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Posted at 9:39 AM ET, 12/11/2009

Too many hands holding D.C.'s youth safety net

By washingtonpost.com editors

By Crighton Allen
Lexington

Does it really take a village to raise a child? Maybe. But after what I observed during a summer internship with the Public Defender Service in Washington, it’s clear to me that we could sometimes do more with less.

I worked as an investigator for a public defender who handled juvenile cases. My job consisted of gathering all the information I could about the lives of our clients. When our legal team picked up a new case, we also inherited social workers, lawyers, psychiatrists, counselors, parole officers and a host of others who trail in the wake of many of the city’s troubled youths.

By the time juveniles find their way to the offices of the Public Defender Service, they are usually no stranger to trouble and hardship. Almost every client I encountered had to deal with special educational needs in school, problems with drugs, psychiatric conditions or a criminal record. I usually uncovered some heartbreaking combination of all of the above.

In the District, the finding of any substantial abnormality — such as an anger problem or abusive parents — sets into motion the massive, grinding engine of the social services network. Once a juvenile is plugged into that network, there is no easy way out.

I was flummoxed by the sheer size and far-reaching scope of the network. The District’s court system means well, and there is no greater cause than working to improve a child’s life. Plus, as the tragedies that befell Banita Jacks’s children and others have shown, it can be a cataclysm for all involved when cases fall through the cracks. But after my experience, I can’t imagine that the city’s youth social services system ever functions at an acceptable level of efficiency. Its vast size is too great an obstacle.

For example, one of our clients, a sweet girl of 11, had 11 professionals assigned to her case at one time or another. These included a court-appointed advocate charged with looking out for her “best interest,” an adoption attorney, a court-9appointed therapist, a therapist from a private agency, a court-appointed social worker, a private agency social worker, a public defender, the Public Defender Service’s social worker and so forth.

On the rare occasions that the members of this team convened to discuss the girl’s well-being, the meeting notes revealed a lot of ego but little progress. Bickering, turf wars and red tape took the place of focus, cooperation and the open exchange of information. Every professional possessed an ironclad conviction that he or she alone knew the best course of action. Everybody was talking, with not much to say. And nobody was listening.

In dealing with vulnerable children, the private and public sectors have a common goal — providing the best care for a child — but each sector must trust that other professionals can also handle cases competently. More dialogue between the courts and private agencies would prevent two people from doing the same job and wasting resources, time and money.

In unique circumstances, outside experts can and should be consulted. But three or four people working together in close, open communication can achieve positive action far more easily than can 10.

It’s a matter of common sense, something that the system I saw sorely lacked.

I wish I knew how to implement such changes, and I realize that the situation is complicated. It involves dedicated but overworked professionals who truly care about their clients. People aren’t the problem. It’s the size of a system that needs to change to free them to do their jobs effectively. The future belongs to our children, and we could serve them better.

The writer is a junior at Washington and Lee University.

By washingtonpost.com editors  | December 11, 2009; 9:39 AM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic  
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Comments

What you witnessed is the hallmark of DC government and is a form of corruption. Ten people working inefficiently on a case require vastly more money than a few people working efficiently. This increased amount of money allows much more misappropriation and outright theft. The story is the same across the law enforcement and social service organs of the DC government: they do not have the best interests of citizens in mind, they are designed to ingest money and make it disappear.

Posted by: mendelsonmustgo | December 11, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

When you're working as a public defender (or an assistant to one), your goal isn't serving a child in a social services system. You have someone who is facing very adult consequences--and all the best-minded people in the world can't make those adult consequences any less damaging. So, presumably, your focus is going to be quite different...what your client WANTS--not necessarily what the city thinks he/she needs.

Posted by: anon82 | December 11, 2009 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Did the Post get bought out by the Onion?

19 year-old "flummoxed" by bureaucracy after government internship. "Wishes" for solution surprisingly go unanswered.

Posted by: washdc5 | December 13, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Look, it's a good point he's making. We all have to do what we can with what we know.

Maybe he doesn't fully understand everyone's role, and maybe he doesn't offer a complete solution -- that doesn't mean there isn't a problem.

Posted by: pythonS | December 13, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

This is a great description of the challenge of working in child welfare. I have worked in that field, and this description fits my county in Colorado, and probably most child welfare agencies nationwide.

I do think that in simpler cases it would be good if we could create smaller, tighter teams.

In my experience it is often good foster parents who understand and coordinate all the various inputs into a child's life. This is not their job, they are not trained for it, and they are busy enough just meeting the familial needs of kids. Often it is the foster parents who really understand the child best, yet professionals easily dismiss them as "domestic workers" who change the diapers, wash the laundry, tutor the algegra, and stay up all night with scared and distraught children.

One reason some cases are so complicated is that we have no real way of solving many of the problems. How does society "teach" a mom or dad not to abuse their offspring? How do we help a bipolar 13-year-old with developmental disabilities come to terms with prolonged physical and sexual abuse by people she still loves? How do we cure meth addiction quickly so that a mom can reunite with her children before they grow apart from her?

If any of these problems were easy, the private sector would have figured out a way to make money off solving them.

Posted by: outragex | December 14, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

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