from Pastor Joe: we have heard stories recently about ‘Children
s Services’ in states like Florida where children are missing,
children have died and children have been abused. Please read
this story about our capital city, if you can stomach it; then
convince yourself that what we need is more government control
and supervision. The following is what happens when man pushes
God aside and decides ‘he’ is in charge.
Children Died as D.C.
Critical Errors by City's Network Found in 40 Fatalities;
Confidential Files Show Wide Pattern of Official Neglect
By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
The decision sealed the fate of 2-month-old Wesley Lucas.
D.C. social workers were assigned to protect Wesley from his
neglectful, cocaine-addicted mother. So they allowed the baby to
stay with his mother's boyfriend. The 69-year-old man was dying
from lung cancer, but the workers promised to provide a
caretaker to help.
They decided not to send anyone over the long Presidents' Day
weekend in 1998.
That Saturday, Wesley began to cry, a plaintive wail that
echoed for hours down the narrow four-story stairwell of a pale
yellow Northeast Washington apartment building. Finally, there
was nothing but silence. When a maintenance worker opened
Apartment 5's brown steel door on Tuesday, the man was found
faceup in his bed, dead from his disease.
On his chest lay Wesley. The baby boy had died of severe
dehydration. His death was officially ruled an accident, and his
tiny body was cremated.
Social workers, who have an obligation under D.C. law and a
federal court order to protect children like Wesley, later said
they believed there was little risk in leaving the baby alone
with Lucas over the three-day weekend.
"Who would have thought that the harm would come in the form
of no food, water or other sustenance?" government officials
Wesley Lucas is among the 229 boys and girls who perished
from 1993 through 2000 after their families had come to the
attention of the District's child protection system, a network
of social workers, police officers, judges and other city
employees. The children include Rhonda Morris, Cecelia Rushing,
Robert Williams, King Richardson, Diante Aikens and Brianna
Blackmond, whose death last year outraged the city.
In a yearlong investigation, The Washington Post obtained
records documenting the deaths of 180 of the 229 children. The
circumstances of the deaths – and the District's culpability in
many of them – have been hidden from the public for years. Some
children died in accidents or shootings on the streets. Others
succumbed to disease.
But one in five – 40 boys and girls, most of them infants and
toddlers – lost their lives after government workers failed to
take key preventive action or placed children in unsafe homes or
institutions, The Post found. Although 15 of the 40 deaths were
ruled to be due to natural causes, government officials
reviewing those cases found numerous critical errors. Seventeen
of the deaths were homicides, most of them in homes.
Thousands of once-secret documents provide an unprecedented
look inside the city's child protection agency – the only one in
the nation to operate under federal court control as part of a
large-scale reform effort that began in 1991. The records
illustrate how the decade-long effort failed some of the
District's youngest wards. Interviews and additional
investigation uncovered the reasons the children lost their
lives, the government agencies involved, and the identities of
the workers who committed critical mistakes and errors of
NickiColma Spriggs, 15, her spine curved sideways at a
painful right angle, sat in a wheelchair waiting for an
operation that never came and died in a nursing home hallway.
Eddie Ward, 13, was put on a bus, alone, and ended up dead in a
dilapidated house, his body pockmarked with insect bites.
Sylvester Brown, 8, was left with a mentally ill mother who
stabbed him so many times that the medical examiner couldn't
count the wounds.
The Post could not determine the government's role in 49 of
the 229 children's deaths, because key documents or files were
never created or could not be located, or were part of pending
homicide cases. What can be determined is that top government
officials knew that D.C. children were dying for avoidable
reasons and did little about it.
Police officers did not fully investigate abuse reports,
leaving children with violent or drug-addicted parents or
relatives. Social workers did not adequately monitor neglected
children. Frail newborns were permitted to go home to
drug-addicted and mentally ill parents without follow-up
services. Judges sent children to unlicensed foster homes, or to
institutions far from the District where their care went
For years, these persistent breakdowns have been cloaked in
secrecy. Confidentiality laws drafted to protect children and
their families have had the effect of shielding government
officials from scrutiny and allowing them to escape
accountability. The secrecy has prevented some of the worst
details about the child deaths from becoming public.
Those details have surfaced only at closed-door internal
government meetings, where witnesses are summoned to discuss how
and why children die. The D.C. Child Fatality Review Committee –
whose three dozen members include child protection agency
supervisors, police officers, doctors, government lawyers and
others – was created a decade ago to review children's deaths
and recommend ways to prevent future deaths.
After protracted negotiations with city lawyers, The Post
obtained the previously undisclosed records of the child death
reviews: death certificates, police reports, autopsies,
caseworker notes, hospital records and internal death summaries.
The documents provide a rare look at a process that takes place
in nearly every state but remains largely out of public view.
The records cover cases from 1993, when the fatality
committee began to review child deaths, through 2000, the most
recent period for which complete documents were available. An
analysis of those records, along with hundreds of interviews
with government officials and family members, found that:
Four severely disabled children died after they were placed
in unsafe or inappropriate facilities.
Nine children died after social workers and police officers
conducted flawed investigations into abuse or neglect complaints
or failed to remove the children from unsafe homes.
Eleven medically fragile infants died after they were sent
home to drug-addicted or mentally ill parents whose troubles
were known to social workers or hospitals.
In eight years of confidential reports, fatality committee
members issued more than 300 warnings about these and other
problems in reviews of the 180 deaths, the analysis showed. They
proposed specific solutions to the mayor, the D.C. Council, the
police chief, the director of the Child and Family Services
Agency and the chief judge of D.C. Superior Court. But over the
years, even as some officials left and new ones took over, the
great majority of the proposed solutions went unheeded.
"No one paid any attention to us," said Elizabeth Siegel, a
lawyer and fatality committee member.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who was elected in 1998, is
working to revamp the entire system. Last year, the mayor
mounted a lobbying campaign to recover control of Child and
Family Services from the federal court. That happened in June.
Williams named a high-profile former Clinton administration
official to head the agency and increased its budget and staff.
"If we're going to hold people accountable, we ought to at
least hold them accountable for how we're treating kids," said
Williams, himself a foster child.
When a child dies in the District, two reviews take place.
First, the Child and Family Services Agency conducts an internal
review focusing on its handling of the case. Second, the Child
Fatality Review Committee examines the roles of all city
institutions. In the 180 child death files The Post obtained,
the agency issued 358 warnings, criticisms and recommendations;
the committee issued 312 of its own.
The Post constructed a computer database that documented
patterns in these 670 findings. The analysis found mistakes at
each stage of the child protection process:
Doctors, educators, counselors and others who are required to
report abuse and neglect frequently failed to call the emergency
hot line set up by the District to summon police or social
workers. David Wynn, a 2-month-old premature baby who had
suffered from dehydration and pneumonia, died in a home where
the mattresses were black with filth and hamburger meat rotted
in the kitchen. A pediatrician had noted concerns in the boy's
chart that he was being neglected, but he never called the hot
When people did call, social workers and police repeatedly
did not conduct thorough investigations. Devonta Young, 23
months old, died after being beaten by his mother. Nine months
earlier, a doctor had reported to the agency that Devonta had
second-degree burns on his feet. A social worker closed the
complaint as unsupported without interviewing relatives or
neighbors, who were aware of the abuse.
Once the District opened a case to monitor a child, there
were significant gaps. Social workers repeatedly failed to make
required home visits every two weeks. Robert Charles Williams
Jr., 11, died after his father punched him twice in the chest,
angry that his developmentally delayed son could not read a
clock. Social workers monitoring Robert in his grandmother's
home were unaware that his father was staying in the house. A
background check would have shown that the boy's father had 10
When police or social workers removed children from their
homes, safe places were hard to find, and services often were
not provided. Social workers placed Eddie Ward, 13, in a group
home that had a contract with the city. He ran away, was picked
up by police and was returned to the home. Workers there said
they had no vacancies and told Eddie to take a bus back to the
agency. They never ensured that he arrived safely. Three days
later, Eddie was found dead inside a closet in a dilapidated
Washington was supposed to be a national model for child
protection agencies. Ten years ago, U.S. District Judge Thomas
F. Hogan delivered a landmark decision in LaShawn A. v. Barry,
a case brought in the name of a D.C. foster girl, that held the
city liable for failing to protect its children's constitutional
"The District's dereliction of its responsibilities to the
children in its custody is a travesty," the judge said when he
Hogan set new standards for safeguarding the "LaShawn
children." He also ordered the city to examine every child death
under its supervision. That mission fell to the fatality
"Many deaths related to child abuse and neglect are
preventable," the committee members wrote in their first public
report in April 1994. But their detailed discoveries about
government mistakes in those deaths would be kept confidential
In February 1995, a horrific murder became front-page news.
Rhonda Morris, 3, was beaten, strangled and burned with
cigarettes by a cousin, Aaron L. Morris, 19, who was later
convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Morris had earlier
admitted to biting Rhonda's older sister and breaking her arm,
fatality committee records show. But the D.C. corporation
counsel's office, the city's lawyers, declined to pursue an
abuse complaint against Morris.
After Rhonda died, Judith Meltzer, the court-appointed
monitor hired by Judge Hogan, concluded that the corporation
counsel and six other D.C. government agencies made mistakes
contributing to Rhonda's "avoidable death."
Seeing little improvement, the American Civil Liberties Union
lawyers who brought the LaShawn suit demanded a federal
takeover. On May 22, 1995, Hogan complied, issuing another
landmark decision applauded by child advocates. It was the first
time in the nation that a federal judge had taken complete
control of a local child protection agency.
'Thank God It Wasn't My Case'
Hogan began by trying to rebuild the agency's management
structure. He turned Child and Family Services into a
stand-alone department answerable to him. He appointed a
receiver, Jerome G. Miller, to run the new agency.
Miller lasted less than two years. The second receiver,
Ernestine F. Jones, resigned last year. Her tumultuous tenure
culminated in her arrest in August 2000 by deputy U.S. marshals
for disobeying a local judge's order to explain why a neglected
toddler was not receiving services from her agency.
The upheavals at the top of the agency were matched by low
morale and turmoil at the bottom. Social workers were besieged,
supervising far more children than they could reasonably handle.
Judge Hogan tried to reduce caseloads, setting a maximum of
17 children for each worker. But Hogan's order was never
followed, and as recently as last year, some social workers were
in charge of as many as 60 children. Hogan said judicial ethics
did not permit him to discuss the violations of his court orders
or any other aspect of his takeover of the child protection
With so many children, social workers often cannot make the
required biweekly visits, meet deadlines for status reports to
judges or carefully investigate complaints. Several said they
come to work every morning fearing news that one of their
children had died the night before.
"I remember wiping my brow and saying, 'Thank God it wasn't
my case,' " said Darryl Webster, a former D.C. social worker.
"Everyone says that."
The fatality committee cited large caseloads as a problem in
15 child deaths.
One of those who died was King Richardson, who was born
prematurely to a crack-addicted mother and released to a filthy
house with no electricity. Three weeks after King was sent home,
a social worker decided to stop monitoring him. The next week,
the baby died of meningitis. The social worker was in charge of
at least 37 children – more than double Judge Hogan's limit.
The workload is exacerbated by an exodus of veteran social
workers, who are extremely difficult to replace. When the jobs
are filled, they usually go to recruits fresh out of college. In
1999, 90 social workers left – nearly one-third of the staff.
"Children couldn't receive proper services," said Joan Mallory,
a social worker who left after nine years. "Social workers were
That year, a group of social workers sent a warning memo to
Mayor Williams and several D.C. Council members. "The agency is
in more disarray, services are more disjointed and chaotic" than
a decade before, the workers wrote. "Employee morale is at an
all-time low. . . . Staffing levels have been reduced to a point
In 2000, 128 more social workers resigned.
The shortage affects the agency's ability to investigate
neglect complaints. The U.S. General Accounting Office concluded
last year that Child and Family Services failed to investigate
more than 1,200 reports of neglected children within a mandated
While social workers struggled with neglect complaints –
dirty homes, no food, children left alone – police had the same
difficulties with child abuse complaints, which cover physical
In 1993, neighbors of 29-month-old Cecelia Rushing called the
police to report screams coming from her aunt's Northeast
apartment. But officers "failed to adequately pursue the
matter," court records state. Two months later, Cecelia was
beaten to death by her aunt.
Little had changed five years later.
In 1998, police were called to investigate a complaint that
35-month-old Diante Aikens was being abused. An emergency room
doctor said he found markings on Diante's arms indicating he had
been hit with a cord or "a linear object."
Officers did little besides warn Diante's mother to stop
hitting him with a belt, a police report shows. They closed the
case, saying there wasn't enough evidence to charge Diante's
mother with abuse.
Nine months later, Diante was beaten to death.
A Highly Publicized Tragedy
If the social workers and police are the front-line troops of
the system, the 59 judges of D.C. Superior Court are the
officers, presiding over more than 5,100 neglect and abuse
cases. The local judges were not answerable to Hogan, a federal
judge whose authority was limited to the management of Child and
The Post interviewed more than a dozen judges. They were
unwilling to speak on the record, but they expressed strong
misgivings about what they called a "dysfunctional" agency.
In separate interviews with GAO investigators last year,
Superior Court Judges Zinora Mitchell-Rankin and Kaye K.
Christian called the agency's performance "as poor now as it was
a decade ago," blaming "lack of staff knowledge," limited
resources and high turnover of social workers.
Several of the local judges were so frustrated with the
agency that they wanted to go to the man in charge: Hogan. But
one judge told The Post that Hogan refused to meet with them.
Social workers have their own complaints about the judges,
saying court hearings take up hours that could be spent in the
field. With their cases spread among so many judges, social
workers bounce from courtroom to courtroom.
"Being stuck in court all day is a waste of time," said
Charly Mathew, a former D.C. social worker who resigned last
year. "We would just sit outside in the hall for hours."
In December 1999, the system's many flaws combined to produce
a highly publicized tragedy in the case of Brianna Blackmond, a
23-month-old foster child.
A social worker who thought Brianna should not go home missed
a court deadline to tell the judge. The court-appointed attorney
assigned to protect Brianna did not visit her for a year and
failed to ensure that her mother's home was safe. The judge, who
knew the mother had psychological problems, did not hold a
hearing and sent Brianna home based on the word of her mother's
attorney. The city lawyers supervising the case did not appeal
the judge's decision, even though the District's child
protection agency opposed the move.
Two weeks later, on Jan. 6, 2000, Brianna died from severe
blows to the head. The mother's roommate is charged with murder,
and Brianna's mother is charged as an accessory. Both have
pleaded not guilty.
Brianna's death should not have come as a surprise to the
fatality committee. The mistakes in her case were similar to the
mistakes the committee had documented in scores of earlier
The fatality committee began reviewing the deaths of children
in 1993 and issued its first round of confidential warnings to
city officials the next year.
By 1996, committee members said that city officials were not
paying attention to their warnings and that the committee had
"fallen short" of its goal of preventing the deaths. "We have
been unable to move the issues confronting families, children
and systems to the forefront," they wrote.
The committee is made up of representatives from government
agencies and a few volunteers from the community who are
appointed by the mayor and serve three-year terms. For most of
its existence, the committee operated with no staff and no
budget. Earlier this year, it received its first appropriation:
$296,000. Its members have long complained that their work and
warnings were not taken seriously by city officials.
"It's very frustrating," said committee member Siegel. "You
see these deaths come in and see that if we implemented the
recommendations, maybe this death could have been prevented.
It's like hitting your head against the wall."
But critics of the panel say the committee has created some
problems for itself.
The committee began by announcing a clear mission: "ensuring
that all public and private systems responsible for protecting
the District of Columbia's children are accountable." But some
former government officials say the committee does not follow up
on its recommendations and places little pressure on government
agencies in its annual reports to the public.
The reports include descriptions of anonymous child deaths
two years after the fact, with the government's role largely
omitted. And some of the most egregious cases of government
failures uncovered by The Post were never described in the
Those omissions, along with the committee's unwillingness to
publicly blame agencies, result in bland reports that attract
little attention, said Barry Holman, a former Child and Family
Services supervisor who attended fatality committee meetings.
"They weren't helpful at all," Holman said. "They didn't
really tell us much about what had gone on in the kids' lives,
what our agency had done or what the other agencies had done."
Committee members said they do not want to be openly critical
because that might discourage city officials from participating
in the voluntary child death review process.
The members also point out that they do note government
mistakes by issuing recommendations at the end of their public
reports. But the recommendations are general and laden with
jargon. For example, the committee stated in its 1998 report
that police "should reexamine their policies and practice
related to unsupporting abuse cases."
Critics say that such prescriptions accomplish little because
they are not tied to specific deaths.
"They're meant to mislead, because they're meant to protect
the agency and those associated with it, who might be tarred by
this information," said Miller, the former chief of Child and
Family Services. "At all costs, they want to avoid conflict, and
the reports are generated with that in mind."
The committee's most recent report, issued in May, contains
more specific findings about government mistakes and
culpability. This version was prepared at the insistence of D.C.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who has been pushing
for more public disclosure of child death information. The
report also was prepared as The Post was gaining access to the
committee's confidential files.
Sharan James, a government employee who coordinates the
fatality committee, said things are beginning to improve under
"We are seeing a significant difference," James said Friday.
"People are taking the committee seriously and moving in the
Silence in the Stairwell
Wesley Lucas needed help from the time he was born in
December 1997. Interviews with neighbors and records from Child
and Family Services and the fatality committee document his
His mother, her mind clouded by cocaine, had been accused of
neglecting three of her seven children. The District didn't want
to take a chance with Wesley.
At 69, Charles Lucas was dying of lung cancer. He was the
boyfriend of Wesley's mother, who had taken his last name. He
was protective of the infant and didn't want him to be taken
away like some of the others.
Lucas struck a deal with the District. He would keep the baby
temporarily. To help watch Wesley, the child protection agency
relied partly on the Edgewood-Brookland Family Support
Collaborative, a neighborhood group that is paid by the city to
provide social services to families. The agency also paid a
caretaker to help Lucas and Wesley until a relative could be
found to take the baby.
Wesley's mother was in and out of the apartment, spending
most of her days and nights on the streets. Social workers sent
the caretaker three days a week, leaving the weekends uncovered.
Lucas did his best, but he was dying.
"He was a small, fragile man who looked ailing," recalled
Ethel Parker, a social worker from the Israel Baptist Church
across the street. Mary Dews, a neighbor who lived across the
hall from Lucas, said he was a "very wonderful man, very loving
and caring." But he was also "very, very sick. It seemed like he
was going to the hospital just about every other day."
In February 1998, social workers considered extending the
caretaker's hours to include the long Presidents' Day weekend,
but ultimately did not. Several social workers and their
supervisors involved in the case did not return repeated calls
from The Post.
Louvenia Williams, the collaborative's executive director,
checked on the baby on the Wednesday before the weekend. She
would later describe him as "happy, healthy and fat."
"We knew Mr. Lucas was going to die," Williams recently told
The Post. "You can never predict when someone will pass. We
assumed he had a little more time to go because he was doing so
On Saturday, Wesley began to cry. By Monday, there was
silence in the stairwell outside the apartment on Saratoga
On Tuesday morning, Wesley's mother came to see Lucas and her
baby. She banged on the metal apartment door. There was no
answer. She summoned a social worker and a maintenance man. They
walked past the green chain-link fence, through the unlocked
front door and up the 35 steps to the apartment.
At 7:45 a.m., they opened the door. Inside were the two
bodies, the elderly man and the baby. Police said Lucas died
first. With no one to care for him, Wesley became severely
dehydrated, and his heart eventually stopped. He had been dead
for three days. He was 10 weeks old.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report