Testimony Before the Council of the District of Columbia Committee on Facilities & Family Services at the Performance Oversight Hearing on the Child and Family Services Agency Office of the Ombudsperson for Children

Feb 27, 2023

Good afternoon Chairperson Lewis George and members of the Committee. My name is Tameria Lewis, and I’m the Senior Director of Government Affairs at the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that every student can choose high-quality public schools that prepare them for lifelong success. I also grew up in foster care and it’s no exaggeration when I say teachers saved my life. That’s why I’ve spent my career working in education and public policy. I know firsthand how critical teachers and other school staff are in creating safe spaces that give students the courage to ask for help when they’re experiencing danger at home. I also know firsthand how important it is for school staff to have access to effective child welfare systems that promptly respond and center the students’ safety and emotional wellbeing.

I’m here today to advocate for additional staffing and resources for CFSA and to share three specific challenges our schools are encountering and ways CFSA can address these challenges moving forward: (1) providing clarity and commitment on expected response times when mandated reporters make a referral, (2) reinforcing the roles and responsibilities of CFSA vs. schools, and (3) committing to specific steps, including safety checks, when schools refer students for chronic truancy.

Provide Clarity and Commitment on Expected Response Times

First, we want to ensure CFSA has adequate resources and staffing so that when a school makes a call, there is clarity on action steps and a firm commitment on expected response times. In cases where a student has disclosed abuse to school staff, we feel strongly that such procedures should include a trained CFSA professional examining and interviewing that student prior to directing school staff to send the student home.

Reinforce Roles & Responsibilities of Agency vs. Schools

Second, we want to make sure that the roles and responsibilities of CFSA and schools are clearly defined and consistently executed. One school leader told us they feel far less sure today than they ever have about what the school’s role is vs. what CFSA’s role is when it comes to investigating a student’s situation. Consistent with mandated reporter training, we need CFSA to reinforce that our schools’ only job is to report suspected abuse or neglect, while the agency’s job is to promptly investigate and propose the next steps.

Commit to Specific Steps, Including Safety Checks, in Chronic Truancy Cases

Third, school leaders are concerned that CFSA isn’t consistently following up on chronic truancy cases when a school has taken all required steps and made a referral. We’re asking for commitments from CFSA on the specific actions they will take when schools refer students for chronic truancy, emphasizing when and how a safety check will be conducted. This commitment is essential in cases involving older students.

Lastly, we know that too many students and families are struggling and in need of a variety of services and supports in order to avoid further system involvement and family separation. These families as well as those referred to CFSA for chronic truancy are often referred for services to a variety of agencies and organizations. As we raised in our testimony a few weeks ago at an oversight hearing on the Department of Behavioral Health, navigating the complex systems and processes required to access services without proper assistance is extremely challenging for these families. We urge the Council to support more widely accessible personalized wrap-around case management services for our students and families who need them most.

Moving Forward

We understand that many of these challenges may be related to staffing shortages for social workers and other mental health providers at the very moment when the need for such services has greatly intensified as a result of the pandemic. We are eager to work with CFSA and our schools to identify solutions to these challenges and we are pleased to be facilitating a conversation between schools and CFSA leadership in the coming weeks. We’re also grateful for the steps the Council has already taken to improve services for our most vulnerable students by creating the Office of the Ombudsperson for Children. We’re working with our schools to ensure they know this office is a resource when encountering concerns with CFSA.

We look forward to continuing our work together to keep students safe and ensure they are well cared for so they can learn productively while in school.

Thank you for your time and attention, and I welcome your questions.