Theodoric James deserved persistent help from the government

Columnist

The haunting story of Theodoric James’s lonely and unnecessary death is the kind we’ll probably be hearing more about.

The man was 71 and had a long and distinguished career serving in the inner sanctum of American power. But after leaving his job at the White House, he died in his Northwest Washington home amid wretched squalor.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

He asked to be left alone. And, sadly, he was.

“There’s a lot of people like him here. Single, older people in D.C. who came to work during the war and stayed,” said Debra Levy, who runs Eldercare Associates in Silver Spring, a private, geriatric care service.

Now those folks are getting older and don’t always have family close by. In too many cases, an overburdened, underfunded and hamstrung government is all they’ve got in their golden years. And that government failed to act when James needed it most.

Theordoric James worked for 10 presidents in his 50-year career at the White House, including President George W. Bush. (Family photo)

It’s not like nobody cared about the man.

James’s neighbor in the District, Alex Dobbins, and his family in Mississippi flooded government agencies with calls for help. When James stopped showering and eating, when his power and water were shut off, and he began using outdoor buckets as a toilet, his friends and family begged every agency they could think of to intervene.

Dobbins showed the Post’s Christian Davenport the long and detailed logs of all his calls to Adult Protective Services, the D.C. Department of Mental Health, their council member and even the mayor.

But whenever a government agency sent someone to his door, James turned them away. And the representatives of those agencies accepted that, despite the fact that James was unwashed, unkempt and malnourished.

He was a grown man with the right to refuse help. Unless there was a court order, they couldn’t step in, they said.

Apparently, 10 buckets of feces on a porch, piles of garbage outside and rats everywhere were still not enough for city authorities to barge in and rescue the man. If James didn’t warrant the help of Adult Protective Services, then who would?

A social worker familiar with the agency said that they are financially strapped and stretched thin. “They are under enormous pressure to close cases,” the social worker said.

That’s the case at social service agencies across the country. There’s less and less funding and more and more elderly. Many of the nation’s 76 million baby boomers expect to age in their homes, just as James did. And some will insist they don’t need help, even as they are unraveling mentally or physically.

“It’s somewhat prevalent, when you’re dealing with folks who are losing control of their faculties. Even when there is a high level of involvement, with family stepping in, it’s difficult,” said Duane Rollins, regional executive director of HouseWorks, an in-home care provider for the elderly, based in Bethesda. “If the family lives far away, it can be nearly impossible for folks to accept care.”

James never married and didn’t have any children, so his closest kin was back home in Mississippi, where he was born. They called and advocated on his behalf but didn’t have the means to come to Washington and intervene.

The D.C. government has an extraordinary plan for wrap-around services to help a person like James. According to Hamilton Kuralt, who works in the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ Office of Service Integrity, the plan includes the DCRA, D.C. Department of Mental Health, the Office of the Tenant Advocate, the Fire Marshal and Emergency Services, the D.C. Office on Aging, the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Human Services/Adult Protective Services, the Department of Public Works and the mayor.

But, Kuralt notes, all of it “requires consent of the individual” unless he or his home is a threat to others. That’s a frighteningly high threshold.

And James apparently didn’t meet it, although it was obvious to everyone around him that he was headed toward death. A very slow one, but death for sure. It came Aug. 1, when Dobbins called 911 after the grueling heat wave and reported that he hadn’t seen his friend out and about. Firefighters found his body slumped against the door.

Accepting this man’s rebuff of help is not too different from letting a suicide jumper take the plunge. Of course, the guy standing on the ledge won’t step down when you first ask him. But we persist, and talk and talk and then put a safety net below him.

The extraordinary man who served 10 presidents deserved at least one government agency that wouldn’t listen to his no.

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