- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 9, 2011

D.C. officials say no records exist documenting inspections, escapes or unusual incidents at a Northwest Washington group home for troubled youth run by a politically connected nonprofit that has seen at least one teenager in its care accused of homicide and another brutally slain in the last year.

Seventeen-year-old Scott Staten, in the custody of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), had already run away at least once and was living at Dupree House on Colorado Avenue NW when he was found fatally shot in an alley in Southwest Washington about two blocks from Nationals Park.

Dupree House was the same group home from which police say 16-year-old DYRS ward Dominick Payne had similarly escaped and been returned before he climbed out a window in February and made his way across town to the Langston Terrace housing projects in Northeast and beat a man to death with his bare hands.

Yet current and former DYRS officials, who license the group home for up to 10 residents at a time, say none of the documents, reports or records the department typically requires exist for the last several years.

“My understanding is the documentation is supposed to be there for Dupree House, but it is not,” former interim DYRS Director Robert Hildum told The Washington Times in November, before he resigned.

Dupree House, located in the Petworth neighborhood, is operated by the nonprofit group Associates for Renewal in Education Inc. (A.R.E.), whose president and executive director is Thomas W. Gore, longtime friend, campaign treasurer and constituent services fund treasurer for Mayor Vincent C. Gray. Neither Mr. Gray, nor Mr. Gore, or A.R.E. officials returned messages seeking comment for this report.

But the lack of paperwork is not the only unusual thing about Dupree House.

According to DYRS officials, the group home has played a unique — and some might say questionable — role in the housing of high-risk youthful offenders for whom there was no bed space at the New Beginnings Youth Development Center in Laurel, Md., the 18-month-old, $46 million state-of-the-art facility that accommodates just 60 of the District’s more than 1,000 committed youths.

Mr. Hildum emphasized that the group home has had a good reputation in the community for more than 25 years.

“But it appears that the previous administration was using the house to control the population at New Beginnings,” he said.

Mr. Hildum’s comments came after The Washington Times requested information from DYRS through the Freedom of Information Act about facilities inspections at Dupree House. The request was prompted by a scathing police report in the Payne case that detailed how the juvenile was able to climb out a ground-floor bedroom window and leave the premises unnoticed.

At first, the agency claimed such information was confidential because it pertained to youth in custody. When The Times reiterated that the request was for documentation of physical inspections and not confidential youth information, DYRS officials engaged in a search for records to demonstrate oversight of Dupree House.

Mr. Hildum said he asked top staff to brief him on the oversight and record-keeping policies for facilities licensed by DYRS. He said DYRS has a monitoring unit that is responsible for oversight of the residential facilities it licenses. That unit maintains careful records of inspections, deficiencies and plans to correct deficiencies, he said.

According to Mr. Hildum, Dupree House and one other group home were specifically excluded from oversight by that monitoring unit, and instead fell under the direct purview of David Muhammad, former DYRS chief of committed services under then-Director Vincent N. Schiraldi.

Mr. Schiraldi did not return numerous requests for comment on his tenure with DYRS, but he is well-known for his philosophy on rehabilitation, including his dislike of group homes that house more than a half-dozen youths at a time.

Community-based service providers say that before New Beginnings opened, in May 2009, Dupree House was on Mr. Schiraldi’s shortlist of facilities he wanted to close.

Jauhar Abraham, co-founder of the nonprofit group Peaceoholics, which received more than $10 million in city funds during the administration of then-D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to intervene in street conflicts and counsel youth, recalled Mr. Schiraldi expressing frustration with some of the community facilities, including Dupree House.

“Vinnie named a couple places he wanted to shut down,” Mr. Abraham said. “After one meeting, David Muhammad called me and asked me, ‘Who is Thomas Gore?’” Mr. Abraham said Mr. Muhammad told him he was “under fire from some of Vince Gray’s people to leave Dupree House alone.”

Mr. Abraham said that among the concerns with Dupree House at the time were poor physical condition, lack of oversight and a clear lack of discipline for youth who refused to follow the rules.

“Kids were bucking the system,” he said. “Vinnie was mad about the amount of money they were getting and wanted the place fixed up. David asked me to advocate to Vince’s people that Gore do something about it.”

Mr. Muhammad responded in November to an e-mail The Times sent to Mr. Schiraldi and expressed his interest in discussing DYRS, but he did not respond to subsequent e-mails and phone calls about DYRS in general and more recently about Dupree House in particular. He now works for Mr. Schiraldi, who is the probation commissioner of New York City.

It was not the first time Mr. Gray’s name surfaced in connection with Mr. Gore’s nonprofit venture. The Washington Post reported in 2007 that A.R.E. was on the brink of eviction from a city-owned building it had occupied for 20 years, which the city had eyed for a charter school location. Sponsored by then-D.C. Council Chairman Gray, legislation to give A.R.E. right of first refusal to lease the building passed in the D.C. Council by a vote of 10-0, after which Mr. Gray denied that he sponsored the legislation as a political favor to Mr. Gore.

A.R.E.’s website says Mr. Gore became president and executive director in 2002, after serving as executive director of the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative. He has a master’s degree in social work and has served on the Mayor’s Advisory Task Force for Children and Youth. In addition to running Dupree House, A.R.E. runs a number of child care and after-school youth programs. Since 2000, the nonprofit has received more than $54 million in contracts and subsidies from the District, according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.

Since Mr. Hildum’s resignation, he has told The Times he was not authorized to comment for this article. But The Times recently visited DYRS headquarters and spoke with a number of officials who confirmed his account of how Dupree House was used.

“If we had 65 kids at New Beginnings, because it only has bed space for 60 kids, we’d have to place five elsewhere in a lower-security facility,” said one official who requested anonymity so they could speak frankly without fear of reprisal. “And by law, group homes cannot have locked windows without a special permit.”

The limited space at New Beginnings has been a frequent topic of debate in recent months. But regardless of the political and practical issues with the District’s ability to house its own committed youth population, Dupree House served as a stopgap measure for DYRS officials who faced a bona fide dilemma, according to the official: “The city needed A.R.E. to take high-risk kids without any pushback. Other facilities are tougher on acceptance. Dupree House never says no.”

Since The Times first focused on Dupree House, the group home has been placed under the same organizational structure that documents facility inspections for compliance with laws and DYRS regulations, according to sources at DYRS. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Times obtained DYRS policies for unusual incidents and missing persons reports, which require notification of at least six different government officials when a youth goes missing for more than an hour.

But in the cases of both Dominick Payne and Scott Staten, it is unclear if those policies were followed.

“Dupree House has been on the outskirts of oversight,” the official said. “It’s been monitored, but there is no documentation. The problem in our world is that if it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen.”