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Posted at 10:41 AM ET, 01/ 1/2011

Three years after Banita Jacks, how much has changed?

By Carl Foster, Washington

As the volunteer executive director of the Little Blue House (LBH) in Ward 1 in the District, I am charged with the responsibility of making sure the children in our programs learn, grow and are safe. I am not sure what guides the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Is it to keep the number of kids in foster care down or to protect the children? Has the agency really changed in response to the Banita Jacks murder case?

Recently, one of my kids came to the LBH instead of going to school, saying that his mother told him she didn’t want him anymore and that he should get out. He is only 10 years old. The argument apparently stemmed from a seemingly innocuous question:

“Can I have clean clothes to wear to school?”

“Get out. I don’t want you.”

Now that’s reportable.

I’ve been concerned about this family for some time. Other moms had told me this mother was beaten up by drug dealers. I had no firsthand knowledge of this, so I could not report it to protective services. I witnessed this mom handing a wad of cash to some guy while her kids were asking us for food. There is a blanket hanging just inside the front door of her home that prevents anyone from seeing what’s inside. Suspicious but not reportable.

This time, after listening to the boy, we contacted the child protective services hotline, supposedly much improved since Jacks’s four daughters were found dead in January 2008. No one would describe the person I spoke to as friendly, knowledgeable, helpful or polite. But I got what I wanted: someone to visit that home, someone to look behind that blanket. Or so I thought.

A social worker did call us back to get the address but instead came directly to the LBH to speak to the child. Our social worker sat in on the conversation and reported to me: “This guy has no idea how to talk to a child.” She said he was “leading and badgering,” drawing the boy to a conclusion rather than listening to what he had to say. The boy did what any other kid would do in this situation: He stopped trying to explain what happened and started agreeing to anything just to get out of the room. Then the interviewer accused him of changing his story.

The boy’s mother was waiting when we went to the local elementary school to pick up kids for our after-school program, so I brought her back to the LBH, where she spoke with the investigator. She speaks Spanish, so one of our staff members interpreted for the investigator. How was he planning to talk to her without an interpreter? I wondered.

In the end, the investigator told us he thought everything was just fine with this family. I asked him four times if he planned to visit the home. Each time he said, “It’s part of our investigation,” but I noticed he never said yes. I am confident he did not go. Why do I think this? The next day the boy was waiting when our staff arrived at the LBH at 9 a.m. He was wearing shorts on a very cold morning. I asked if the investigator came to his house; he said no. He had walked to the LBH in the cold even though he knew we were planning to pick him up. He was upset, but this time he volunteered no information about what happened at home.

Three things are clear to me now:

1. I wasn’t going to get what I wanted. No one was going to take a good look behind that blanket.

2. This story reinforces a call I got last year from another agency director. The director said she called the hotline to report a mom she was sure could harm her child. She was told to look for the child’s father.

3. I sat behind the CFSA director at a Senate hearing last year and heard him tell the senators how the agency’s responses to its abuse and neglect hotline had greatly improved.

Really? How? By disbelieving children and discouraging reports?

Founded in 1991, the Little Blue House is located in Northwest Washington. The nonprofit agency works to help at-risk youth and families achieve self-sufficiency.

By Carl Foster, Washington  | January 1, 2011; 10:41 AM ET
Categories:  D.C., HotTopic  
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I don't understand. So many cases of child abuse about countrywide. How are thousands of public school systems handling similar issues? Or must they wait until its too late?

Posted by: MissV | January 1, 2011 6:00 PM | Report abuse

You rock, Mr. Foster. Keep rattling the cage.

Posted by: bravegirl01 | January 1, 2011 7:52 PM | Report abuse

You rock, Mr. Foster. Keep rattling the cage.

Posted by: bravegirl01 | January 1, 2011 7:53 PM | Report abuse

Data obtained from CFSA shows the agency has systematically avoided finding abuse and neglect -- disproportionately in the more affluent areas. A FOIA request to CFSA reveals the ugly truth.

Director Roque Gerald has led the agency down this neglectful path. Let's hope Mayor Gray does not appoint him in the new administration. It is time for a change.

Good article.

Posted by: betterdc | January 1, 2011 9:49 PM | Report abuse

For every story like this one, there is another about a family needlessly torn apart because a CFSA worker rushed to throw the children, needlessly, into foster care. That does enormous harm to the children needlessly taken – two studies of more than 15,000 typical cases show that children left in their own homes typically fare better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care. You can read about the studies, and find links to the full studies themselves on our website here:

But those children are not the only ones hurt. All those false allegations and trivial cases and overload workers so they don’t have time to investigate any case carefully. If the caseworker Mr. Foster encountered seemed in too much of a rush to close the case, that’s probably why. Wrongful removal drives everything else. If you don’t curb the needless removal of children from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help, then the ten-years-later column about the Jacks children and the 20-years-later column about Brianna Blackmond (have we already forgotten her?) will read just like this one.

And while we can sit here and trade anecdotes for weeks, if we really want to know what’s happening for sure in most cases, not just those that happen to catch our eye, DC’s new mayor will need to take the advice offered by Prof. Matthew Fraidin of UDC Law School over in the Outlook section ( stop letting CFSA and the courts hide their blunders by keeping the court hearings secret.

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

Posted by: rwexlernccpr | January 1, 2011 9:53 PM | Report abuse

Couldn't agree more with Mr. Wexler, where he says: "stop letting CFSA and the courts hide their blunders by keeping the court hearings secret."

Also, finding abuse and neglect should not mean taking the child out of the home...but instead trying to correct the situation so the child can stay in their home with a caring family.

Posted by: betterdc | January 1, 2011 10:08 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Wexler, who is not a trained child specialist, should start reading the newspapers on how many children are harmed/killed by family members.

Of course Mr. Wexler then claims for all of those cases that his support for keeping children in the home does not apply to those cases in which the child is ultimately and sometimes fatally harmed. He likes to play both sides of the issue.

However, I do agree that the court proceedings should be opened for scrutiny. Not for the same reason as Mr. Wexler claims, but because the public should be made aware of how poorly the magisrates handle cases by micromanaging. For example, by ordering the agency to place children with juvenile records of violence and drug use in the homes of regular foster care children. Or, ordering the agency to place an adult youth in a single apartment with less supervision despite the youth's lack of interest in employment, education, or the ceasing of drug use. These are the magistrate-judges for whom the public should be made aware.

Posted by: familynet | January 2, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

BTW, I notice that despite taking the time to write this column (for pay), Mr. Foster does not indicate that he took his concerns any higher at CFSA. If he sat behind the agency director, he must know who he is and so why didn't he contact him or even the social worker's supervisor? I'm not saying the worker was correct, I don't know this case, but I am puzzled by Mr. Foster's lack of more useful action since he is so concerned.

Posted by: familynet | January 2, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse

In a just world the feds would provide support to get people out of DC, as is done with eminent domain cases or when a national park is established. DC is simply deadly to its residents.

In a just world...

In this world my guess is that Ms. Foster will now be sued and pursued by CFSA.

Posted by: plugugly7 | January 3, 2011 9:03 AM | Report abuse

I would have avoided responding to some of the rediculous comments about my article except some moron suggested I got paid for the article. How vapid a life to not consider even the posibility that someone would write an article just because they cared about the child but to think one also needed a monitary insentive as well. That's almost as sad as the peson who sugggested I contact the supevisor. That person completely missed the point so let me make it more simply for the benifit of the slow witted....the social workers are not making these decisions in the shadow of ignorant superisors. The CFSA director and the court monitor know me very wellknows me very well. You coould have read them the article and they would have guessed that I was the author. I wrote the article because this behavior appears to be systemic and deliberate. I believe it to be policy not the act of a few roque investigators. Simple enough for you now? As for Mr. Wexler, there is no greater critic of what happenns after a child is removed by CFSA than I am but let me speak very slowly now.... what happens after a child is removed is a separate question from whether or not a call to the hotline should be investigated. But I am not surprized that CFSA has its apologists and rationalizers. Such dysfunction could not exist without some support some where.

Carl Foster, color me shocked by the response

Posted by: carlfoster | January 3, 2011 9:28 AM | Report abuse

"Carl Foster, color me shocked by the response"

I'm glad that I got your attention and I see that you despise unjust criticism. Now, consider the criticism that you gave to an entire agency and workforce based on your last contact with the neglect system and for debate sake I will say that your criticism for that one worker is just and correct.
Now, consider that fallacy of generalization when a single incident is given to represent an entire work force. Let me put it to you in a way that you might better appreciate. Let’s say that you are a Vietnam veteran and because of some noted atrocities by a few of your peers during that time, you too are looked upon as a human rights violator, drug user, etc. Certainly that would not be fair, would it Mr. Foster.
More recently, what if someone were to look at your most recent posting and make various condescending conclusions about your level of education based on your numerous spelling and grammatical errors. Would that be a fair characterization of you Mr. Foster or of your educational institutions?
I do hope that I am going “slow enough”, but your criticism deserves a response. I too know of troubling incidents in the D.C. child welfare system and I have spoken out on them. However, I also know of so many times that a social worker has gone far beyond the call of duty to assist a child and family. I know of workers who continue working with parents despite the parents threatening their lives. These workers did so knowing that they would not receive special recognition and most likely not gain compensation since the agency makes overtime/comp-time next to impossible to receive. Meanwhile, miss a deadline and they will be reprimanded. These are just some of the reasons why I too feel badly about unjust criticism. However, I note that your anger is peaked in your defense, while mine is for those working in the front lines of the abuse/neglect system.
BTW, I notice that you did not clarify why you failed to raise your concerns to those higher in the administration for whom you say know you so well.
Thank you.

Posted by: familynet | January 3, 2011 8:57 PM | Report abuse

Hey Wexler. You got my attention. Yeah, but a train wreck would get my attention. Is that a good thing? First if you want to bully somebody off the stage, try a somebody else. When I used the term "slow witted" before I was referring to the other guy. Now let me use that term for you. You seem very concerned about the imagine and well-being of CFSA employees. That's probably why you missed all my points about the children and why you assuemd a critizen of one part of the operation was an indictment of the entire operation. I did meet some good employees at CFSA. All of the good ones I met had something in common....they were looking for a better job. I wonder what's left when the conscientious people head for the exit? The difference between you and me is stark....I'm concerned about the kids you are concerned about the image of the people who are failing them. So you go ahead keep defending and rationalizing and excusing them. By far the most email I've gotten since last Sunday has been from directors of other agencies telling me their horror stories. The story I told seems very benign by contrast but hey, you just keep sticking up for those guys, OK. I am amased you missed the words "systemic" and "deliberate" that includes the supervisors. I made that part clear the first time and you just missed it. But according to, if I would just took my concerns to the bosses....wait, I did that already, many times. I've been doing that at the top of CFSA since Dr. Miller. You probably don't go back that far. Go ahead smart ass. say something else.

Posted by: carlfoster | January 4, 2011 6:40 PM | Report abuse

Seems to me asking a public agency that is charged with protecting the welfare of a child to visit the suspicious home from which that has been "evicted" is a reasonable request. Its not about the employees, its about the safety of the child.

Posted by: PracticalIndependent | January 5, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Seems to me asking a public agency that is charged with protecting the welfare of a child to visit the suspicious home from which that has been "evicted" is a reasonable request. Its not about the employees, its about the safety of the child.

Posted by: PracticalIndependent | January 5, 2011 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Mr Foster,

I hope you are aware that mandated reporters are obligated to report even suspected instances of child abuse or neglect. You don't have to be sure that abuse or neglect are taking place, and there is no penalty for making a report in good faith that turns out to be unsubstantiated. When you thought the children in the home were in danger of abuse or neglect because of some suspicious reports and behavior about their mom - you absolutely should have made a report.

I am disappointed that misinformation would be printed in the Post about this issue.

Posted by: postreader123 | January 5, 2011 5:18 PM | Report abuse

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