- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

Brianna Blackmond. Remember her? Probably not. In the nation's capital people create monuments to the dead soldiers, politicians, scholars. But who remembers the death of a child in a city where children die like flies? Who remembers that the 23-month old girl, a victim of abuse and neglect who had been under the government's protection, was murdered by a blow to her tiny head?Her tragic end came two weeks after D.C. Superior Court Judge Evelyn E.C. Queen decided to snatch Brianna from a loving foster home and return her to her mother, Charrisie Blackmond. The trail of blood led from the Bates Street NW house where Brianna spent her final days to a half-dozen negligent local officials, including lawyers, social workers and the judge.

There was much hand-wringing and don't-blame-me posturing. But no one could or would explain, sufficiently, why they hadn't done the jobs they were paid to do. Lacking any credible answers, the judge muzzled everyone involved in the episode. The facts would be buried, leaving Brianna another forgotten statistic in the annals of District government ineptitude.

A month later, in February, the D.C. Council unanimously approved legislation sponsored by Kathy Patterson that would make it more difficult for another child's death to go unexplained. The bill, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 2000, requires public disclosure of all information in such cases, except when that information could endanger a child, compromise the integrity of any investigation or judicial proceeding. The measure also makes it possible for those denied such information to seek redress in the local court.

The act became law earlier this week but not before Mayor Anthony Williams' administration tried through emergency legislation to gut the disclosure provision. The move was baffling, especially since the mayor had already approved emergency and temporary legislation. Luckily, the council stuck with its original measure. "It's critical to have transparency on these issues," said Mrs. Patterson.

Government sources said the mayor wasn't behind the push to delete the disclosure sections, although he signed a letter to council Chairman Linda Cropp making the request. The culprit, sources said, was Carolyn Graham, deputy mayor for children, youth and families.

Mrs. Patterson's legislation is "weak and the corporation counsel had determined it wouldn't stand up in court," Ms. Graham said, adding that there is also some concern about surviving siblings. She said the other Blackmond children are receiving psychiatric help because they learned things about their mother they didn't know. Ms. Graham said the administration was to submit to the council on Monday a more comprehensive bill; but by Tuesday that submission had not occurred.

Mrs. Patterson, in a letter dated June 27, urged the mayor not to submit the more "comprehensive" bill. "The draft I reviewed several weeks ago moves very sharply away from accountability and makes disclosure in child fatality and near-fatality cases practically an impossibility," the Ward 3 council member wrote. She asked the mayor to "instruct everyone on your staff to cease and desist attempting to weaken" the disclosure provisions.

Attempts to gut a law raise questions about Mayor Williams' control over his own staff and about the sincerity of his assertions that he wants to improve conditions for children in the District while holding government managers accountable for their actions. What's more it offers a frightening backdrop to the recent release of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual Kids Count Report which found that the status of children in the nation's capital still is quite dismal. The report uses 10 indicators to track the status of children in every state in the country; the District showed improvements in five areas, but alarming decline in five other critical categories.

Bucking the national trend, there were 50 percent more children living in poverty in the District between 1990 and 1997 up from 24 percent in 1990 to 36 percent in 1997. The nation saw only a five percent increase. Further, there were more teen deaths in the city; 264 per 100,000 in the District while the national average was 58 per 100,000. The nation saw a 10 percent decline in the number of children living with parents who did not have full-time year, round employment; the District had an 11 percent increase. And the number of children living in single-parent households increased by 13 percent.

Although the report covers a period before Mr. Williams took office, Ms. Graham says the administration has been investing significant resources to ensure improvements for children and families. She cites early childhood development programs, after school learning centers and the mayor's recent launch of his youth violence initiative. Next month, the mayor will introduce Health and Safety Child Omnibus legislation. "Over the next six months you will see real investments," she continued. "This administration is committed to improving the lives of children and families."

But, if the Brianna Blackmond disclosure issue is a barometer, residents may want to be careful with how much stock they put into such claims.

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