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The Long Road to Improving Foster Care in D.C.

The 1994 story for which I interviewed Troy Saunders, Tovan Love and several other children in foster care was occasioned by two developments.

First, Newt Gingrich, who had just led the Republican Party to a majority in the House of Representatives, had recently voiced approval of orphanages, provoking much hostile reaction. In fact, thousands of youths in Washington and elsewhere were living in group homes that approximated orphanages; I was curious about the lives kids led there.

Second, the child-welfare system of Washington, D.C., was uniquely dysfunctional. This year, in reporting on Troy's and Tovan's difficult lives after foster care, I also interviewed several people about the state of Washington's system today. You can listen to excerpts from those interviews below.

Court Case Filed to Protect D.C.'s Children

In 1989, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the child-welfare system of Washington, D.C., on behalf of a girl in foster care. In LaShawn A. v. Barry (Marion Barry, then the mayor of Washington), the ACLU argued that the city failed to protect the constitutional rights of children in its custody.

In 1991, Judge Thomas F. Hogan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the city's responsibility to the children in its care was a "travesty." The city agreed to implement changes to the system. But it failed to do so.

In 1995, the situation worsened when the city was implicated in failing to prevent the murder of a 3-year-old girl named Rhonda Morris.

By May of that year, Judge Hogan, in an unprecedented move, ordered that the federal court seize control of the agency -- stripping the city of all authority of oversight.

Setting New Standards for Care

Hogan set new standards to protect the "LaShawn children." At the time, the agency cared for about 5,000 abused or neglected kids.

Judith Meltzer, deputy director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C., became the court-appointed monitor of the system in 1992. She paints a picture of a system that in 1992 was a disaster.

"The system did not even know how many children were in foster care," she says. "They could not tell you on any given day where their kids were."

In addition, there were no licensing standards for foster homes or group homes. Workers, who did not receive formalized training, carried caseloads as high as 90. And she says investigations were "a shambles."

"It's totally different now," she says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.