Fenty Urges Investigation Of D.C. Care of Disabled

Patricia Hervey, left, and Joanne Jackson listen as Doreen Hodges testifies before the D.C. Council's Committee on Human Services. The women are D.C. residents who have special-needs children.
Patricia Hervey, left, and Joanne Jackson listen as Doreen Hodges testifies before the D.C. Council's Committee on Human Services. The women are D.C. residents who have special-needs children. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 7, 2006

A D.C. Council member called yesterday for the creation of a special council committee with subpoena powers to investigate the District's chronic failure to protect people with developmental disabilities and deliver better services to them.

Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who heads the council's Committee on Human Services, criticized Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), saying he had not lived up to the pledge he made six years ago to fix operations with the city's troubled Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration.

"I don't understand why, after all the scandal and embarrassment and outrage, your boss doesn't do more," Fenty told city officials at an all-day oversight hearing. Fenty said he would ask the full council this month to authorize the creation of an investigative committee that could seek "more specifics" about the agency's problems.

The agency "is probably closer to receivership than it has been at any time in the last five years," Fenty said.

Last week, the federal judge in a 30-year-old class-action lawsuit that centers on the District's care of the developmentally disabled expressed frustration at the slow pace of reform. Plaintiffs in the suit have said they will go back to court soon to seek other legal remedies. Those might include asking for a receivership, which could result in the appointment of an outsider to oversee the care of some of the city's most vulnerable residents.

At yesterday's hearing, plaintiffs in the lawsuit and other advocates for the mentally disabled recounted such problems with the city's care that council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) reacted with dismay.

"We are moving backwards, not forward," she said.

Joseph Cammarata, whose law firm, Chaikin & Sherman, has represented about 15 families whose mentally disabled relatives were neglected, abused or died in city-run group homes, said the agency is suffering from systemic dysfunction.

"Promises were made, and promises were broken," he said. The cases he handled reflected, he said, "a lack of supervision, a lack of training, a lack of enforcement" and a failure to analyze the information the city collects about its group home residents.

The District, Cammarata said, did not take any enforcement action after mistakes by some of its group home contractors. Instead, he said, the city sided in court with the contractors hired to run the group homes, a situation that "resulted in a continuation of the abuses . . . and in a waste of government resources."

Sandy Bernstein, legal director for University Legal Services, which represents plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, said the District's recent failure to meet a 90-day court deadline to improve services for some plaintiffs shows how deep-seated its troubles are.

"We believe that if the District knew how to fix the problems confronting class members, they probably would have," she said. "Unfortunately, despite much activity, there has been little accomplished."

Most of those who testified praised the dedication and expertise of Marsha Thompson, interim director for the city's mental retardation agency. But they said there is little evidence of fundamental improvement.

"The limited capacity within the highest levels of the agency to plan and implement the many changes that are needed for [the agency] to fulfill its mandate is disturbing," said Tina Campanella, executive director for the Quality Trust for Individuals With Disabilities Inc., a city-funded advocacy group.

Thompson and Brenda Donald Walker, the deputy mayor for children, youth and family issues, said that the city has taken "serious steps" toward reforming the system but that the past 12 months have been very trying, particularly because of the deaths of four group home residents.

They said that the contractor that operated homes where three of those residents lived has been shut down and that new contractors are being brought in.

The agency, Walker said, now reports directly to her office, which "reflects a serious commitment on our part to reduce bureaucratic barriers, increase interagency collaboration and demand accountability."

But progress has been slower than she expected. "The pieces aren't coming together," she said.

Thompson called the recent decision to shut down the contractor an "unprecedented step" that shows the city's commitment to improving care.

When Fenty said that "heads should roll" because of the city's slow progress, Thompson agreed, saying some longtime employees are part of the problem.

"People are cemented in a practice that has been condoned for many years," she said.

Several advocates and one contractor pushed city officials to make it easier for the District to obtain federal funds that would help people live more independent lives.

"Persons with disabilities, families, providers and advocates have been pushing for the [changes] for more than 20 years in this city," said Mary Lou Meccariello, executive director of the Arc of DC, which supports people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

She said a lack of consistent leadership and an inability to find collaborative strategies with the Medical Assistance Administration are dragging things out.

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