- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2000

The head of Washington, D.C.'s child care agency was arrested yesterday morning and taken before a Superior Court judge to explain why she had missed two previous court appearances in a child-neglect case.

Two deputy U.S. marshals arrested Ernestine F. Jones, head of the Child and Family Services Agency, on contempt charges at her home in Odenton, Md., and brought her to Judge Kaye K. Christian, U.S. Marshal Todd Dillard said.

At noon, Judge Christian listened to agency lawyer Jeffrey Ford briefly explain why Mrs. Jones failed to appear. The judge then set Mrs. Jones free, sternly warning her to return for a contempt hearing next month.

"The court is admonishing you that you must appear at 10 a.m. September 21 in courtroom 215," Judge Christian said.

Mrs. Jones and her agency have been under increasing scrutiny since the death in January of 23-month-old Brianna Blackmond in her mother's home in a case unrelated to yesterday's confrontation. The girl's death was blamed in part on mismanagement of her case by the Child and Family Services Agency.

In court yesterday, Mrs. Jones let her attorney do the talking but later issued a statement defending her actions.

"It has always been my policy and expectation that all hearings be attended," Mrs. Jones said, but "my presence in court has always been represented by legal counsel for the agency, as it was in this situation.

"I have now turned this matter over to my attorneys, who will handle this matter and hopefully bring this matter to appropriate conclusion," she said.

"Mrs. Jones would obviously have been here earlier if she had not been out of town on vacation," Mr. Ford told the judge.

Mrs. Jones was vacationing in South Carolina when Judge Christian issued the arrest warrant Wednesday, following a hearing about the way the agency had handled the neglect case of a 20-month-old boy.

Judge Christian yesterday referred to July 10, when an agency social worker and his supervisor were summoned to court but failed to appear to explain why the agency had not checked for three months on the boy. He now lives with a grandmother after his drug-addicted mother deserted him last summer.

The social worker and supervisor did appear and testified July 25, but Mrs. Jones did not. That's when Judge Christian issued a summons for Mrs. Jones to show up Aug. 9.

Judge Christian has a reputation for not brooking any nonsense. She barred the opening of D.C. public schools because of fire-code violations several years ago and repeatedly criticized top school officials from the bench because she was unhappy with the pace of repairs.

"Mrs. Jones did not have personal knowledge of the subpoena," Mr. Ford told the judge.

"The U.S. marshal served it," Judge Christian retorted, holding up documents attesting that the subpoena was served at 11:43 a.m. July 28.

"There was some sort of breakdown in communications," said Mr. Ford, adding that the subpoena was given to Mrs. Jones' counsel.

Judge Christian emphasized that serving the subpoena on Mrs. Jones' lawyer was the same as serving it on her personally, and that was no excuse for her to miss the Aug. 9 hearing.

Earlier, the judge appointed a "special guardian" for the 20-month-old boy.

Mr. Ford briefly referred to troubles at Child and Family Services dating back to 1991. The agency is responsible for overseeing about 7,000 abused and neglected children and another 3,000 in foster care. In 1994, a judge ordered the city agency into receivership with supervision by the U.S. District Court.

After a nationwide search in 1997, U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan appointed Mrs. Jones as general receiver over the agency, which has a $102 million annual budget.

"Mrs. Jones enjoys full judicial immunity" from conflicting D.C. laws and the Superior Court because of her court-appointed position, Mr. Ford argued.

"She does not have authority to ignore this court," Judge Christian responded, referring to a recent appellate court ruling that the judge said authorized the Superior Court to summon and question agency officials.

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