A federal judge held Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty in civil contempt today for the District of Columbia's failure to meet the terms of a settlement agreement requiring improvements to its child welfare system.
In a 46-page opinion, Senior Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that city officials had violated the settlement by not including plaintiffs' lawyers in the process of selecting a new director for the D.C Child and Family Services Agency. The judge also found that the District had failed to produce an adequate annual plan for fixing the often troubled agency's performance.
The District maintained that, in fact, it had involved plaintiffs’ lawyers in picking the CFSA director by calling to inform them of the choice shortly before announcing it publicly. The District also said it had struck deal with plaintiffs’ lawyers permitting them to produce a six-month “bridge-plan,” while they worked on a longer blueprint for making progress. Hogan said the phone call didn’t amount to inclusion, and that the temporary fix was “little more than an outline.”
“The contumacious posture of District officials has become a troubling theme here,” the judge wrote.
Hogan’s order did not specify a punishment for Fenty or the District. However, he asked the parties to attend a currently unscheduled hearing to discuss possible sanctions and remedies. He also ordered them to produce a new action plan for the CFSA covering its operations in 2011.
The longstanding suit, LaShawn v. Fenty, dates back to 1989, when advocacy groups brought a class action on behalf of children in the District’s child welfare service, claiming its programs failed to meet the basic standards set by local or federal law. In the early 1990s, the plaintiffs and the city entered into a consent decree, governing how the District would improve its services.
Marcia Lowry, executive director of New York–based Children’s Rights, which represents the plaintiffs, said Hogan’s ruling should be a wakeup call for the District.
“The contempt order against the mayor should finally make clear to the mayor that the court’s orders are meant to be followed and not treated dismissively as the District did,” Lowry said. “I think the plainness of the language and the directness of the language that a federal court expects its orders to be obeyed.”
In his ruling today, Hogan also denied a motion by the District asking for a concrete timeline for terminating the consent decree. He said the city had not demonstrated that circumstances had changed enough since the settlement was entered to justify ending it, nor had the city shown that complying would be a serious financial burden.
The ruling could be a blow to the D.C. Attorney General’s Office, which has filed similar motions in other cases involving consent decrees covering District agencies. D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles did not immediately return a call for comment.