Loose Lips

Child-Welfare Director Responds To City Paper Cover Story

For more than a year, I'd been reporting out my cover story on residential treatment centers in secret. I hung out with and interviewed a ward of the District. I spoke with advocates, scholars, and bureaucrats in places like Tennessee and Wisconsin. I spent a day learning about how troubled kids' cases are handled in Hampton, Va.

In each instance, I felt free to bring up the case of the city ward I'd been following.

I sympathized with Jumiya Crump, the then-16 year old I was chronicling. The other officials, the ones outside the District, did too. They were uniformly surprised that this teenager had relatives willing to take her in—and that she was nonetheless forced to live in a costly residential facility. As for the District officials actually in charge of her case? I wasn't allowed to talk to them about Jumiya.

You see, the District government only allows reporters to interview child-welfare kids under the strictest conditions. City minders would have to handpick the kids and they would have to sit in on the interviews. This might be the worst possible way to get an accurate read on one of the city's most troubled agencies.

Late Friday afternoon, a day after my piece ran, I'd heard that the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) had launched an investigation into who leaked information to me. So I called the agency to find out what was going. When I asked about this alleged leak case, the agency's spokesperson Mindy Good replied: "We'll get back to you."

About an hour later, CFSA Director Roque Gerald called me.

Gerald denied that there was any such leak investigation going on. But he did say he was looking into Jumiya's case. "I have done a top-to-bottom review," he said. "She is a child who is needing some real support." And that's all he would say.

Matthew I. Fraidin, an associate professor at UDC's David A. Clarke School of Law, sees the irony in Gerald's sudden top-down review: "While Jumiya's life was kept secret, she was ignored and mistreated in every imaginable way," he says. "This is not just about Jumiya.  There are thousands of children in D.C. foster care, and we don't know anything about any of them.  It is long past time for the D.C. Council to take the simple action that more than 20 states have taken: open Family Court and let children's stories be told."

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.

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  • DC Resident

    Wow!!! Sad but True-
    Great Job once again Jason...! Please keep the hard hitting stories coming.

  • jholderbaum

    "There are thousands of children in D.C. foster care, and we don't know anything about any of them." There are thousands of young people like Jumiya in foster care across the U.S. being mistreated and ignored behind the veil of confidentialy. Thousands of infants stolen from mothers. Thousands of children exposed to sexual abuse in foster care. Thousands of children used in servitude in foster care. Thousands of children brutalized in foster care. How many murdered in foster care? I don't even know where to find those numbers. But I do know that if you google child+foster+death you can see their faces and read their stories. There are approximately 500,000 children in foster care nationwide. But there is no way to determine why they are there, if they even need to be there, why they are not in kinship care, whether their families were given due process under the law, whether any crime was committed... the list goes on, the questions remain unanswered because everything is hidden behind that damned veil of confidentiality. We need to open the family courts to the press and public for the sake of these children and all children and their families.

  • Zelda

    I'm an advocate for open government but I am perplexed by the law professor's lack of concern for confidentiality in these matters. Sure, someone is entitled to waive that confidentiality and I'm guessing that Mr. Cherkis got a legal waiver from her guardian. There are many ways to ensure oversight and transparency in actions of government and in these particular cases, the involvement of guardian ad litem, attorneys, the Courts and outside Court monitors create checks and balances. Perhaps Mr. Cherkis' future stories in this series will report where these people stood in her case since I'm sure that is also a story to tell. As a parent of minor children, albeit not kids who are involved in the child welfare system, I would want to have involvement in ensuring that discussions with reporters and Court personnel were made with appropriate protections - not the least my involvement or approval as the parent. Children in the child welfare system should not have FEWER privacy and confidentiality concerns than others.

  • OpenDCUp

    Agreed: "It is long past time for the D.C. Council to take the simple action that more than 20 states have taken: open Family Court and let children's stories be told."

    The misuse of the confidentiality laws have produced a really bad CFSA agency that has no transparency and thus no oversight -- even in situations where parents seek to know what is going on and there is obviously no threat from releasing the information to those parents. This agency misuses the confidentiality statutes to completely avoid any oversight and embarrassment-- to the extreme. Dr. Roque Gerald's administration has been particularly draconian in its misapplication of the confidentiality provisions to avoid embarrassment of his agencies performance by barring release of almost any and all information in the agency's possession and any person -- even to the child's own parents!

    DC City Council...it is time to act...get rid of the current CFSA administration and clean up the confidentiality laws so the next CFSA administration can't misuse them any more to cover up incompetence and corruption in the protection of DC's kids.

  • http://www.nccpr.org Richard Wexler

    Zelda, your concerns are understandable, but misplaced. Somewhere between 15 and 20 states have opened these hearings since 1980 – and not one has closed them again. Even in states where only a few courts were opened as a pilot project, they then were opened statewide because the fears you express didn’t materialize. All over the country, onetime opponents of opening these hearings have become converts to the cause.

    Opening courts hasn’t magically transformed any systems either. But it’s brought modest improvements to some, and dramatically improved outcomes in individual cases.

    In Los Angeles, where current and former foster youth put out their own newspaper, LA Youth, they’ve come out in favor of opening court hearings in California because they know better than anyone that confidentiality doesn’t protect them, it protects the system that did them harm. And they understand exactly the point Prof. Fraidin made: Leaders at CFSA are a lot more concerned about Jumiya Crump now that her story has been in CityPaper than they ever were before.

    The former Chief Judge of New York’s highest court, who opened these hearings in that state, put it best: “Sunshine is good for children.”

    Details are in a publication on our website. Since the comment form here won't accept links, I have to ask you to do a Google search for the site and then click on the link called "Solutions: Due Process."

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
    Alexandria VA

  • Zelda

    Thank you, Mr. Wexler. I see your point. Question: wouldn't the opening of hearings and files in jurisdictions such as DC require legislation? I know that in some places, juvenile proceedings, for instance, are not open and are confidential by statute or local ordinance. What is the status in Maryland, Virginia and the District? Are there any moves afoot to try to open juvenile and child welfare hearings in any of these jurisdictions?

  • http://www.nccpr.org Richard Wexler

    Good question. I'm not a lawyer so I can't offer a definite answer. My understanding is that courts can be opened either by chief judges of court systems, as happened in New York, or it can be done by legislation as happened, for example, in Missouri.

    My impression is that opening these hearings in DC is getting some serious discussion in DC government; I've heard nothing about it in Maryland and Virginia.

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
    Alexandria VA

  • DC Respected Common People

    How many youth in foster care exist, is a human and tax paying inquiry. Moreso, what legislative oversights has Tommy Wells failed to employ as the former Chairperson of Human Services that's been handed down to Jim Grahman.

    Remember, the majority of youth still in DC that fall under this level of service are Blacks, making this a non caring issue for well or graham

    Not excluding, the Courts systems that fail Blacks and other minorities in DC because these Judges have no moral religion nor spirtual bye-ins, its' their job to keep the Sunshine on Black foster children and youth.

  • WardResident

    At best, the CFSA is guilty of benign neglect. At worst, it intentionally fails to do its job and traffics defenseless kids. It is well established that CFSA has selectively chosen where to find abuse/neglect and where not to. Destroying families in mostly black wards of the city, while ignoring abuse/neglect in mostly white neighborhoods (e.g., Ward 3).

  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=326364429203 Susan Lawrence

    I hope Virginia will consider open family court. What is happening to children in the name of "treatment" in Virginia is criminal. If citizens could see and hear the stories they would be outraged. Unreasonable search and seizure is the norm in Virginia, but it is not your guns they are coming after, it's your children, but only if you are poor, uneducated, or struggling with issues yourself, or if the child is in foster care, intellectually disabled, or autistic (because those are the kids who can't report what happens or have no one to listen to them.) The CSA/Comprehensive Services Act in Virginia was created to line the pockets of everyone, without actually helping the children at all. Because if the kids got better, the money would stop rolling in to communities for "case management" and "oversight." I am sure whether Jumiya is in the system or not, getting better or not, living in a safe placement or not, D.C. is getting paid everyday for their oversight and care of her, more money than they would make if she was placed with the one family member, her aunt, who wants to provide her with a home.

  • Zelda

    Mr. Wexler,

    I've done a little research and learned that, at least in the District of Columbia, opening the Courts will take, literally, an Act of Congress. Since the District has no statehood rights, and since Eleanor Holmes Norton has now been stripped of even Committee voting rights, the opening of the District courts by Congress, as it's presently composed, may not be in the cards at this time. Lobbying Congress for opening the Courts, however, may serve not only the District but other states as well if there is some ability to pass federal legislation that will not be a federalism concern. Just FYI and perhaps a cause that your organization could consider sponsoring . . .

  • AW

    You are actually breaking laws by publishing details of this case. There are intimate and sensitive issues discussed in child abuse and neglect cases that should not be aired in public. Her mother certainly has a cause of action against you and you have likely caused "your source" to lose a job. The irony really is that you could have simply contacted both CFSA and DMH to learn about the procedure for RTC generally. Then you would have realized that your research was very flawed. They have been using the methods you suggest for at least 2.5 years. Your story reads like fiction and it's sad that Jumiya and her mother's relationship has likely worsened.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com Jason Cherkis

    Wow Anonymous! So nice of you to grace us with your presence. I stand by the numbers in my story. And I stand by my story. I interviewed several people associated with Jumiya's case--including gov. workers and her mother. Jumiya is quite happy with the story. Her relationship with her mother is the same as it was two years ago when she came into care. The story is far from fiction as it is documented throughout.

    One last thing: The only way an issue like RTCs or CFSA ever should be told is through the kids in care. Too often, people like you make the case that stories hurt children. No, the kids I've interviewed are desperate to be heard, are desperate to be listened to. Every kid has a right to be heard--it's called free speech.

    If their social worker actually returned their calls, actually gave them a voice at family-team meetings (which really don't quite happen as advertised), and actually provided quality services to them them, there would be no need for cover stories about the city's social-safety net. And there would be no need for another year in the decades long federal class-action case.

  • Aw

    J.c., you are such a liar. You have never had occasion to participate in one these meetings to know whether or not Jumiya or other children's voices are considered. The supposed government workers you allegedly spoke to (prior to writing your story?)......laughable. Did you interview any judicial officers, the clc, core service agency providers generally about their opinions? Probably not because then this story would not fit into the fictional, black &white story you have crafted with your numbers. Nice try....justifying your lack of research by saying you are restricted by confidentially. Any of these people would have been happy to speak about this generally. The word is that Jumiya is behind bars so I'm sure she's blissfully happy. I also havent seen anything from her mother saying that she cooperated with your story. Painting Dr. Gerald as the villain is also comical because CFSA does not have the authority to send a child to RTC without DMH. If RTC is so uniformly bad then you need to also blame DMH for signing off. If jumiya's mom is so bad then blame DMH for insisting on her involvement without any accountability on her part. What powder puff reporting you have done! But what do you care. You're likely on your way to a book deal. Next time do better research so that that you can really serve kids like Jumiya and effectively discuss the complicated challenges involved in this process.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com Jason Cherkis

    I interviewed three sources familiar with Jumiya's case including two that were part of her team at one point or another. I interviewed Jumiya's mother three times and spent several hours with her. Jumiya's mother gave me permission to use the e-mails. I also spent more than a year following Jumiya. I interviewed several officials at DMH. I interviewed Roque Gerald at CFSA. My RTC data was gathered from CFO documents and CFSA documents.

    I attended a family team meeting recently for another teen. CFSA knows this. Two CFSA supervisors were at the meeting.

    Again, I stand my reporting on this.