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Testimony:

Before the House Committee on Government Reform, House of 
Representatives:

United States General Accounting Office:

GAO:

For Release on Delivery Expected at 10:00 a.m. EDT:

Friday, April 23, 2004:

D.C. FAMILY COURT:

Operations and Case Management Have Improved, but Critical Issues 
Remain:

Statement of Cornelia M. Ashby, Director, Education, Workforce, and 
Income Security Issues:

GAO-04-685T:

GAO Highlights:

Highlights of -GAO-04-685T, a testimony before the Chairman, Committee 
on Government Reform, House of Representatives 

Why GAO Did This Study:

The Family Court, established by the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001, 
was created in part to transition the former Family Division of the 
D.C. Superior Court into a court solely dedicated to matters 
concerning children and families. The act required the transfer of 
abuse and neglect cases by October 2003 and the implementation of case 
management practices to expedite their resolution in accordance with 
timeframes established by the Adoptions and Safe Families Act of 1997 
(ASFA); a plan for space, equipment, and other needs; and that the 
Superior Court integrate its computer systems with those of other D.C. 
agencies. The act also reformed court practices and established 
procedures intended to improve interactions between the court and 
social service agencies in the District. One such agency, the Child 
and Family Services Agency (CFSA), is responsible for protecting 
children at risk of abuse and neglect and ensuring that services are 
provided for them and their families. Both social service agencies and 
the courts play an important role in addressing child welfare issues.

Representative Tom Davis, Chairman of the House Committee on 
Government Reform, asked GAO to assess the Family Court’s efforts to 
comply with ASFA requirements and the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001, 
and its efforts to improve communication with CFSA.

What GAO Found:

The Family Court met timeframes for transferring cases and decreased 
the timeframes for resolving abuse and neglect cases. As of October 
2003, only 34 of the approximately 3,500 cases that were to be 
transferred to the Family Court from other divisions of the Superior 
Court remained outside the Family Court. For children removed from 
their homes, the median days to begin disposition hearings declined by 
202 days to 39 days, or about 84 percent between 2001 and 2003. 
However, the Family Court has not met the ASFA requirement to hold 
permanency hearings within 12 months of a child’s placement in foster 
care for all cases. Timely permanency hearings were held for 25 
percent of cases in March 2001 and 55 percent in September 2002. 

Percent of Cases Complying with ASFA’s Permanency Hearing Requirement 
(March 2001 through September 2002): 

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Support from Family Court judges and top CFSA management has been a key 
factor in improving the working relationship between CFSA and the 
Family Court. However, Family Court judges and CFSA officials noted 
several hindrances that constrain their working relationship. For 
example, some CFSA caseworkers said that some Family Court judges 
overruled their service recommendations. 

Progress has also been made in acquiring permanent space for the Family 
Court and exchanging data with District agencies. According to the 
Chief Judge of the Superior Court, all public functions of the Family 
Court and 76 percent of the support functions will be consolidated in 
the new space. The construction project is scheduled for completion in 
2009 and will require timely renovations in existing court buildings. 
To comply with the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001, the Superior Court 
and the District are exchanging some data and making progress toward 
developing the ability to exchange other data. In August 2003, the 
Superior Court began using a new computer system and is providing CFSA 
with information on scheduled court proceedings. Further, the District 
has developed a model to enable the exchange of data among several 
District agencies, but it has not yet resolved many critical systems 
issues.

What GAO Recommends:

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-GAO-04-685T. To view the full product, 
including the scope and methodology, click on the link above. For more 
information, contact Cornelia M. Ashby at (202) 512-8403 or 
Ashbyc@gao.gov.

[End of section]

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

I am pleased to be here today to assist the Committee in its oversight 
of operations and case management at the D.C. Family Court (Family 
Court). The D.C. Family Court Act of 2001[Footnote 1] created the 
Family Court in part to transition the former Family Division of the 
D.C. Superior Court into a court solely dedicated to matters concerning 
children and families. Child abuse and neglect, juvenile delinquency, 
domestic violence, and child support are some of the issues that fall 
under the jurisdiction of the Family Court. To assist the Family Court 
in handling such matters, the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001 included 
authorization for the Family Court to hire associate judges and 
magistrate judges[Footnote 2] with expertise in family law and required 
that the Family Court develop a transition plan to transfer all family-
related cases from other divisions of the Superior Court into the 
Family Court and implement various case management practices to 
expedite their resolution in accordance with timeframes established by 
the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997(ASFA). [Footnote 3] The D.C. 
Family Court Act of 2001 also required that the Superior Court 
integrate its computer system with those of relevant District agencies 
to share information regarding children and families.

My testimony will focus on the Family Court's timeliness in 
transferring family-related cases from other divisions of the Superior 
Court to the Family Court and in meeting ASFA timeframes for resolving 
abuse and neglect cases, and the working relationship between the 
Family Court and D.C. Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA). I will 
also discuss two related, but longer-term efforts--the acquisition of 
permanent physical space for the Family Court and the sharing of data 
between the Superior Court and District agencies.

My comments today are based primarily on our January 2004 
congressionally mandated report on the Family Court's progress in 
implementing its transition.[Footnote 4] In doing the work for that 
report, we analyzed data provided by the Family Court on the status of 
child abuse and neglect cases transferred into the Family Court from 
judges presiding elsewhere in the Superior Court and the Family Court's 
timeliness in resolving these and other abuse and neglect cases. We 
also reviewed documents regarding the acquisition of permanent physical 
space for the Family Court and documents related to integrating the 
computer systems of the Superior Court and the District and interviewed 
relevant District, Superior Court, and Family Court officials as well 
as child welfare and court experts. For that report and this testimony, 
we focused on abuse and neglect cases because of congressional interest 
and the former Family Division's past problems in handling such cases. 
We conducted our work for the January 2004 report between April and 
December 2003 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing 
standards. My comments on the working relationship between the Family 
Court and CFSA are based on interviews we had with Family Court judges 
and CFSA executives, managers, and supervisors for the report that we 
issued in May 2003, at the request of this committee, on CFSA's 
performance.[Footnote 5] We conducted our work for that report between 
September 2002 and May 2003 in accordance with generally accepted 
government auditing standards.

In summary, the Family Court has made progress in complying with the 
child welfare provisions of the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001. The 
Family Court met established timeframes for transferring cases into the 
Family Court and decreased the timeframes for resolving abuse and 
neglect cases. As of October 2003, only 34 of approximately 3,500 cases 
that were to be transferred to the Family Court from other divisions of 
the Superior Court remained outside the Family Court and had not been 
closed. Similarly, the working relationship between the Family Court 
and CFSA has improved. Support from Family Court judges and top CFSA 
management has been a key factor in this improvement; however, Family 
Court judges and CFSA officials noted several hindrances that constrain 
their working relationship. Further, progress has been made in the 
procurement of permanent space for the Family Court, and the Superior 
Court and the District are exchanging some data and making progress 
toward developing a broader capability to exchange data from their 
respective information systems to comply with the D.C. Family Court Act 
of 2001.

Background:

The D.C. Family Court Act of 2001 fundamentally changed the way the 
Superior Court handled its family cases. One of the central organizing 
principles for establishing the Family Court was the one family/one 
judge case management concept, whereby the same judge handles all 
matters related to one family. To support the implementation of the 
Family Court a total of about $30 million in federal funds was budgeted 
to fund the Family Court's transition from fiscal years 2002 through 
2004.

Several federal and District laws set timeframes for handling abuse and 
neglect proceedings. The D.C. Family Court Act of 2001, which 
consolidated all abuse and neglect cases in the Family Court, required 
that all pending abuse and neglect cases assigned to judges outside the 
Family Court be transferred to the Family Court by October 2003. 
Additionally, ASFA requires each child to have a permanency hearing 
within 12 months of the child's entry into foster care, defined as the 
earlier of the following two dates: (1) the date of the first judicial 
finding that the child has been subjected to child abuse or neglect or 
(2) the date that is 60 days after the date on which the child is 
removed from the home. The purpose of the permanency hearing is to 
decide the goal for where the child will permanently reside and set a 
timetable for achieving the goal. Permanency may be accomplished 
through reunification with a parent, adoption, guardianship, or some 
other permanent placement arrangement. To ensure that abuse and neglect 
cases are properly managed, the Council for Court Excellence, at the 
request of Congress, evaluates Family Court data on these 
cases.[Footnote 6]

It is important that District social service agencies and the Family 
Court receive and share information they need on the children and 
families they serve. For example, CFSA caseworkers need to know from 
the court the status of a child's case, when a hearing is scheduled, 
and a judge's ruling. The Family Court needs case history information 
from caseworkers, such as whether services have been provided and if 
there is evidence of abuse or neglect. According to District officials, 
current plans to exchange information between the Superior Court and 
District agencies and among District agencies are estimated to cost 
about $66 million, of which about $22 million would support initiatives 
outlined in the Mayor's plan issued in July 2002.[Footnote 7] According 
to District officials, about $36 million of the $66 million would come 
from capital funds that are currently available; however, they would 
need to seek additional funding for the remaining $30 million. The 
Superior Court's total cost for the system it is using to help the 
Court better manage its caseload and automate the exchange of data with 
District agencies--the Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS)--
is expected to be between $20 million and $25 million, depending on the 
availability of funds for project-related infrastructure improvements 
and other project initiatives. Funding for this project is being made 
available through the capital budget of the D.C. Courts, which is 
comprised of all components of the District's judiciary branch.

The Court Was Timely in Transferring Cases and Conducting Other Court 
Proceedings:

The Family Court met established timeframes for transferring cases into 
the Family Court and decreased the timeframes for resolving abuse and 
neglect cases. While the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001 generally 
required the transfer of abuse and neglect cases to the Family Court by 
October 2003, it also permitted judges outside the Family Court to 
retain certain abuse and neglect cases provided that their retention of 
cases met criteria specified in the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001. 
Specifically, these cases were to remain at all times in full 
compliance with ASFA, and the Chief Judge of the Superior Court must 
determine that the retention of the case would lead to a child's 
placement in a permanent home more quickly than if the case were to be 
transferred to a judge in the Family Court.

In its October 2003 progress report on the implementation of the Family 
Court, the Superior Court reported that it had transferred all abuse 
and neglect cases back to the Family Court, with the exception of 34 
cases, as shown in table 1.[Footnote 8] The Chief Judge of the Superior 
Court said that, as of August 2003, a justification for retaining an 
abuse and neglect case outside the Family Court had been provided in 
all such cases. According to the Superior Court, the principal reason 
for retaining abuse and neglect cases outside the Family Court was a 
determination made by non-Family Court judges that the cases would 
close before December 31, 2002, either because the child would turn 21, 
and thus no longer be under court jurisdiction, or because the case 
would close with a final adoption, custody, or guardianship decree. In 
the court's October 2003 progress report, it stated that the cases 
remaining outside the Family Court involve children with emotional or 
educational disabilities.

Table 1: Status of Abuse and Neglect Cases (Oct. 2003):

Status of Cases: Cases transferred to Family Court judges; 
Number of cases: 3,255; 
Percent of cases: 94.

Status of Cases: Cases retained by judges outside the Family Court and 
closed; 
Number of cases: 182; 
Percent of cases: 5.

Status of Cases: Cases retained by judges outside the Family Court and 
not closed; 
Number of cases: 34; 
Percent of cases: 1.

Total; 
Number of cases: 3,471; 
Percent of cases: 100.

Source: D.C. Superior Court.

[End of table]

While the Superior Court reported that 4 of the 34 abuse and neglect 
cases remaining outside the Family Court had closed subsequent to its 
October 2003 progress report, children in the remaining 30 cases had 
not yet been placed in permanent living arrangements. On average, 
children in these 30 cases are 14 years of age and have been in foster 
care for 8 years, nearly three times the average number of years in 
care for a child in the District. Table 2 provides additional 
information on the characteristics of the 30 cases that remained 
outside the Family Court as of November 2003.

Table 2: Characteristics of Abuse and Neglect Cases Remaining Outside 
the Family Court (Nov. 2003):

Permanency goal: Alternative plan[A]; 
Number of cases (percent): 16 (53%); 
Average age of child: 18; 
Average number of years in care: 10.

Permanency goal: Adoption; 
Number of cases (percent): 11 (37%); 
Average age of child: 9; 
Average number of years in care: 5.

Permanency goal: Reunification; 
Number of cases (percent): 3 (10%); 
Average age of child: 16; 
Average number of years in care: 10.

Total for all cases; 
Number of cases (percent): 30 (100%); 
Average age of child: 14; 
Average number of years in care: 8.

Source: D.C. Superior Court and GAO analysis.

[A] Alternative plans include permanency goals other than 
reunification, adoption, custody, and guardianship, such as independent 
living.

[End of table]

The Superior Court also reported that the Family Court had closed 620 
of the 3,255 transferred cases, or 19 percent. Among the transferred 
cases closed by the Family Court, 77 percent of the 620 cases closed 
when the permanency goal was achieved following reunification of the 
child with a parent, adoption, guardianship, or custody of the child by 
a designated family member or other individual. In most of the 
remaining transferred cases that had closed, the child had reached the 
age of majority, or 21 years of age in the District. Table 3 summarizes 
the reasons for closing abuse and neglect cases transferred to the 
Family Court, as of October 2003.

Table 3: Frequency of Reasons for Closing Abuse and Neglect Cases 
Transferred to the Family Court (Oct. 2003):

Reason for case closure: Permanency goal achieved: Reunification; 
Number of cases: 210; 
Percent of cases: 34.

Reason for case closure: Permanency goal achieved: Adoption; 
Number of cases: 174; 
Percent of cases: 28.

Reason for case closure: Permanency goal achieved: Guardianship; 
Number of cases: 52; 
Percent of cases: 8.

Reason for case closure: Permanency goal achieved: Custody; 
Number of cases: 42; 
Percent of cases: 7.

Reason for case closure: Child reached age of majority (21 years old); 
Number of cases: 79; 
Percent of cases: 13.

Reason for case closure: Emancipated child[A]; 
Number of cases: 43; 
Percent of cases: 7.

Reason for case closure: Court case closed/continued for CFSA 
services[B]; 
Number of cases: 15; 
Percent of cases: 2.

Reason for case closure: Child deceased; 
Number of cases: 5; 
Percent of cases: 1.

Reason for case closure: Total; 
Number of cases: 620; 
Percent of cases: 100. 

Source: D.C. Superior Court.

[A] An emancipated child is a youth who no longer wants, or who refuses 
to accept, services.

[B] Includes cases in which the court has reached an agreement with 
CFSA to continue the provision of services after the court case is 
closed.

[End of table]

In addition to transferred cases, the Family Court is responsible for 
the routine handling of all newly filed cases. For alleged cases of 
abuse and neglect, complainants file a petition with the Family Court 
requesting a review of the allegation. After the filing of the 
petition, the Family Court holds an initial hearing in which it hears 
and rules on the allegation. Following the initial hearing, the court 
may resolve the case through mediation or through a pretrial hearing. 
[Footnote 9] Depending on the course of action that is taken and its 
outcome, several different court proceedings may follow to achieve 
permanency for children, thereby terminating the court's jurisdiction. 
Family Court abuse and neglect proceedings include several key 
activities, such as adjudication, disposition,[Footnote 10] and 
permanency[Footnote 11] hearings. Figure 1 shows the flow of abuse and 
neglect cases through the various case activities handled by the D.C. 
Family Court.

Figure 1: D.C. Family Court Steps for Managing Child Abuse and Neglect 
Cases:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Data provided by the court show that in the last 2 years there has been 
a decrease in the amount of time to begin an adjudication 
hearing[Footnote 12] for children in abuse and neglect cases. Figure 2 
shows median times to begin hearings for children removed from their 
homes and for children not removed from their homes. As required by 
District law, the court must begin the hearing within 105 days for 
children removed from their homes and within 45 days for children not 
removed from their homes. Between 2001 and 2003, the median time to 
begin adjudication hearings in cases when a child was removed from home 
declined by 140 days to 28 days, or about 83 percent. Similarly, the 
decline in timeframes to begin hearings was about as large in cases 
when children remained in their homes. In these cases, median 
timeframes declined by about 90 percent during this same period to 12 
days. While the reduction in timeframes for these hearings began prior 
to the establishment of the Family Court, median days to begin hearings 
for children removed from their homes increased immediately following 
the court's establishment before declining again. According to two 
magistrate judges, the increase in timeframes immediately following 
establishment of the Family Court was attributable to the volume and 
complexity of cases initially transferred to it.

Figure 2: Median Days to Begin Adjudication Hearings for Children 
Removed and Not Removed from Home, January 2001 through May 2003:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Similarly, timeframes to begin disposition hearings, a proceeding that 
occurs after the adjudication hearing and prior to permanency hearings, 
declined between 2001 and 2003, as shown in figure 3. As required by 
District law, the court must begin disposition hearings within 105 days 
for children removed from their homes and within 45 days for children 
not removed from their homes. The median days to begin disposition 
hearings for children removed from their homes declined by 202 days to 
39 days, or about 84 percent, between 2001 and 2003. The median days to 
begin disposition hearings for children not removed from their homes 
declined by 159 days to 42 days, or about 79 percent. Therefore, the 
Superior Court is also within the timeframes required by D.C. law for 
these hearings. While the decline in the timeframes for disposition 
hearings began prior to the Family Court, according to two magistrate 
judges we interviewed, the time required to begin these hearings 
increased in the 7-month period following the establishment of the 
Family Court because of the complexity of these cases.

Figure 3: Median Days to Disposition for Children Removed and Not 
Removed from Home, January 2001 through May 2003:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Despite declines in timeframes to begin adjudication and disposition 
hearings, the Family Court has not achieved full compliance with the 
ASFA requirement to hold permanency hearings within 12 months of a 
child's placement in foster care. The percentage of cases with timely 
permanency hearings increased from 25 percent in March 2001 to 55 
percent in September 2002, as shown in figure 4.[Footnote 13]

Figure 4: Percent of Cases in Compliance with ASFA's Permanency Hearing 
Requirement, March 2001 through September 2002:

[See PDF for image]

Note: These data on ASFA compliance apply to cases filed in 2000 and 
2001 for which 12 months had expired since the time the child was 
placed in foster care.

[End of figure]

Although the presence of additional magistrate judges, primarily hired 
to handle cases transferred into the Family Court from other divisions 
and to improve the court's timeliness in handling its cases, has 
increased the Family Court's ability to process additional cases in a 
timelier manner, court officials said that other factors have also 
improved the court's timeliness. These factors included reminders to 
judges of upcoming permanency hearing deadlines and the use of uniform 
court order forms.

However, other factors continue to impede the Family Court's full 
achievement of ASFA compliance. Some Family Court judges have 
questioned the adequacy of federal ASFA timelines for permanency, 
citing barriers external to the court, which increase the time required 
to achieve permanency. Among these external barriers are lengthy waits 
for housing, which might take up to a year, and the need for parents to 
receive mental health services or substance abuse treatment before they 
can reunite with the child. From January through May 2003, Family Court 
judges reported that parental disabilities, including emotional 
impairments and treatment needs, most often impeded children's 
reunification with their parents. In nearly half of these reported 
instances, the parent needed substance abuse treatment. Procedural 
impediments to achieving reunification included the lack of sufficient 
housing to fully accommodate the needs of the reunified family. With 
regard to adoption and guardianship, procedural impediments included 
the need to complete administrative requirements associated with 
placing children with adoptive families in locations other than the 
District. Financial impediments to permanency included insufficient 
adoption or guardianship subsidies. Table 4 provides additional details 
on impediments to achieving permanency goals.

Table 4: Impediments to Permanency by Current Permanency Goal, January 
through May 2003:

Barriers to permanency: Permanency options declined; 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 8 (1%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 19 (1%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 3 (0%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 0 (0%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 101 (10%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 2 (4%); 
Total hearings: 133 (3%).

Barriers to permanency: Disabilities (child); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 340 (24%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 313 (19%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 96 (11%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 8 (11%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 409 (39%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 12 (23%); 
Total hearings: 1,178 (23%).

Barriers to permanency: Disabilities (parent/ caretaker%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 531 (37%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 36 (2%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 54 (6%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 8 (11%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 19 (2%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 4 (8%); 
Total hearings: 652 (13%).

Barriers to permanency: Procedural impediments; 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 205 (14%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 824 (51%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 456 (52%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 45 (59%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 12 (1%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 15 (28%); 
Total hearings: 1,557 (30%).

Barriers to permanency: Agency impediments; 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 32 (2%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 193 (12%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 57 (7%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 8 (11%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 28 (3%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 1 (2%); 
Total hearings: 319 (6%).

Barriers to permanency: Financial impediments; 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 1 (0%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 78 (5%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 91 (10%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 0 (0%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 0 (0%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 3 (6%); 
Total hearings: 173 (3%).

Barriers to permanency: Legal impediments; 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 19 (1%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 14 (1%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 12 (1%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 3(4%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 23 (2%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 1 (2%); 
Total hearings: 72 (1%).

Barriers to permanency: Other circumstances; 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 305 (21%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 148 (9%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 107 (12%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 4 (5%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 466 (44%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 15 (28%); 
Total hearings: 1,045 (20%).

Barriers to permanency: Total[C]; 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Reunification: 1,441(100%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Adoption: 1,625 (100%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Guardianship: 876 (99%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Custody: 76 (101%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Alternative plan[B]: 1,058 (101%); 
Current permanency goal (percent of hearings in which 
barrier impeded permanency)[A]: Goal not designated: 53 (101%); 
Total hearings: 5,129 (99%). 

Source: D.C. Superior Court.

[A] Associate and magistrate judges reported barriers to specified 
permanency goals using a questionnaire distributed by the Family Court. 
Judges reported information on barriers to permanency in 74 percent of 
the hearings held between January and May 2003.

[B] Alternative plans include permanency goals other than 
reunification, adoption, custody, and guardianship, such as independent 
living.

[C] All percentages do not add to 100 due to rounding error.

[End of table]

Associate judges we interviewed cited additional factors that impeded 
the achievement of the appropriate foster care placements and timely 
permanency goals. For example, one judge said that the District's Youth 
Services Administration inappropriately placed a 16-year old boy in the 
juvenile justice system because CFSA had not previously petitioned a 
neglect case before the Family Court. As a result, the child 
experienced a less appropriate and more injurious placement in the 
juvenile justice system than what the child would have experienced had 
he been appropriately placed in foster care. In other cases, an 
associate judge has had to mediate disputes among District agencies 
that did not agree with court orders to pay for services for abused and 
neglected children, further complicating and delaying the process for 
providing needed services and achieving established permanency goals.

To assist the Family Court in its management of abuse and neglect 
cases, the Family Court transition plan required magistrate judges to 
preside over abuse and neglect cases transferred from judges in other 
divisions of the Superior Court, and these judges absorbed a large 
number of those cases. In addition, magistrate judges, teamed with 
associate judges under the one family/one judge concept, had 
responsibility for assisting the Family Court in resolving all new 
abuse and neglect cases. Both associate and magistrate judges cited 
other factors that have affected the court's ability to fully implement 
the one family/one judge concept and achieve the potential efficiency 
and effectiveness that could have resulted. For example, the Family 
Court's identification of all cases involving the same child depends on 
access to complete, timely, and accurate data in IJIS. In addition, 
Family Court judges said that improvements in the timeliness of the 
court's proceedings depends, in part, on the continuous assignment of 
the same caseworker from CFSA to a case and sufficient support of an 
assigned assistant corporation counsel from the District's Office of 
Corporation Counsel. Family Court judges said the lack of consistent 
support from a designated CFSA caseworker and lack of Assistant 
Corporation counsels, have in certain cases, prolonged the time 
required to conduct court proceedings.

In addition, several judges and court officials told us that they do 
not have sufficient support personnel to allow the Family Court to 
manage its caseload more efficiently. For example, additional courtroom 
clerks and court aids could improve case flow and management in the 
Family Court. These personnel are needed to update automated data, 
prepare cases for the court, and process court documentation. Under 
contract with the Superior Court, Booz Allen Hamilton analyzed the 
Superior Court's staffing resources and needs; this evaluation[Footnote 
14] found that the former Family Division, now designated as the Family 
Court, had the highest need for additional full-time positions to 
conduct its work. Specifically, the analysis found that the Family 
Court had 154 of the 175 full-time positions needed, or a shortfall of 
about 12 percent. Two branches--juvenile and neglect and domestic 
relations--had most of the identified shortfall in full-time positions. 
In commenting on a draft of the January 2004 report, the Superior Court 
said that the Family Court, subsequent to enactment of the D.C. Family 
Court Act of 2001, hired additional judges and support personnel in 
excess of the number identified as needed in the Booz Allen Hamilton 
study to meet the needs of the newly established Family Court. However, 
several branch chiefs and supervisors we interviewed said the Family 
Court still needed additional support personnel to better manage its 
caseload.

The Superior Court has decided to conduct strategic planning efforts 
and re-engineer business processes in the various divisions prior to 
making the commitment to hire additional support personnel. According 
to the Chief Judge of the Superior Court, intervening activities, such 
as the initial implementation of IJIS and anticipated changes in the 
procurement of permanent physical space for the Family Court, have 
necessitated a reassessment of how the court performs its work and the 
related impact of its operations on needed staffing. In September 2003, 
the Superior Court entered into another contract with Booz Allen 
Hamilton to reassess resource needs in light of the implementation of 
the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001. According to the Chief Judge of the 
Superior Court as of April 19, 2004, a final report on these resource 
needs had not been issued.

The Family Court and CFSA Have Improved Their Working Relationship, but 
Hindering Factors Still Exist:

The working relationship between the Family Court and CFSA has 
improved; however, Family Court judges and CFSA officials noted several 
hindrances that constrain their working relationship. They have been 
working together to address some of these hindrances. For example, the 
Family Court and CFSA participate in various planning meetings. In 
addition, Family Court judges and CFSA caseworkers have participated in 
training sessions together. These sessions provide participants with 
information about case management responsibilities and various court 
proceedings, with the intent of improving and enhancing their mutual 
understanding about key issues. Also, since 2002, Office of Corporation 
Counsel attorneys have been located at CFSA and work closely with 
caseworkers--an arrangement that has improved the working relationship 
between CFSA and the Family Court because the caseworkers and the 
attorneys are better prepared for court appearances. Further, the 
Family Court and CFSA communicate frequently about day-to-day 
operations as well as long-range plans involving foster care case 
management and related court priorities, and on several occasions 
expressed their commitment to improving working relationships. To help 
resolve conflicts about ordering services, Family Court judges and CFSA 
caseworkers have participated in sessions during which they share 
information about their respective concerns, priorities, and 
responsibilities in meeting the needs of the District's foster care 
children and their families.

Additionally, CFSA assigned a liaison representative to the Family 
Court who is responsible for working with other District agency liaison 
representatives to assist social workers and case managers in 
identifying and accessing court-ordered services for children and their 
families at the Family Court. The D.C. Family Court Act of 2001 
required the District's Mayor to ensure that representatives of 
appropriate offices, which provide social services and other related 
services to individuals and families served by the Family Court, are 
available on-site at the Family Court to coordinate the provision of 
such services.[Footnote 15] A monthly schedule shows that CFSA, the 
D.C. Department of Health, the D.C. Housing Authority, the D.C. 
Department of Mental Health, Youth Services Administration, and the 
D.C. Public Schools have representatives on-site. [Footnote 16] 
However, the Department of Human Services, the Metropolitan Police 
Department, and the Income Maintenance Administration are not on-site 
but provide support from off-site locations. According to data compiled 
by the liaison office, from February 2003 to March 2004, the office 
made 781 referrals for services. Of these referrals, 300 were for 
special education services, 127 were for substance abuse services and 
121 were related to housing needs.

Hindrances that constrain the working relationship between the Family 
Court and CFSA include the need for caseworkers to balance court 
appearances with other case management duties, an insufficient number 
of caseworkers, caseworkers who are unfamiliar with cases that have 
been transferred to them, and differing opinions about the 
responsibilities of CFSA caseworkers and judges. For example, although 
CFSA caseworkers are responsible for identifying and arranging services 
needed for children and their families, some caseworkers said that some 
Family Court judges overruled their service recommendations. Family 
Court judges told us that they sometimes made decisions about services 
for children because they believe caseworkers did not always recommend 
appropriate ones or provide the court with timely and complete 
information on the facts and circumstances of the case. Furthermore, 
the Presiding Judge of the Family Court explained that it was the 
judges' role to listen to all parties and then make the best decisions 
by taking into account all points of view.

Progress Has Been Made in Procuring Permanent Physical Space for the 
Family Court, but the New Space Will Not Consolidate All Court 
Operations:

The D.C. Courts, comprised of all components of the District's 
judiciary branch, has made progress in procuring permanent space for 
the Family Court, but all Family Court operations will not be 
consolidated under the current plan. To prepare space for the new 
Family Court, the D.C. Courts designated and redesigned space for the 
Family Court, constructed chambers for the new magistrate judges and 
their staff, and relocated certain non-Family Court-related components 
in other buildings, among other actions.

The first phase of the Family Court construction project, scheduled for 
completion in July 2004, will consolidate Family Court support services 
and provide additional courtrooms, hearing rooms, and judges' chambers. 
In addition, the project will provide an expanded Mayor's Liaison 
Office, which coordinates Family Court services for families and 
provides families with information on such services, and a new family 
waiting area, among other facilities.

However, completion of the entire Family Court construction project, 
scheduled for late 2009, will require the timely completion of 
renovations in several court buildings located on the Judiciary Square 
Campus. Because of the historic nature of some of these buildings, the 
Superior Court must obtain necessary approvals for exterior 
modifications from various regulatory authorities, including the 
National Capital Planning Commission. In addition, some actions may 
require environmental assessments and their related formal review 
process.

While many of the Family Court operations will be consolidated in the 
new space, several court functions will remain in other areas. 
According to the Chief Judge of the Superior Court, the new space will 
consolidate all public functions of the Family Court and 76 percent of 
the support functions and associated personnel. The current Family 
Court space plan is an interim plan leading to a larger plan, intended 
to fully consolidate all Family Court and related operations in one 
location, for which the D.C. Courts has requested $6 million for fiscal 
year 2005 to design Family Court space and $57 million for fiscal year 
2006 to construct court facilities. If the D.C. Courts does not receive 
funding for the larger Family Court space plan, it will continue with 
the current interim plan.

The Superior Court and the District Are Making Progress Toward 
Exchanging Data among Their Computer Systems, but the District Has Not 
Resolved Several Critical Issues:

The Superior Court and the District of Columbia are exchanging some 
data and making progress toward developing a broader capability to 
share data among their respective information systems.[Footnote 17] In 
August 2003, the Superior Court began using IJIS to automate the 
exchange of data with District agencies, such as providing CFSA and the 
Office of the Corporation Counsel with information on the date, time, 
and location of scheduled court proceedings. CFSA managers said that 
scheduling of court hearings has improved. Scheduling information 
allows caseworkers to plan their case management duties such that they 
do not conflict with court appearances. Further, the District's Office 
of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), responsible for leading the 
information technology development for the District's data exchange 
effort, has developed a prototype, or model, to enable the exchange of 
data among the police department, social service agencies, and the 
Superior Court.

While the District has made progress, it has not yet fully addressed or 
resolved several critical issues we reported in August 2002.[Footnote 
18] These issues include the need to specify the integration 
requirements of the Superior Court and District agencies and to resolve 
privacy restrictions and data quality issues among District agencies. 
The District is preparing plans and expects to begin developing a data 
sharing capability and data warehouses to enable data sharing among 
CFSA, the Department of Human Services' Youth Services Administration, 
the Department of Mental Health, and the Family Court in 2004. 
According to the Program Manager, OCTO will work to resolve the issues 
we raised in our August 2002 report and incorporate the solutions into 
its plans.

Conclusions:

While the Superior Court, the Family Court, and the District have made 
progress in implementing the D.C. Family Court Act of 2001, several 
issues continue to affect the court's progress in meeting all 
requirements of the act. Several barriers, such as a lack of substance 
abuse services, hinder the court's ability to more quickly process 
cases. While the Superior Court and the District have made progress in 
exchanging information and building a greater capability to perform 
this function, it remains paramount that their plans fully address 
several critical issues we previously reported and our prior 
recommendations. Finally, while progress has been made in enhancing the 
working relationship between the Family Court and CFSA, this is an area 
that requires continuous vigilance and improvement in order to ensure 
the safety and well being of the District's children and families.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I will be happy to 
respond to any questions you or other members of the committee may 
have.

GAO Contact and Acknowledgments:

For further information regarding this testimony, please contact 
Cornelia M. Ashby at (202) 512-8403. Individuals making key 
contributions to this testimony include Carolyn M. Taylor, Anjali 
Tekchandani, and Mark E. Ward.

[End of section]

Related GAO Products:

D.C. Family Court: Progress Has Been Made in Implementing Its 
Transition. GAO-04-234. Washington, D.C.: January 6, 2004.

D.C. Child and Family Services: Better Policy Implementation and 
Documentation of Related Activities Would Help Improve Performance. 
GAO-03-646. Washington, D.C.: May 27, 2003.

D.C. Child and Family Services: Key Issues Affecting the Management of 
Its Foster Care Cases. GAO-03-758T. Washington, D.C.: May 16, 2003.

District of Columbia: Issues Associated with the Child and Family 
Services Agency's Performance and Policies. GAO-03-611T. Washington, 
D.C.: April 2, 2003.

District of Columbia: More Details Needed on Plans to Integrate 
Computer Systems With the Family Court and Use Federal Funds. GAO-02-
948. Washington, D.C.: August 7, 2002.

Foster Care: Recent Legislation Helps States Focus on Finding Permanent 
Homes for Children, but Long-Standing Barriers Remain. GAO-02-585. 
Washington, D.C.: June 28, 2002.

D. C. Family Court: Progress Made Toward Planned Transition and 
Interagency Coordination, but Some Challenges Remain. GAO-02-797T. 
Washington, D.C.: June 5, 2002.

D. C. Family Court: Additional Actions Should Be Taken to Fully 
Implement Its Transition. GAO-02-584. Washington, D.C.: May 6, 2002.

D. C. Family Court: Progress Made Toward Planned Transition, but Some 
Challenges Remain. GAO-02-660T. Washington, D.C.: April 24, 2002.

D. C. Courts: Disciplined Processes Critical to Successful System 
Acquisition. GAO-02-316. Washington, D.C.: February 28, 2002.

District of Columbia Child Welfare: Long-Term Challenges to Ensuring 
Children's Well-Being. GAO-01-191. Washington, D.C.: December 29, 2000.

Foster Care: Status of the District of Columbia's Child Welfare System 
Reform Efforts. GAO/T-HEHS-00-109. Washington, D.C.: May 5, 2000.

Foster Care: States' Early Experiences Implementing the Adoption and 
Safe Families Act. GAO/HEHS-00-1. Washington, D.C.: December 22, 1999.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Pub. L. No. 107-114, Jan. 8, 2002. 

[2] In the Family Court, magistrate judges have authority to preside 
over several proceedings, including abuse and neglect and matters 
related to child support orders. Family Court associate judges preside 
over matters such as trials involving juveniles, adoptions, and other 
proceedings.

[3] ASFA establishes specific timeframes for making permanent living 
arrangements for children removed from their homes.

[4] See U.S. General Accounting Office, D.C. Family Court: Progress Has 
Been Made in Implementing Its Transition, GAO-04-234 (Washington, D.C.: 
January 6, 2004).

[5] See U.S. General Accounting Office, D.C. Child and Family Services: 
Better Policy Implementation and Documentation of Related Activities 
Would Help Improve Performance, GAO-03-646 (Washington, D.C.: May 27, 
2003).

[6] The Council for Court Excellence is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, civic 
organization that works to improve the administration of justice in the 
local and federal courts and related agencies in the Washington, D.C. 
metropolitan area and in the nation. 

[7] Supporting the Vision: Mayor's Plan to Integrate the District of 
Columbia's Social Services Information Systems with the Family Court of 
the D.C. Superior Court, July 8, 2002.

[8] The Superior Court completed an initial transfer of 1,554 abuse and 
neglect cases to the Family Court in June 2002 and began transferring 
the additional abuse and neglect cases outside the Family Court in 
November 2002. 

[9] Mediation procedures, involving judges, family members, attorneys, 
and others, attempt to mitigate alleged matters of abuse and neglect 
cases before conducting subsequent court proceedings. The court 
conducts periodic review hearings on the status of abuse and neglect 
cases. 

[10] Adjudication hearings determine whether allegations of abuse or 
neglect are sustained by the evidence and disposition hearings 
establish where a child will be placed.

[11] The District, like ASFA, requires that permanency hearings be held 
within 12 months of a child's placement in foster care.

[12] These hearings are also known as stipulation hearings. 

[13] In commenting on a draft of our January 2004 report, the Superior 
Court reported an 84 percent rate of compliance with ASFA's permanency 
hearing requirement for cases filed between January and June 2002. 
However, we did not use this court-reported data in reporting the 
court's compliance with ASFA because neither GAO nor the Council for 
Court Excellence had verified these data. In reporting the information 
in figure 4, the Council for Court Excellence verified automated case 
data with information contained in the paper case file.

[14] District of Columbia Courts: Phase I Final Report, Booz Allen 
Hamilton (Washington, D.C.: June 25, 2002).

[15] The D.C. Family Court Act of 2001 states that these agencies are 
to include the D.C. Public Schools, the D.C. Housing Authority, the 
Child and Family Services Agency, the Office of the Corporation 
Counsel, the Metropolitan Police Department, the Department of Health, 
and other offices determined by the Mayor.

[16] CFSA and the D.C. Department of Health have representatives on-
site at the liaison office 5 days a week and the other offices have 
representatives on-site at least 2 days a week. 

[17] The D.C. Family Court Act of 2001 lists six District offices that 
the Mayor's plan was to include with respect to accessing and sharing 
information on individuals and families served by the Family Court: the 
D.C. Public Schools, D.C. Housing Authority, Child and Family Services 
Agency, Office of the Corporation Counsel, Metropolitan Police 
Department, and Department of Health. In addition, the Mayor determined 
that the plan should also include the Department of Human Services and 
Department of Mental Health. 

[18] See U.S. General Accounting Office, District of Columbia: More 
Details Needed on Plans to Integrate Computer Systems with the Family 
Court and Use Federal Funds, GAO-02-948 (Washington, D.C.: August 7, 
2002).