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Colbert I. King

When Government Is Part of the Problem

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 7, 2004; Page A21

Indulging in "what ifs" after 15-year-old Myesha Lowe is dead and buried doesn't move the inquiry into her tragic death very far. Asking "what if" Myesha: had stayed at home on the night she was fatally shot two weeks ago; had spent the evening with a different set of friends; had ducked, as did her two friends, when they saw guns pointed at them, doesn't bring her back or ease the pain of her loss. But one question still can be legitimately raised by her family, friends and D.C. taxpayers, even though this promising teenager has been laid to rest: Where would Myesha Lowe be today if the District of Columbia government had been doing its job?

You see, there's a strong possibility that Joshua Ross, the 20-year-old man charged with slaying Myesha, should not have been on the streets the night she was killed. At the time Ross was allegedly firing bullets into the car where Myesha and her two friends were sitting, he was a ward of the D.C. government.


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Meanwhile, Back to Reality in D.C. (The Washington Post, Jul 31, 2004)
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More than two years earlier, Ross had been placed in a city-sponsored youth home after his arrest for a weapons offense, driving a stolen vehicle and receiving stolen property. However, he ran away from the group home for juvenile offenders two years ago and had been on the loose ever since. At the time of his arrest last week, Ross had an escape warrant on his head. Why the warrant was issued last September, months after he absconded, is just one more disturbing aspect to Myesha's homicide.

Trouble is, many other juvenile fugitives such as Ross are on the streets of the nation's capital. That truth was brought home in this week's news. The Post reported that an investigation by the city's independent inspector general found nearly a third of the 223 juvenile offenders who have run away from city-sponsored group homes and shelters in the past three years are still at large. Moreover, nearly two dozen of these offenders, as in Ross's case, have been at large for more than two years.

Unanswered at this point is how many of these juvenile escapees, as allegedly in the case of Joshua Ross, are committing other crimes even as they enjoy their unauthorized freedom. Nobody in government has a clue. There's a reason for asking.

The inspector general found that youth offenders with long criminal records have been assigned to group homes -- essentially unsecured facilities -- probably the last spot on earth to place high-risk young felons. But don't blame the offenders for being sent to homes with revolving doors.

Look instead to the government -- to those officials who assign dangerous youths to group homes, then fall asleep on the job of monitoring the facilities. Those agencies also have been derelict in tracking down the absconders once they walk away.

At Myesha's funeral, Mayor Anthony Williams told the mourners: "All of us are mothers and fathers of this child. All of us have to step up and play a role." And play-acting by the mayor is just about the size of it, too.

Remember last summer when a Post series exposed the extent of the problem in city-run group homes? The mayor declared at that time that the city was going to license all group homes. Well, nothing happened. He also promised to add two police officers to the unit assigned to locate absconders. That, too, was all talk but no action.

When this mayor speaks to his social services bureaucracy, nobody listens. That's because they think they know what really moves him. If it's not a crane, a baseball or a night out on the town with the A-list, it gets short shrift. If there has been any movement in the D.C. government on the juvenile justice problem, it's because of the arrival of City Administrator Robert Bobb and the subsequent appointment of Neil Albert as deputy mayor for children, youth, family and elders. Both men seem unburdened by short attention spans, a condition quite prevalent in the John Wilson Building. Bobb and Albert also seem reasonably liberated from bureaucratic mind-sets and jargon. They also know there is no way the city can address the problems of youth violence without cleaning up its own act.

On Thursday Bobb told me he has stopped future juvenile placements at three deficient group homes -- Dupont One, Lamont and Gateway Three -- and ordered juvenile offenders removed from those facilities. He said two additional group homes are slated to meet with a similar fate.

After receiving reports of serious staff problems at Oak Hill, the city's secure facility for juvenile offenders, Bobb ordered background checks on the employees. The investigation disclosed that two workers assigned to Oak Hill under a program run by the University of the District of Columbia had criminal records themselves. Bobb ordered them fired.

Now Bobb and Albert are trying to play catch-up by beefing up the absconder outreach staff, finding and licensing new group homes, and removing barriers that prevent the police from having access to youth records that can aid in finding absconders.

Some of those changes kick in next month. But the bitter truth is that the staff and management problems in the Youth Services Administration exist in other parts of the government -- namely, a deadly admixture of mediocrity, carelessness and red-tape-loving bureaucrats who live to lord it over people needing real help.

Ridding the D.C. government workforce of that kind of worker requires a commitment to excellence and a willingness to break china -- and heads -- to reach the goal. Until the arrival of Bobb and Albert, the Williams administration showed no stomach for that kind of decisive action, which helps explain how a Joshua Ross could have stayed out in the streets for so long.

And to think: As of yesterday, there were still 56 juvenile fugitives out there somewhere doing goodness knows what to somebody else.

kingc@washpost.com


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