Saturday, January 22, 2000

Twice this year mentally-ill persons under the District’s care disappeared. One was found days later; the other died. Several weeks back The Washington Post began a series of articles that said, since 1993, 116 persons died at group homes for the mentally-ill but that none of the deaths was investigated. Early this month, the media exposed the filthy living conditions of families living in an apartment building in Southwest that had no heat and no water while the city was charged $1,100 a month rent. Then reporters uncovered the news that Jearline Williams, the director of Human Services, had stepped down. Days later the media found out that a judge overseeing a custody case never received the report that said a child in foster care should not be returned to her mother. The girl was sent home and was killed. Police are investigating her mother. While no single individual is responsible for those those disparate cases, Mayor Williams clearly saw that the District’s Human Services safety net is completely unraveled.

Mrs. Williams, who ran the Department of Recreation and the Office on Aging before Marion Barry appointed her Human Services chief, said she stepped down because of health reasons though The Post quoted sources as saying she never would have survived the mayor’s probe. Probably not. But neither, for that matter, did the top managers of the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration. The mayor fired five managers and suspended two.

All of them should have seen it coming. A while back the mayor vowed to do more than tinker with the thermostat at Human Services, the agency that receives the lion’s share of D.C. tax dollars. So much has been broken over there for so long, it was a small wonder Mrs. Williams was able to institute welfare reform measures.

That the deaths of 116 mentally-ill persons were never investigated, that a caseworker admitted shredding related documents, that children were living amid feces, garbage and who knows what else, that a child is dead because city workers failed to turn over vital information is unconscionable. Mr. Williams had no choice but to exercise his mayoral prerogative.

Last week, the mayor let his true intentions be known, telling aides he wanted to “blow up” the system, so more drastic changes are expected, and well they should be. In the short term, the firings (and the departure of the Human Services chief) prove that risk management is far more than a catchy phrase tossed about the Williams administration. So, in that sense, the firings and the new team of experts replacing them, is the most effective means of managing an embattled agency.

But Mr. Williams must not stop with Human Services. While it is unreasonable to expect the mayor to conduct wholesale firings, it is not too much to ask that he ensure every key agency is running effectively and efficiently. The media is doing its job by uncovering mismanagement. Now the mayor must do his before, not just after, the facts come to light.

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