You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

Part 2: DYRS wards increasingly violence-prone

Lack of supervision makes community placement a deadly roll of the dice

- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2010

Carlos Bernard Alexander's cry carried surprise and terror when three boys trapped him in a dark courtyard of the Langston Terrace public housing complex in Northeast Washington and demanded his money.

Although his home was about 30 blocks away, the 47-year-old handyman was a familiar sight at Langston Terrace. Police were told he frequently came to the project's courtyard to buy crack cocaine.

But on this night - a cold February night before the first of last winter's two crippling blizzards - something very different lay in store.

"Give me the money, or I'll kill you," hissed a thin 16-year-old named Dominick Payne.

"Just give him the money," another boy snapped. "He'll do it."

That's when Mr. Alexander cried out, and the boys pounced.

The attack, detailed in a Metropolitan Police report, is among many in Washington driving a spike in juvenile crime, even as violent offenses nationwide plummet. An investigation by The Washington Times has revealed a persistent and troubling trend to be the pattern of violence among a population under the supervision of the city's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS).

Deaths alone tell the story.

Of the 110 people publicly identified by police or prosecutors as being arrested for or charged with homicide in the District between Sept. 1, 2009, and Aug. 31, The Times investigation found that 41 were 21 years old or younger. At least 26 of these alleged young killers - more than 60 percent - were either committed to DYRS at the time, previously committed or had a record of prior juvenile arrests.

Dominick Payne, known as "Domo," was among them.

After Mr. Alexander fell to the ground, according to the report, Domo attacked him with a fury his slight frame couldn't possibly suggest. He lifted Mr. Alexander by his shirt - just enough so his head was off the ground - and punched him again and again.

Mr. Alexander soon quieted under the blows, after what must have seemed an eternity. Domo gave Mr. Alexander's head a hard crack against the ground and climbed off from him. Domo's two cohorts, 18-year-old Daquan Johnson, or "Quan," and 16-year-old Anthony Clark, known as "Fatman," administered some final kicks.

Langston Terrace residents heard the handyman's screams. Some even saw the attack. They knew Domo, Quan and Fatman. The three were part of a petty drug-dealing crew that referred to itself as LT3. Residents said the trio also robbed and victimized elderly people who lived there.

The boys turned out Mr. Alexander's pockets, the report said, emptying his wallet and carrying off his cell phone and the keys to his truck, which they stole.

After his attackers left, Mr. Alexander struggled to his feet and stumbled from the scene. But he didn't get far.

Three minutes before sunrise, in the overcast pre-dawn light that presaged the coming storm, someone placed a call to Metropolitan Police about a frost-covered body among the bushes in the terraced garden in front of 711 21st Street NE. It was Mr. Alexander.

An alibi

It didn't take police long to hone in on the attackers. They found the truck and that led them to Quan. He lied to investigators and then changed his story a couple times. Some witnesses came forward.

Within weeks, Quan, Fatman and Domo were in custody. Domo was arrested in Langston Terrace, on the same block where Mr. Alexander was killed. His trial is scheduled to begin in May.

But Domo told authorities he couldn't have done it. He had an alibi: On the night Mr. Alexander was beaten to death, he was checked into Dupree House, a group home for troubled youths in Northwest Washington, as a ward of the city's troubled Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

The review by The Times of a year's worth of homicide data, court records and internal DYRS data provided in some cases by employees on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution showed that at least 15 of the city's homicide suspects - more than 13 percent - were active wards of the city, like Dominick.

The figures do not include those DYRS wards arrested for homicides committed outside the District, and they also do not include a handful of youths not publicly identified by authorities because they were charged as juveniles.

Asked for the number of agency wards who had been arrested in connection with homicides for the year in question, DYRS provided The Times with a list that contained just seven relevant names, and then declined to comment on the discrepancy.

Footprints in the snow

An unassuming single-family residence with a stucco exterior, waist-high chain-link fence and gate that opens on a path leading to a covered front porch, Dupree House is a DYRS-licensed group home on a quiet, tree-lined stretch of Colorado Avenue in Northwest Washington - on the same block as a small apartment building and a Baptist church.

Nothing identifies it as a group home, although nearby residents all seem to know about it. It's distinguished only by a small wooden sign with the carved words "Dupree House" suspended from the porch ceiling by twin chains.

By the night Carlos Alexander was killed, Dominick Payne had been at Dupree House just five days and had already walked away once and been returned.

A Metropolitan Police detective filed an affidavit detailing the apparent contradiction between a witness statement placing Dominick at the homicide scene and the fact that he was supposed to be in a first-floor bedroom of Dupree House.

"There are three windows in the bedroom," wrote Detective Hosam Nasr. "Two of the windows opened easily. Of those, one of the screens was broken. The other screen fell off the window when it was opened. There is only a five-foot space between the bottom of the window and the ground outside the facility. Thus, the room can easily be entered from the outside and easily exited from the inside by merely opening the window.

"There are no surveillance cameras either inside or outside the facility, which monitor the residents' comings and goings. Likewise, the building is not even alarmed. Moreover, conversations with facility staff who were working from 10:00 p.m. on February 2nd to 7:00 a.m. on February 3rd, 2010, revealed that half-hourly bed counts were not performed after midnight," the detective wrote. "While staff did not notice anything unusual during the critical hours, the defendant could have easily escaped and returned without staff noticing."

It didn't hurt the investigation that detectives found a trail of footprints in the snow leading away from the house beneath a bedroom window.

In the District, juvenile cases are decided by judges, not juries. And decisions about placement of youths found guilty of crimes lie with officials at DYRS.

The group home, and a handful of others in the city like it, are where an increasing number of youths are housed since the closure in 2007 of Oak Hill, the District's infamous juvenile jail once located in Laurel, Md. Since then, and the opening of the New Beginnings Youth Development Center on the former Oak Hill campus, DYRS officials - and particularly former Director Vincent N. Schiraldi - have emphasized community-based placement alternatives to jailing youths.

But signs are increasing that oversight of and services for such high-risk youth are sorely lacking. And the numbers facing community-placement alternatives are too big to ignore.

About 500 juveniles - juveniles like Dominick Payne - are left to either home placement, non-public residential treatment centers or group homes such as Dupree House. At any given time, 65 to 70 of them are unaccounted for.

'It drives me crazy'

A report on DYRS' performance released this summer by D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles in the wake of the noticeable uptick in homicides involving wards of the city suggested that the agency's practice of returning juveniles to the community was putting dangerous offenders back into D.C. neighborhoods.

The report said youths were often moved through group homes and into home placement with little consideration of their backgrounds and few benchmarks for progress.

DYRS officials don't discuss the circumstances of youth in their custody. Dominick's mother referred questions about him to his public defender, who declined to comment on any aspect of his case.

But documents obtained by The Times show that he had an extensive history of arrests.

After an arrest at 14 years old for cocaine possession, he faced charges that included shoplifting, theft, distributing marijuana and unauthorized use of a vehicle. His police report lists him as an alcoholic. He had made several stops at DYRS detention facilities, and records indicate he had a history of fleeing from custody, including an escape from a transport vehicle while he was assigned to New Beginnings.

"It drives me crazy," said Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, when asked her feelings about cases such as Dominick's.

"As hard as I work with great elected officials and good strategies and information sharing, I can do nothing to stop those cases," she said. The reason is because, until recently, DYRS officials had been averse to sharing information about juveniles and their records with police - even information about when a youth in their custody is placed in the community.

"If no one tells me when a violent offender is put back in the community, I can't protect people," she said.

The police chief says that, in addition to Mr. Nickles' criticism about the city's emphasis on releasing juveniles into the community, DYRS has to provide a "good analysis" of which juveniles are fit for community placement.

"If you look at the DYRS offenders who commit murder or were murdered themselves, you have to take some stock in what their criminal history is," Chief Lanier said.

She says she believes in community placement and insists she doesn't want to just lock up kids. She advocates an approach she describes as "surgical."

"Only when we're talking about violent offenders," she says.

Still, as D.C. Council member Tommy Wells points out, there's a wariness to just "put away" even violent youths.

"People want them locked up in adult jail, but we know they'll come back more violent," said Mr. Wells, chairman of the Committee on Human Services, which has oversight of DYRS.

But at a recent hearing discussing DYRS performance, Mr. Wells acknowledged that the agency's ongoing troubles are frustrating the public.

"I also think that the number of youth, especially over the past couple years, who have either committed murder or been murdered has reached a level that our community will not tolerate," he said.

'Abscondence'

Shortly after Mr. Nickles issued his report in July, interim DYRS Director Marc Schindler resigned. In January, Mr. Schindler had replaced Mr. Schiraldi, who left to take a job in New York City in the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Mr. Schindler was then replaced by Robert Hildum, a former federal prosecutor who began working for the city attorney general's office in 2007, where he was in charge of juvenile prosecutions.

Mr. Hildum's appointment prompted fears among juvenile justice advocates that reforms in recent years would be jeopardized and that the agency would begin to emphasize incarceration over rehabilitation.

Asked about Domo's escaping from Dupree House and Mr. Alexander's killing, Mr. Hildum declined to comment about a specific case. But he said "abscondence" - either fleeing a group home or evading the oversight of a case worker - is a serious concern.

He added that he was "very concerned" about the abscondence rate and that he has made finding absconders a priority. In his first two months, DYRS and police found 87 absconders, compared with 53 who were located in the two months prior to his arrival.

"The view from the prior administration is that kids run, that's what they do. I don't agree with that," he said.

Mr. Hildum also delivered a stark assessment of the agency he inherited, its 600 employees and its $91 million budget. He said officials found what he described as fictitious addresses in the files of some youths - meaning, no agency employees had ever visited the homes to verify whether the addresses were correct.

In practical terms, Mr. Hildum said there is no real-time reporting of compliance or follow up by DYRS when red flags emerge, such as a missed curfew or absence from school. He also said case managers who optimally should be handling 25 cases apiece currently oversee about 40.

He faulted DYRS management for the overuse and ineffective oversight of "third-party monitors," mentors contracted to visit juveniles three times a day at a cost of $40 a day. He said case managers often defer to, instead of direct, the community organizations meant to serve as liaisons to the neighborhood-based services.

"There's not a lot of administration and management. So what you have is a lack of oversight on a lot of these services," he said.

Even more fundamental, Mr. Hildum said, services to help at-risk children - perhaps the most critical component of the community-placement model the city has pursued - were not in place.

"If we haven't put in the services we've promised at group homes, then that is a problem," he said.

Mr. Wells agreed.

"We're not providing the youth with the services they need at the community level to help protect them and help protect the community, and that's part of what the reform has to have in order to have a community-based system," Mr. Wells said. "If we're going to use our neighborhood-based services, move them back to the community, you have to sit on top of them."

The result has been what Chief Lanier describes as a dramatic increase in serious crime committed by juveniles in recent years. Juveniles, who accounted for about 6 percent of all arrests between 2001 and 2008, accounted for 8 percent last year. The biggest jumps were in serious crimes. The percentage of juveniles arrested for homicides jumped from 6 percent in prior years to 10 percent last year. And the percentage of juveniles arrested for robberies and carjackings was up from 31 percent in prior years to 41 percent last year.

Asked if there were violent offenders under DYRS supervision in community placement right now, Chief Lanier said: "I would say there probably are, yes. Should people be concerned? Yes."

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.