By Ashley Strange*
Six years is more than enough time to learn how foster care operates. Surviving it is another thing. I entered the foster care system at the age of 15, one month before my 16th birthday, and was emancipated six years later. Year one in the system left me confused. Who were these strangers I am being told to live with? Year two was when I lost hope of living with my family. Separation and unintentional isolation will change anyone’s behavior. Year three is when things started to look hopeful because I had finally settled into a loving home. Year four I found my voice. I started demanding my clothing and transportation stipends, and advocated for the Youth Bill of Rights to be provided to every foster home. Year five is when the fear of emancipation struck hard. With no immediate family support, I became depressed and worried about homelessness. Year six, I finally cracked. I was aging out of foster care and I was afraid of what adulthood would bring. The struggle to maintain grades, travel across town to school, have enough money, and find housing in an overpopulated and expensive city is enough to drive anyone crazy, but I survived. It is because of my story that any significant changes that deal with child welfare concern me.
Child and Family Services Agency
Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) is the District of Columbia’s child welfare agency that protects child victims and children and youth at risk of abuse and neglect, and assist their families. Overall, CFSA currently serves 2,675 children and youth: 951 (36%) youth are in foster care and 1,724 (64%) youth are served in their homes.  CFSA is responsible for investigating allegations of abuse and neglect of children and youth under the age of 18 that are residents of the District of Columbia. When victims of child abuse and neglect are identified, CFSA’s trained social workers work to keep children safe by assisting families and connecting them to services to prevent future endangerment. The agency also provide safe out of home care which involves the temporary removal of a child from a dangerous home with the hope of reestablishing permanent homes.
Youth in care are people too, and they deserve what is owed to them. To ensure that youth are aware of their rights, by law CFSA must provide all youth in care a copy of the Bill of Rights.
Safe Haven Redesign
CFSA’s goal is to continue to reduce the number of children in foster care by increasing placement in homes, reunification with the child’s family, guardianship, and adoption. Recently, CFSA’s Director Brenda Donald announced significant changes to the agency. She proposed a Safe Haven Redesign which will reduce foster care providers from seven to one, eliminate the traditional and therapeutic designation, bring all D.C. foster homes under direct care of CFSA, and ensure that the entire system is trauma-informed. In early March 2017, CFSA released a Request for Proposals (RFP), which solicited applications for services of a contractor to provide foster care placement and case management services for approximately four-hundred (400) children and youth in foster care who will be placed in Maryland only. For more information, please view Safe Haven Redesign Request For Proposal (RFP). The RFP closed on last Friday. A few providers have applied.
Safe and Stable Families Redesign
Additionally, CFSA plans to leverage the fiscal flexibility of the Title IV-E Waiver to spend more funding on community-based prevention and family-strengthening services rather than foster care resources due to the reduced number of children and youth in foster care. CFSA hopes to revamp their prevention and in-home services for families to stay together in a safe environment.
Concerns about the changes
On April 7, 2017, Mayor Bowser released her proposed fiscal year 2018 budget for CFSA. The Mayor’s proposal allocates $226,485,929 for CFSA’s budget in fiscal year 2018, which is a $6,143,893 reduction from fiscal year 2017. Though these redesigns could bring about some benefits, I am concerned that the current proposed budget does not provide CFSA with adequate funding to properly implement these changes or to respond to unanticipated challenges. CFSA has maintained that the reductions in the budget corresponds with the decrease in the number of youth involved in the foster care system. However, this theory may backfire on them.
I am also concerned about the timing of these changes. In 2015, CFSA experienced a shortage of foster care placements when the agency terminated two contracts that placed children in homes. In CFSA’s FY2016-2017 pre-performance oversight responses, CFSA alluded to the fact that the agency is still experiencing difficulty when it stated it “continues to refine the process of matching children entering care to available foster care homes.” 11 children in out-of-home care slept overnight at CFSA’s offices while awaiting a licensed placement in fiscal year 2016. In fiscal year 2017, 6 children slept overnight in an office. Although some of these instances were exceptional cases, they still underscore the difficulties that the agency experiences placing children, especially youth in certain sub-populations: teens, pregnant and or parenting youth, or youth with special needs. Only 25 % of foster children are expected to be placed with kin by the end of this year. I experienced this shortage first hand.
In 2015, my second foster home allowed me to stay there as long as I needed while completing school. However, CFSA began pressuring my foster parent to take in another child immediately. My foster parent became overwhelmed with the number of calls she received. I began to receive calls asking about my housing plan and was provided a list of shelters. I made the decision to leave and entered a transitional living home, named Wayne’s Place.
Two years ago, Mayor Bowser and Director Donald announced the opening of a new transitional home for youth between the ages of 18 and 24. The Wayne’s Place Project is a partnership between CFSA and the Department of Behavioral Health that is managed by the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative. Wayne Place is a complex of six buildings with 22 two-bedroom apartments that can house up to 44 youth. It receives an annual funding of $1,015,250. The program was designed to help young adults who need support to live independently and succeed.
I lived in Wayne’s Place in my sixth year, from September 2015 to March 2017. When I first entered the transitional home at the age of 21, the security guards consistently made inappropriate comments to me. Additionally, some of security guards were engaging in inappropriate relationships with some of the young women there. Both issues were more or less taken care of after I testified before the Committee on Health and Human Services on March 3 2016. Still, Transitioned Aged Youth (TAYs) complain about unprofessional staff. Many of the female TAYs continue to express to me that they feel uncomfortable, and several have left the program. Additionally, TAYs voice frustration that their caseworkers did not provide enough housing and employment support. Thankfully, I had great caseworkers who supported me. The idea of Wayne’s Place is good idea in theory, but there still remains a lot of unresolved issues that need to be addressed. Their goal to transition youth to middle-class, for the most part, is proving more difficult than they had hoped.
The Mayor’s FY18 proposed budget insufficiently provides tutoring services for youth in care. In a letter to Director Donald, Councilmember Grosso asked about the agency’s budget plans, and funding for tutoring services for youth. Director Donald responded that the “proposed budget is sufficient to improve the educational progress” of their children. However, I disagree.
Just a few years ago when I requested tutoring services for a college course, I was denied and told to used my school’s services. When I explained that the process to request a tutor at the school would take time, and that I desperately needed one now, I was provided a tutor who could not help me.
Similarly, when I first entered foster care my foster family grew impatient with waiting for the agency to respond to tutoring requests and eventually paid for outside tutoring services. My math and reading tutors came three times a week for two hours each. These tutoring sessions allowed me to make up what I missed in elementary and middle school. Eventually, the cost became too much for them to pay. My foster family was very frustrated that they were never reimbursed for services the agency were supposed to provide.
I am grateful that the Committee on Human Services added $250,000 for increased tutoring services when they unanimously voted on the budget on Wednesday, May 17, 2017. I believe this additional funding is sorely needed. I am also pleased that the Committee provided $500,000 additional dollars for rapid housing. I would have liked to take advantage of this program but I was told by an officer at the Office of Youth and Empowerment that 23 years olds could not receive these vouchers, which is unfair.
In closing, my time in care was not all horrible. Without services like the Education Training Voucher (ETV), a college scholarship for youth foster care, and Capital Area Asset Builder, a match savings program, I would not have been able to graduate debt-free or pay my first month’s rent. Now I am a college graduate with full time employment. No system or organization is perfect, but if CFSA wants to reach their goal of protecting and serving all youth under their care they need to do three things: improve, improve, and improve!
*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso.
 Pg. 3. March 1, 2017. Fiscal Year 2016 CFSA Performance Oversight Hearing: Testimony of Brenda Donald, Acting Director of CFSA
 February 21, 2017. CFSA Performance Oversight Hearing FY2016 2017 (First Quarter) p. 113
 Ibid p. 117
 Ibid p. 111