New documentary details the over 30-year legal battle DC’s family services faced

The “Resilience: DC Child and Family Services Agency’s 32 Years of Reform” documentary will be shown at the Miracle Theatre in Southeast D.C. on Tuesday, Nov. 28. (Courtesy Eventbrite)

This is part of WTOP’s continuing coverage of people making a difference from our community authored by Stephanie Gaines-Bryant. Read more of that coverage.


A D.C. agency shares how it turned trouble into triumph in a new documentary film called “Resilience: DC Child and Family Services Agency’s 32 Years of Reform.”

The documentary is based on the 1989 class action lawsuit LaShawn v. Bowser after a four-year-old in the agency was placed in emergency care for more than two years.

Robert Matthews, director of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, talked about the lawsuit filed on behalf of foster children in the District’s care. He claimed some social workers didn’t have the training to determine when children should be placed under the city’s care, while others were unsure where to place new kids.

They didn’t have “an adequate placement array,” Matthews said, adding that the agency didn’t have an appropriate number of beds for children coming into foster care.

Robert Matthews
Robert Matthews (Courtesy D.C. Child and Family Services Agency)

As a result of the lawsuit, a federal judge appointed a court monitor. And over the next 32 years, Matthews said, the department had to make significant quality improvements. This includes improving access to resources for families and linking them to appropriate services when the agency launches an investigation.

“We are shifting to a prevention and support model,” he said. “We want to figure out how can we support you so that we don’t have to come to your door.”

The agency exited the lawsuit through a settlement in December 2022 after a judge described the agency as a “national model.”

“The agency’s focus on family, love, and prevention means that child welfare in the District doesn’t look the same as it did 30 years ago or even 10 years ago,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a statement when the settlement was announced. “We are proud that it looks more like providing families the services they need to keep their children safe and well at home.”

Matthews said the documentary, supported by Casey Family Programs, chronicles decades of hard work in the department. Now, both Matthews and CFP hope the documentary can help the dozens of jurisdictions dealing with lawsuits learn how to avoid mistakes and continue to empower struggling families.

“We want to be able to help parents not be afraid to raise their hand when they need help,” Matthews said.

The general public can attend the free premiere at the Miracle Theatre in Southeast D.C. on Tuesday, Nov. 28, starting at 5 p.m. Social workers, external partners and members of the D.C. Council plan to attend.

The two-hour event includes a prescreening reception, the documentary’s screening and a panel discussion on how the agency is moving forward.

“We want to tackle poverty. We want to tackle how you can better support parents in their neighborhoods, in their own communities,” Matthews said.

You can RSVP for the premiere on Eventbrite by Monday, Nov. 27 to secure a free ticket.

Stephanie Gaines-Bryant

Stephanie Gaines-Bryant is an Anchor and Reporter for WTOP. Over the past 20 years, Stephanie has worked in several markets, including Baltimore, Washington, Houston and Charleston, holding positions ranging from newscaster to morning show co-host.

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