District officials to review DHS head

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Some members of the D.C. Council are promising an exhaustive review of the new director of the Department of Human Services, whose former social services agency is being targeted for reform and being investigated in the death of a girl in foster care last year.

“I will start digging [into Yvonne D. Gilchrist’s history] prior to confirmation,” said council member Sandy Allen, Ward 8 Democrat and chairman of the human services committee that will conduct confirmation hearings in October.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams tapped Miss Gilchrist for the District’s $140,000-a-year human services job last month, just as Maryland officials prepared for a management shake-up at Baltimore’s Department of Social Services, a combination state and city agency she ran for eight years.

The DSS is being investigated by Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. for its role in the death of 15-year-old Ciara Jobes, who had been starved and was beaten to death in December while in the DSS-approved custody of a woman who is thought to be mentally ill.

Investigators are not pursuing criminal charges against the DSS; Ciara’s guardian, Satrina Roberts, 31, will stand trial for murder next month. The attorney general’s inquiry is intended to find “red flags” missed by caseworkers and identify safeguards for custody decisions, a spokesman for the attorney general said.

Miss Gilchrist, who takes the reins at the D.C. Department of Human Services this month, declined to be interviewed for this report.

Mrs. Allen promised an extensive review after learning that the DSS has been slated for reforms and has a record of bureaucratic lethargy that has led to thousands of people being improperly cut off from welfare and others denied access to aid to which they might have been entitled.

“There are a lot of disturbing things, a lot of things that should have happened in Baltimore that didn’t, and they can be put at the foot of her door as the administrator,” said Peter Sabonis, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a nonprofit legal-services agency in Baltimore.

In May 2000, the state settled a class-action lawsuit against the DSS for denying appeal rights to people cut off from welfare. The state had to offer more than 10,000 Baltimore families the opportunity to make appeals and reinstate benefits for some pending appeals.

A 2002 University of Maryland study found that the primary reason — involving 48 percent of the cases — for people leaving welfare rolls in Baltimore was administrative problems with verification, eligibility determinations or reapplication processing. By contrast, 22 of the state’s other 23 social service agencies reported income or employment as the first or second reasons people left welfare.

The federal Office for Civil Rights found that some DSS offices did not properly screen welfare clients for mental disabilities. They never referred disabled people to special assistance and rehabilitative programs, and they performed little or no follow-up in welfare disability cases, according to the office’s September 2002 letter to Miss Gilchrist.

“These incidents in Baltimore don’t speak well” of Miss Gilchrist, said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, a member of the human services committee. “On the other hand, it is typical of the problems that we see in big-city human services departments.”

Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said human services is a troubled department in need of a director who has not only superior management skills, but also the ability to turn around faltering bureaucracies. He said he doesn’t know whether Miss Gilchrist is that person.

Miss Gilchrist, who earned $128,556 a year as DSS director, would be one of the District’s highest-paid city workers with her expected $140,000 salary. She is a longtime Baltimore resident and opted to join the D.C. government when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office this year and appointed a social services secretary who planned statewide changes.

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