New D.C. Director of Child Welfare Is a Champion for Kinship Care

On July 18, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed Robert L. Matthews as the Acting Director of Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) for the District of Columbia. With a proven track record of success in leadership within child welfare—serving previously as Principal Deputy Director of CFSA, Interim Deputy Director of Program Operations, Deputy Director of Community Partnerships Administration, Administrator for the Placement and Kinship Administration, Interim Administrator for the Child Protective Services Administration and Program Manager of the Kinship Support Division—Director Matthews has been a champion for kinship care and has a vision to continue this advocacy within his new role. As his passion for serving families is clear in his work, ASCI asked to speak with Director Matthews to gain his insight on issues impacting kinship care within D.C. and across the nation.

Director Robert L. Matthews, Acting Director of Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) for the District of Columbia

ASCI: Do you think the prioritization of kinship care is gaining traction across the country?

Robert L. Matthews: I do think that kinship care is gaining traction, and I think it’s because communities are becoming a little bit more aware that children are far better when they’re with family. And that’s because a child who has a connection to their peers, to their friends, to neighbors…when they have those connections in place thinking about the trauma that comes with separating a child from their parent.

I think child welfare agencies in the past have not championed kinship because of the difficulties that sometimes occur in family dynamics and in family systems. And believe me, the work is hard. The easiest thing to do is to remove a child from a parent and you have a pool of resource parents to place them with. But the harder work to do, which is the interesting thing on the front end of the child welfare system, is to identify, engage, assess and license a relative.

It’s more difficult for a child welfare agency to do that on the front end because they may not have the mechanisms in place, [but] it actually gets better for the child when they’re with relatives. It’s better for the child from an outcomes perspective, but difficult for child welfare agencies on the front end. But, I do find that local child welfare agencies are beginning to understand, based on the research, on how much better kids are, socially in their development, educationally in their development, when we are able to place them with kin.

ASCI: Why do you feel that child welfare agencies should prioritize kinship placements?

RM: The whole removal experience and process is so traumatic for the child and even for the parents. It’s imperative that child welfare agencies support relatives or kinship families. Research shows [children] are better when they [stay] connected to family and social connections. That’s the human element of it. But then, from a systems perspective, what I’ve found now—becoming the acting director—is the challenges that child welfare agencies have with recruiting traditional foster parents.

Family’s right there. But we have to get in the habit of building those systems internally to support families when they want to step up to the plate and care for their [kin]. And it’s beneficial that we can quickly identify, engage and support those kinship families so they can care for their own. And historically, in terms of the African American community, we were caring for our own way before the government decided to even think of the concept of kinship care. Hey, what a word, “kinship care,” but we just say it’s family, right? And we know that when we have a family member who may experience some type of challenge in their life to where a child may even temporarily have to [be removed], you have someone else: aunts and uncles, or a sibling, or grandmother or grandfather to step up to the plate. But guess what? They need support in doing that, even if it’s support from family or support from the government, to help them financially or with other concrete needs that come along when trying to care for kids who may be related to them through blood, marriage or a vow.

ASCI: Do you have any thoughts about ways we can better educate families about the kinship supports available to them?

RM: Absolutely. For instance, in the district, we have the Kinship Navigator Programs. There are some jurisdictions that have it. And we’re also looking at how we enhance that, because what we learned through the pandemic, with not having that face-to-face contact with families, they still needed sensibility and access. For instance, we know we need to have a robust online platform where they can go and say, “Hey, here are the services available here in the District of Columbia, but who can we also get in contact with for those services?” Now, I notice that everybody communicates with a mobile phone. We’re looking at having mobile apps for kinship caregivers because we also know that it’s easier for them to text first versus picking up a call. It’s making those supports accessible and available to them in more of what I call automated ways. And once we’re able to put those systems in place, it becomes all about efficiency and it’s all about convenience. We’re trying to [reach out] in various ways, whether it’s online, a mobile app, printed materials or having a warmline. [And] they can also call in to speak to a live person to be connected to the service itself. I’m always about over-communicating in order to ensure we are able to reach as many people as possible through their preferred way of communication.

ASCI: Can you discuss some of your vision for your new role, including your top priorities?

RM: The first [priority] is embedded in a new initiative, which is a partnership between Children’s Bureau, Casey Family Programs, Prevent Child Abuse America and Annie E. Casey Foundation: Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being.

We’re the first jurisdiction to submit our prevention plan and to get it approved as a local jurisdiction. And with the Thriving Families, Safer Children, we believe it’s an additional piece of our prevention model that we want to move further upstream to identify risk factors in families early to prevent system involvement. Because when we think about safety threats to a child, that means they’re already at the front door of the child welfare agency. What are those risk factors that may be present that we can do early detection and identification of those families? What were the community-based supports and vendors to work with those families so that as you begin to work with them, it can reduce some of those risk factors? And when you reduce those risk factors then it begins to reduce any safety threats that may be present. One of my priorities is definitely around further building our prevention model and to work with more community-based organizations and bringing the people with the most lived experience to the table. So that they then can, not just have a voice, but help us build on this model and help us develop it, help us implement.

We’ve had a history, which I’m sure everyone else has, we bring in caregivers, you bring in people who have had experience with the formal system. They talk and we take their information and what do we do with it. But I think in terms of where we’re going in terms of what we’re now calling power-sharing and equity is being equitable and having what we call the even distribution of people at the table, the even distribution of people who have a voice to say, “This is the way it should be built.” And even distribution of people that help implement that. My second priority is kinship, and I think we have a pretty robust formal side of things. That means when the kids are removed, they can move very quickly to assign them to a licensing worker, work through all the licensing regulations, to get them quickly licensed. But then there’s this informal piece. They don’t need a full-blown investigation, but they just need supports. What does that look like? It’s the kinship navigator program, it’s a ramped-up caregivers’ program. It’s all of those other resources that we need to deal with specifically for that population of families who are very close-knit, who have the network, but they just need that little extra support. And I think it’s the extra support that makes the difference of whether their child comes in to care or not.

The fourth priority is permanency. We do have kids that are in foster care. And when I think about permanency, I think about what does their length of stay looks like? Is it a positive one or is it a negative one? How long are they in foster care? But then I’m thinking more about the quality of their experience in foster care. What that means to me is while in foster care do they have any family connections? Are we looking at, what does it look like not from this kid age in that group, what does this look like with those working with a parent? So they go return safely home with that parent. What skills do we need to build, well not just the kin, but that whole family system. Skills, but also other family members bring them to the table to support the reunification process. How long does it take for adoption? How long does it take for guardianship? But I’m thinking more of, and we think more about the quality of that experience no matter what permanency option it is.

And then lastly, looking in supports for older youth and care, which is absolutely significantly different because we have a number of older youth with high needs, whether that’s for mental health, to education, to not having supports for families or financial support. And how do we connect them to and gain the independent living skills that they need so they can be contributing citizens of society? We have a lot of work to do but I believe if we focus on those particular areas we’ll be able to look both at our formal side of our population as well as our informal side which hopefully can prevent kids from coming in so long as they can provide the necessary supports in the community.

Tanya Trice [Interim Chief of Staff for the Child and Family Services Agency]: I just want to add that we really are pushing our agency to focus on building the community rather than seeing ourselves as the system. We are an agency within a system. Both Director Matthews and I joined this journey together at the same time and really look towards building community because, at the end of the day, that’s what families will have not us.

ASCI: What are some things, Director Matthews, that you have seen evolve within child welfare, and within kinship care specifically, over the course of your career?

RM: Well, when I think about it over a 20-year span, I’ve seen where the child welfare system, – I’d say agency, but I’ll say the system because the agency is just a piece of the overall system – we have kids that have mental health needs, educational needs and so all of those sectors of government and the community play a part. I think that they consider foster care, what we call it here, a safe haven and sometimes they considered it the best option when kids are abused and neglected. And now, considering how can communities build up the capacity to support families to care for their own. And part of me is saying, where again, we’ve seen foster care as a safe haven and we have advocates all around the country that believe when kids are left in unsafe environments or in the care of neglectful or abusive parents, they should be removed. And I don’t disagree necessarily, but I think we should pause a bit sometimes to also assess what are the strengths that exist in the family, that if they receive the support then they could be the ones to step up to care for those kids.

And I’ve seen the reason why they believe foster care is the safe haven is because I think it has a lot to do with the lack of trust in the family members. But the lack of trust that government has in families, where they see a cycle of abuse and neglect. When you have a family that has a generational cycle of abuse and neglect in many pockets of our country, you see child welfare agencies saying, “Oh no, we know what’s missing. The mother was this way. The grandmother was this way. Their kids now are cycling out of control. There’s no one there we can work with.” And with that bias and perception coming to the table, it’s almost like you have written out an entire number of people that could really be brought to the table as a resource to say, “You know what? I’m saying our family has this cycle of abuse and neglect, but I’m the first that’s going to break that cycle. How can you help me do that? How can government help me do that?”

And so, I’m seeing over the span of time that belief in child welfare is changing and beginning to see that change. It’s slow, it’s gradual. But I believe organizations like A Second Chance – because I went to A Second Chance right out of college to learn and to understand what kinship is and what it isn’t. I understand that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree but not casting away people in the strengths that they bring to strengthening that family system is going to be critical for any time of an agency to really do this work in the right way. It’s identifying those strengths and it’s helping to support those strengths so that the family can take care of their own. I believe that over the span, I’ve seen that change but I’m beginning to see it shift. And again, it is only gradual, but I think the more that we speak out about it and also bringing in race and equity, which is a huge piece of work.

Race and equity are so huge to kinship, how their kinship work and practice. For instance, in D.C., the nickname is Chocolate City, right? But we have a changing demographic here to where it says, it’s beginning to be even where you are having people of color, and Hispanic, and Caucasian racial-ethnic makeup but we are removing kids in a very high, disproportionate zip code in specific communities, where we consider those at-risk families and the at-risk can mean at times, not what we call abused but families who lack resources. And think about if we begin to think about trying to make it equitable to where we can provide the resources to these families? I can guarantee, one, we will see a reduction in hotline calls because the resources get to some of what is expected to be neglect repeat. Okay. The lights are off, right? Or there’s not adequate food, the kids are coming to school, they may not have any phone, those are hotline calls but those are also poverty issues, and those poverty issues then result in those families becoming a problem with childhood persons. And so, we have to never pack all of that to figure out between them, a public-private partnership between government and community, how we bring our resources together. How do we think about re-examining child welfare into what nails it and consider a child and family well-being system so that we can better support them?

ASCI: In addition to addressing systemic racism within child welfare, what do you believe are some of the biggest challenges facing child welfare at a national level, and what are you hoping to see change in the next 10-20 years?

RM: I think many of the challenges right now with child welfare is our statutory definitions for it. Because as I mentioned in some examples, that family who lacks resources in many jurisdictions, becomes a hotline call because of the statutory definitions of neglect, which is very wrong, right? And so, as a mandated reporter, you then may have to contact that in the central intake system of that hotline because of lack of resources. That’s a challenge to me. I think that’s not something or dynamic that exists to where kids have to be removed. I think that’s where the system tries to figure out how to equitably support this family and it’s not, this whole thing around is a handout. But it’s really, having to get them a hand up. But I also realize that even trying to give a hand up to some families, there are going to be some parents who will not be cooperative, or they won’t engage. You’re going to have some of them.

And that’s why I still believe and know that there’s going to be room and a need for child welfare, but we’re going to have to reform what our mandate will look like, and what our approach and response should be and where interventions should be. Because you’re right. As soon as a CPS worker arrives, automatically the family among them the father, they have this anxiety, they have this fear, they have this pain. “Why have you come to my home?” And what if we still have the same mandated reporter or investigator who had the community support of the same? “Guess what? I’m here because I know there are some concerns, you have with me. I’m not here to remove your child. I’m going to talk to you about how can we keep this child in your home. What is it that you need?” Someone showing a whole different approach which I know that’s all about the second chance and the thing that you have in terms of engagement, right?

Those are the things that I would like to see as it shifts in the next 10 to 20 years. I don’t think that happens too often in the past, right. I don’t think we have that kind of time, I do know it will take time to deal with a lot of how the challenges in the system have been built. So, I think the challenges are around child protection laws. What I would like to see is how we switch from mandated reporters to community supporters. I do believe there should be some national standards that are in place for kinship. We have national standards of how quickly you need to have a kid reunite with their parents. How long does it take for a child to achieve adoption? But one of the national standards for the future, we know the National Standard I believe is around, nationally jurisdictions that have had displaced kids on average 32%. That’s a national number but it’s not a standard that the feds are requiring for local jurisdictions to be. I think there should be a second. We really want to see the pendulum swinging the other way. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to make many things to do things. And I think, from a national standard, if we really hold the family to a high regard then we may have to start out mandating states to meet certain kinship standards. And I think we should discuss what that looks like.

The last thing I would say is for child welfare agencies to become more supportive of organizations and it’s the shift in power to the community. Give the power to the community to solve our social injustice problems, health disparities, habits, all of those things that currently under certain childhood abuse and neglect statutes becomes the child welfare systems problems with someone. Those are some things I’d like to see in the next 10 to 20 years for child welfare to shift from a child welfare system to a child and family well-being system to where it involves the system working together in a coordinated effort, to support families to take care of them all.

On July 18, 2021 D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed Robert L. Matthews as the Acting Director of Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) for the District of Columbia. Prior to this appointment Mr. Matthews served as the Principal Deputy Director of (CFSA) from September 2019-July 2021. In this role Robert oversaw the daily programmatic operations of the agency such as: Program Operations which houses the foster care Permanency Administration, foster parent recruitment and support, kinship support and licensing, The Office of Youth Empowerment which is all older youth independent living programming,  Entry Services which houses the In-Home Administration, Child Protective Services Investigations Administration and Child Protective Services Support Services Administration which include the child abuse and neglect hotline, diligent search, institutional abuse unit and the educational neglect triage and social work units, and The Office of Well-Being which houses the clinical and health services. During this time Mr. Matthews was also charged with managing CFSA’s performance toward exiting the Districts thirty-two-year Lashawn Consent Decree. In 2019 Mr. Matthews implement a CQI practice known as “The Finish Line”. This CQI practice meets monthly bringing together the agency’s mid and senior level management from both program and agency performance. Within these monthly meetings each program area would present their performance from the prior month highlight exit standard met or not met. This was a CQI function that allowed the agency to identify areas that needed improvement in real time with the ability to adjust practice and policy as needed to achieve better outcomes for children and families. As a result of this practice the agency was successful in meeting substantial compliance of the Lashawn exit standard paving the way for the agency to enter into negotiations for settlement with the Plaintiff’s in April 2021.  

From April 2018-September 2019 Robert served as the Deputy of Entry Services. During this time Robert focused efforts on improving the quality of CPS investigations, initiations and response time, caseloads and investigative closures. Robert implemented the CPS performance oversight meetings every week with CPS management. This allowed CPS to focus on performance consistently through tracking, monitoring and analyzing data. As a result CPS for the first in 2019 met their acceptable investigations qualitative review along with meeting compliance of CPS caseloads and have maintained that performance for two years. From December 2016 through April 2018 Robert served as the Deputy Director of Community Partnership. In this role Robert oversaw social work units directly serving in-home cases, the Mayor’s Liaison’s Office, continuing implementation of the Title IV-E Waiver, coordinating community-based preventions services and housing assistance programs. During this time Robert worked with the In-Home Administration on improving in-home clinical practice by developing their new case management model “Levels of Care”. This new model improved case planning and identifying support services for children and families. The In-Home Administration met the Quality Services Review (QSR) for the first time due to these practice changes. During this time Robert also focused on sun-setting the Title IV-E Waiver paving the way for the District to re-evaluate their community based services array in an effort to be the first jurisdiction to submit their five year prevention plan to the Children’s Bureau.

From 2014 to 2016 Robert served as Senior Associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In this role he was as a national technical resource providing content expertise and strategic input, by overseeing the deployment of technical assistance through examining data in support of reform initiatives on a national scale. While there he provided consultation to the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Tennessee and Georgia.

In June 2012 Robert joined the District of Columbia’s Child & Family Services Agency (CFSA). While there he served as the Placement & Kinship Services Administrator developing the districts “Kin-First” initiative which shifted CFSA’s front end work at the point of a child protective services investigation where a child is removed to ensure the system makes every effort to identify, engage and support families to take care of their own. During his tenure Robert implemented the following initiatives: implemented a new training modality for kinship families “Caring for Our Own”, developed a new support unit for kinship resource parents going through licensure, utilize the RED Team framework into our Family Team Meetings, implemented Family Link “Ice Breakers” for biological and resource parents, implemented Mobile Crisis Stabilization to increase placement stability and reduce disruption, implemented the electronic debit card for grandparents to receive their subsidy through the Grandparent Caregivers Program (GCP), proposed and passed legislation for the GCP  whereby when a caregiver becomes incapacitated the subsidy can be passed on to another relative thereby preventing the child(ren) from entering foster care and developed a process where Mental Health Providers attend Removal RED Teams and FTM’s to quickly link children/youth to a provider to receive mental and behavioral health services in a timely manner. From April 2013-September 2013 he took a temporary assignment as the Interim Administrator of Child Protective Services. During that time the “CPS Rally” was implemented with the goal of improving child protection through data collection and analysis to make better management decisions. The Educational Neglect Unit was also created to address chronic absenteeism and improve CFSA relationship with the school system to better support children and parents. 

In March 2011 Robert was appointed as Assistant Commissioner of Adult and Family Services for the Tennessee Department of Human Services. While there he managed the following program areas: Families First (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), TennCare/Medicaid Eligibility, Child Care Certification Program, Child Care Licensing, Child Care Assessment and Quality, Community Services (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Weatherization Program, Emergency Shelter Program, Refugee Program, Social Services Block Grant, and Community Services Block Grant), Child and Adult Care Food and Summer Service Food Programs, Adult Protective Services and Field Operations.

In 2010 as Chief of Staff for Maryland’s Social Services Administration, Robert led the development of the “Youth Matter” youth engagement model in partnership with the Atlantic Coast Child Welfare Implementation Center and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  Youth Matter led to increased teaming and group decision making, increased public/private partnerships, employment opportunities, and educational outcomes for older youth.

While in Tennessee from 2006-2010 as the Director of the Relative Caregiver Program for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, Robert led the effort in expanding the Relative Caregiver Program to all ninety-five counties with the goal of preventing children from entering state custody and increasing reunification.  During his tenure from 2006-2010, 849 children were reunified with their biological parents. Robert was also tasked with implementing the Child Protective Services Multiple Response System, overseeing the Resource Linkage Track by linking families with existing local community resources.

Robert has been a national presenter for the 2019 and 2014 Child Welfare League of America Conference, 2014 National Family Foster Treatment Association Conference and the 2009 Black Administrators on Child Welfare Conference.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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