otero and CFSA Director Brenda Donald had an initial conference call with the Public Charter School Board leadership, and CFSA Child Protective Services leaders have followed up in building a relationship. On October 26, CFSA CPS leaders participated in a panel presentation for Public Charter School administrators.

Because we are working together continuously, DCPS is aware of the need to report to CFSA promptly when a child's unexcused absences reach 10. Regular, timely reporting ensures children get help quickly without overloading the CFSA system unnecessarily. We have worked to build trust with DCPS, emphasizing that we provide the family assessment response as often as possible with current resources and that reports of educational neglect almost never lead to a removal. In the 2011-2012 school year, we received reports of educational neglect for 1,781 children, leading to a substantiation for 544 children, and removal of 23 children—a rate of one percent. So far in the 2012-13 school year (through October 23), we have received reports of educational neglect for 189 children.

I am pleased to report that with the Council's support, truancy reporting is moving forward in the District as the partnership between CFSA and local schools solidifies. Thank you for the opportunity to testify on this extremely important topic. I look forward to answering any questions that you may have for the agency.