- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999

Anyone entering the D.C. Council chamber earlier this week during the public roundtable called jointly by the Committee on the Judiciary, the Committee on Government Operations and the Committee on Human Services may have assumed the discussion was about widgets not the deaths of 116 retarded and disabled people who lived in District government subsidized group homes.

Senior-level officials from Mayor Anthony Williams administration had been called to respond to published reports of cruel and inhumane treatment visited on handicapped people while they desperately pleaded for medical assistance. In most instances, their deaths were not investigated, their families were given erroneous causes for the deaths, and some victims were buried in numbered graves.

Despite the wretched portrait painted by The Washington Post's Katherine Boo, the Williams administration refused to acknowledge the government's culpability. Not once, during a nearly three-hour hearing, did officials register any sympathy for those families who had lost loved ones because the government and group-home operators failed to perform their legal and moral duties. While Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth and Family Carolyn Graham offered that the deaths were a "tragedy," she crushed her own whimpered apology. "I refuse to concede … all of the incidents are the result of a system that is broken," she said defiantly. "I will not embrace the media's recital of these incidents without additional information."

The callousness displayed by the Williams administration just days before Christmas a time when family and friends of the dead are sure to feel a special longing and anguish may play well in the club house. But for taxpayers it serves to underscore the perception of an unfeeling mayor encircled but an equally distant band of marginal managers.

Ms. Graham's audacity was surpassed only by Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Jearline Williams, who, with Marion Barry-like chutzpah, asserted that the government's recent actions were not in response to newspaper reports. But they certainly are feeble attempts by incompetent managers to cover their rear ends. Mrs. Williams served as assistant city administrator for human services and DHS director during several of the years in which the deaths occurred.

It wasn't until Ms. Boo's first series of articles on March 14 and 15, which referred to 350 documented cases of abuse, neglect, molestation and theft during this last decade that Mrs. Williams asked the inspector general to step in. On March 17, 1999, the city removed handicapped individuals from two group homes. Insisting that she has been on the case, Mrs. Williams failed to disclose that DHS officials had tried to misdirect Ms. Boo's investigation since October 1998, when the reporter first requested information on the deaths. The DHS did not comply with federal and District freedom of information laws until April.

When it became apparent the article would appear, Mrs. Williams moved more expeditiously, hoping to suggest the city was attempting to reform the division. But one action disputes this impression. The person directly in charge of the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration (MRDDA) wasn't removed from her position until April 28, 1999. That manager remains on the DHS payroll.

The city's near-criminal care of its mentally handicapped citizens has been an issue for more than 20 years. Two years ago, the District's failure to respond quickly to court-ordered changes forced the appointment of a receiver. In February 1999, a federal judge approved a $5 million contempt-of-court order against the city. Now, a bunch of people are conducting investigations, acting as if the maltreatment of handicapped people is a new revelation.

Robert Rigsby, acting corporation counsel, says in the next 60 days the city will take specific steps including establishing an emergency policy on incident reporting and the mandatory training of all staff members in the prevention, intervention and reporting of serious incidents. The city also plans to institute an emergency policy that requires all group home staffers to call 911 when an emergency occurs.

Despite the arrogant tone of the hearing, council member Kathy Patterson, chairman of the Government Operations committee, called it one of the "most important hearings" of her tenure. "The article appeared December 5. In two weeks space of time a bunch of things happened," she said, citing the creation of fines and tapping doctors from the Public Benefits Corporation to examine any group-home resident considered at risk.

"Maybe if we do a hearing every 30 days more will get done," added Mrs. Patterson. History says don't bet on it. In fairness, much of the damage predates the mayor and his people except Jearline Williams. But it's his watch now.

At the hearing John Cook, director of the Community of the Ark Inc., offered a model his organization and a working philosophy. The MRDDA's failures, said Mr. Cook, are about caring and character. Changing the laws or imposing fines isn't the ultimate cure. Certainly, "it is not the answer to a case manager or administrator who receives repeated notices of severe problems and does nothing. It is not the answer to people who for years have made doing as little as possible their primary work objective," he continues.

"The answer is not to change laws, but to change people."

Amen.

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