The family of a Catholic University student who was fatally shot while bicycling through Petworth last year has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, accusing the agency of failing to supervise the 16-year-old murder suspect committed to its custody.
The lawsuit states that on the day of the fatal shooting, DYRS "incompetently supervised the juveniles under their control," allowing the suspect, Eric Foreman, "to evade supervision and detention."
The court action is the latest trouble for the city's embattled juvenile justice agency, which has struggled to rehabilitate roughly 1,000 youths in its care. A 2010 investigation by The Washington Times found that in a one-year period, one-fifth of D.C. homicides involved a youth in custody of DYRS, either as a suspect or victim.
Among them was the killing of Neil Godleski.
Police said Foreman, a ward of the city, fatally shot Godleski, 31, during a robbery as Godleski bicycled home from his job as a waiter at a restaurant near the Southwest waterfront. Godleski was shot several times as he rode through Sherman Circle in Northwest. When he fell from the bicycle, Foreman shot him twice more at close range while he was on the ground, police said. The robbery netted $60.
At the time of the Aug. 22, 2010, homicide, Foreman, who is awaiting trial, was staying at Dupree House, a group home operated by the DYRS-contracted company, Associates for Renewal in Education.
The lawsuit, initially filed by Godleski's parents in D.C. Superior Court but moved to federal court this week, alleges the District, DYRS and Associates for Renewal in Education are at fault for Godleski's death. It goes on to say that the District "should have known their employees at DYRS, acting at their direction, were incompetent and unfit to perform the duties of their respective jobs at the time they were hired and thereafter."
It cites the conclusions of the investigation by The Times, and those in a January article in which The Times reported that there are no records documenting inspections, escapes or unusual incidents at Dupree House.
The Northwest group home was described by a police detective in an affidavit filed in an unrelated February 2010 killing.
One of the first-floor bedrooms where youths stay "can easily be entered from the outside and easily exited from the inside by merely opening the window," the officer wrote.
"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," the officer noted.
Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, recalled being "totally unimpressed" during a visit to Dupree House after Godleski's death. He also noted that DYRS wards have walked away from custody at airports and from One Judiciary Square in recent months.
"It does raise some questions about how secure these children are while they are in our custody," he said, noting there seemed to be a lack of communication among the officers responsible for those wards. "There's too much Keystone Kop here."
In a written response to the suit, Associates for Renewal in Education states that Foreman was a resident of Dupree House for a period of time but that the company is "unable to admit or deny whether he was a resident 'at all times pertinent' to the complaint."
Foreman's first-degree murder trial is scheduled for February.
Officials at the D.C. office of the attorney general declined to comment on the Godleskis' lawsuit, which was first reported by the Washington Examiner. A DYRS spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit also names the agency's director, Neil A. Stanley, as a defendant. He took the reins at the agency months after Godleski's death, although questions remain about the agency's ability to supervise and rehabilitate its wards.
Mr. Graham, who oversees DYRS as chairman of the Committee on Human Services, and council member Marion Barry, Ward 8 Democrat, voted against Mr. Stanely's confirmation at a committee markup, citing his lack of experience and ongoing problems at the agency. However, Mr. Stanley was automatically confirmed when the full council failed to vote on his confirmation before its summer recess.
Mr. Graham said he has sent a series of specific questions to DYRS leadership in an attempt to address recent concerns, but declined to elaborate on their content.
"The number of escapes and abscondences is raising some very serious questions at this point," he said.
Mr. Graham referred to the Godleski incident as "a brutal killing" and noted that he was reminded of it when a taxi driver was killed last month. A DYRS ward who escaped custody is accused in that killing.
Mr. Graham said he is considering using his oversight powers to hold a hearing on the conditions in group homes and other DYRS institutions, how wards are monitored once they are released and whether the public can feel secure with these ex-offenders among them.
He also said he wants to know whether officials are addressing substance abuse among the youths, because he does not think many of their crimes are committed "with a sober mind."
The basis for the Godleski lawsuit — perceived negligence by a D.C. agency — and even the dollar amount sought by the family is reminiscent of a lawsuit filed after the 2006 killing of New York Times reporter David E. Rosenbaum. Most notably, the high-profile case and settlement highlighted litigation's capacity to be the catalyst for institutional changes in city government.
Mr. Rosenbaum was walking in his Northwest neighborhood when he was beaten and robbed. He died two days later.
An investigation found that "a neglectful, botched emergency response" by the D.C. FEMS contributed to Mr. Rosenbaum's death.
The Rosenbaum family filed a $20 million civil lawsuit in November 2006 against the District and Howard University Hospital, charging that the emergency response and poor care by hospital workers contributed to Mr. Rosenbaum's death.
In 2008, Rosenbaum family members and former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty agreed to a settlement in which the lawsuit would be dropped in exchange for the creation of a task force to examine ways to improve the city's Fire and Emergency Medical Services department.
Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, said there are "pros and cons" to suing the government.
"One of the pros," he said, "is that it forces the government to be more accountable."
In the case of DYRS, Mr. Mendelson said, litigation has subjected the agency to court supervision in the past.
"This would not be a new approach toward trying to reduce these problems with delinquent youths," he said.
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