LaShawn A. v. Bowser

Plaintiffs: 7 foster children, aged 3 through 11 years old, representing the class of over 900 Washington DC foster children

About the District of Columbia Foster Care System

  • In 1989, ABC’s Executive Director Marcia Lowry, then serving as director of the Children’s Right Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, brought a lawsuit against the District of Columbia. At trial, the court found that virtually every aspect of the District’s child welfare system violated the law.
  • In 1995, after failing to comply with a system-wide, court-ordered reform plan, the District of Columbia became the only child welfare system in the country taken over by a federal court.
  • In 2001, after implementing many court-mandated reforms, the District of Columbia came out of receivership.


A 2015 Monitor’s report found the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency was endangering children because it was:

  • not timely in initiating or closing investigations of children reported for abuse/neglect;
  • not achieving acceptable quality in investigations;
  • not providing services to children and families;
  • improperly diverting children reported for abuse/neglect into a voluntary level of services, without conducting formal investigations; and
  • responsible for data irregularities in reporting to the Court Monitor.

As a result of CFSA’s poor performance, children in the foster care system in the District of Columbia were routinely at risk.

Advocacy Goals

After a period of great improvement, the District of Columbia child welfare system had a slump and failed to meet many benchmarks set by the court-appointed Monitor. Before the 1989 trial, an eight-year-old foster child, one of the Named Plaintiffs, put himself into a garbage can in a psychiatric hospital and asked to be thrown away. He serves as a constant reminder of the far too many children in foster care in the District of Columbia who are still thrown away every year. Since that time the children welfare system has improved, a new commissioner has taken charge and has addressed many of the problems. But the District still struggles to reach the benchmarks for several of the quality improvements, and its progress on other important indicators has been inconsistent.


Today, a neutral, court-appointed monitor continues to report on the progress in the District. While some improvements have been made since the most recent commissioner was appointed in 2017, the District’s progress has slowed and in some instances even reversed. The new commissioner has consolidated the service providers working with the children and families in the District and in the neighboring Maryland county, but problems remain with the use of the tracking system that refers many families to voluntary services, rather than to an investigation with the possibility of court-ordered services, and with the quality of services generally. The results regarding the quality of case plans and of other qualitative measures still is lacking and there is serious concern about the lack of placements for older teens and other youth with special needs. As the Monitor put it in a recent report, “Over the past several years, CFSA has introduced several new strategies, initiatives or services … to address longstanding practice issues; however, CFSA has had difficulty in the past fully implementing, integrating and institutionalized these across the agency.” We hoping that the District can focus on the remaining areas were it is still not the making progress so that this system can finally exit from court oversight.


Here are three of our plaintiffs, using pseudonyms

LaShawn was a four-year-old girl at the time of filing, who came into custody of the District of Columbia Department of Human Services on or about September 15, 1986. Her mother deposited her with the Department for “emergency care” because she was homeless. Despite the fact that emergency care custody is not to last more than 90 days, LaShawn remained in this care for two and a half years, until the Department filed a neglect petition against her mother. Throughout her time in the District’s care, LaShawn had no plan attached to her file beyond returning her to her mother’s care. The District failed, however, to create any specific terms to ensure that goal happened. In addition, the District failed to offer any resources to LaShawn’s mother or to examine the possibility of an adoption once it became clear that LaShawn’s mother was not going to care for her. Furthermore, despite a psychiatric review in 1987 that revealed deep-seated and serious problems, LaShawn languished for another year and a half before receiving complete psychological assessments. LaShawn has been deprived of her rights to a normal childhood, and her development has not been healthy.

Kevin was a nine-year-old boy at the time of the complaint, who entered Department custody when he was ten days old, after his teenaged mother signed him into emergency care. Since entering the system, Kevin has lived in at least 11 different placements, including an institutional setting, five foster homes, a group home, several hospitals, and a residential care facility. He has had at least 17 different caseworkers. The Department returned Kevin to his mother’s care on at least two occasions over the years, once because its custody had lapsed due to carelessness. During both placements with his mother, Kevin suffered physical and emotional abuse. Currently, there is no plan in place that would lead to Kevin’s adoption. As a result of a childhood ruled by neglect, Kevin has developed extreme oppositional behaviors, resulting in him being institutionalized. The Department has allowed him to be on powerful psychotropic medications since at least the age of six, instead of providing him with the appropriate treatment and attention. It is likely that he will suffer from mental problems for the remainder of his life. At age eight, Kevin put himself into a garbage can in a psychiatric hospital and asked to be thrown away.

Demerick was a three-year-old boy at the time of filing, who has been in District care since 1986, when his mother relinquished him for “emergency care” as an eleven-month-old. The emergency institutional facility repeatedly warned that Demerick was struggling emotionally and physically and needed to be placed in a foster care home. Nonetheless, in his three years in custody, a caseworker never visited him. Even after a court ruled that his mother abandoned him in 1987, Demerick has remained in the institution and was not referred for to the Department’s adoption unit until late 1988. Even then, the District took no action steps to achieve adoption for Demerick besides listing him on adoption exchanges.

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