Questions raised over D.C. youth agency's unspent millions

Local,DC,Jim Graham,April Burbank

For teenagers in the D.C. foster care system, money for basic items such as clothing, transportation, food and schoolbooks is not always guaranteed to come through -- even from an agency that ended last fiscal year with millions unspent from its budget.

"When I switched placements, I didn't have transportation money to get to school, court and work because my former foster placements refused to give me the money," said Jasmine Edwards, who testified Tuesday at an oversight hearing on the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. She said she ended up missing two weeks of school.

Another student at the hearing, La'Donnae Wells, said it took seven months for her to get new money for clothing after she lost most of hers in a house fire at her foster home. She and other witnesses who spoke of their frustrations recommended more thorough investigations of foster parents and faster reimbursement for expenses.

The daylong hearing on the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency featured repeated praise for its new director, Brenda Donald, who has restructured the agency in line with a four-part agenda since she joined in December 2011.

But D.C. Councilman Jim Graham suggested that CFSA could have filled at least some of the gaps in its work, including heavy caseloads for investigators that exceed acceptable levels, using some of the money it didn't spend from its own budget.

"There's no reason this agency, as well-funded as it is, and as well-funded as this government is at the moment, that we can't be responding very quickly to all of this," Graham said.

CFSA said that about $13.8 million from its budget went to other agencies in fiscal year 2012 with the council's approval. CFSA also left millions on its own books unspent.

Donald attributed that surplus to a declining number of children in foster care placements, and said the agency was working to improve its work with new staff positions, including 20 new positions in child protective services.

"Before we go and declare a surplus, we take care of our needs internally," Donald said.

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