- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

It is simply unconscionable that the D.C. Council and the Williams administration have resorted to finger-pointing regarding the maltreatment of the mentally ill. The council wants to know what the administration knew and when it knew it, and the Williams administration is pleading utter ignorance. Each party is as guilty as the other.

The District's programs administered by the Department of Human Services through the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration (MRDDA) have been under the jurisdiction of a U.S. District Court since 1976, when a lawsuit alleged neglect, abuse and mismanagement. In 1978, Judge John Pratt issued what is now commonly called the Pratt Consent Decree, which, though modified since his initial ruling, "makes specific requirements pertaining to individual habilitation plans and other case management issues, requires a system of monitoring MRDDA community-based residential programs, and specifies the time frame for payments to vendors." So explained the city in its FY 2000 budget a budget forged by the council, the mayor and the control board.

But instead of improved care for the mentally ill, problems worsened. The District repeatedly missed court-ordered deadlines and racked up millions in fines. Also, payments to vendors were characteristically late, overspending became the norm, patient deaths went unreported, autopsies were not performed; hundreds of cases of abuse, neglect and mistreatment cases were undocumented; health-care providers were not monitored, caseloads were ridiculously high and millions of dollars in Medicaid, Social Security and other annuities went missing.

While all of those issues are still cause for great concern, the council and the mayor are squabbling over a single result of years of mismanagement and lax oversight: The 116 unreported and uninvestigated deaths uncovered in December 1999 by The Washington Post. They are not, mind you, debating how best to improve systemic problems or even whether any of the problems have been abated. They are arguing over who is at fault.

To hear the council and the administration tell their suspiciously innocent sides of the story, each had no idea about the deaths and abuse. But Washingtonians know a cover-up when they see one. They know D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, former chairman of the human services panel, and council member Sandy Allen, current chairman of human services, knew of the longstanding problems with serving the special-needs communities. They know that every member of the council since 1993 knew, including Kathy Patterson, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, which is primarily responsible for ushering in reform. Former Mayors Marion Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly and their chiefs of staff knew. Former Human Services Directors Vernon Hawkins, Wayne Casey and Jearline Williams knew. Past and present members and staff of the control board knew. The medical examiners and police chiefs knew. The advocacy groups and the courts knew. Janet Reno's Justice Department knew, too. They all knew egregious errors at MRDDA endangered life and limb of patients either cared for directly by the District or through one of the many providers it contracts with. Moreover, all those parties knew because the court reminded them constantly and because then-director of Human Services Jearline Williams was responsible for keeping them and the public informed.

"The Washington Post started a series of articles in March 1999 (we expect a follow-up expose shortly) and on Wednesday, Nov. 24, CBS (Channel 9) news anchor, Bruce Johnson cited action taken by the District government to notify a service provider of the need to correct major deficiencies found in a group home or be decertified as a Medicaid provider," Mrs. Williams said in a Dec. 1 letter to an editor of this page. "Since January 1999," the letter went on to say, "we have also been negotiating in good faith with the court-appointed Special Master, the court monitor, plaintiffs' attorneys, advocates, national experts and representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a viable plan to vacate court orders."

It is obvious that lawmakers and the mayor are trying to use Mrs. Williams as a shield. She is an easy political cover, having stepped down in January 2000 after the local media (yet again) uncovered two other family tragedies. One story was the death of a toddler whom the court returned to an apparently unfit home and who subsequently died just days later. The other was about children living amid feces and other filth after being placed there by human services officials.

It was no coincidence Mrs. Williams testified at a special May 18 council hearing that she "never misled" the administration about problems in her department. Nor was it off the cuff that Mayor Williams' chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer, retorted a day later at another special hearing that the mayor felt "betrayed" by being kept in the dark. "Betrayed?" Perhaps. Mrs. Williams just might have an ax to grind. But unaware? Hardly. No leader in this city can honestly say that not with the media over the years informing both them and the public.

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