Fenty Rebuffed in Obtaining Facts In Probe of D.C. Group Home Deaths

Parents Patricia Hervey, left, Joanne Jackson and Doreen Hodges testify before the D.C. Council's Human Services Committee.
Parents Patricia Hervey, left, Joanne Jackson and Doreen Hodges testify before the D.C. Council's Human Services Committee. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2006

A D.C. Council committee chairman who wants to know more about a panel investigating deaths in group homes for the mentally disabled got this reply: File a Freedom of Information Act request.

Council member Adrian M. Fenty, the Ward 4 representative and Democratic mayoral hopeful, is a tad ticked off. He had hoped for a much quicker response from the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). A FOIA request can take weeks or months, with no guarantee of getting the information.

"We just asked a couple of simple questions about how the fatality review committee operates, and we were told to file a FOIA," said Fenty, chairman of the council's Human Services Committee. "How much bureaucracy does the government want to put as a barrier to this council and the public?"

The District is facing a new round of criticism about poor care of mentally retarded people who live in city-contracted group homes. In November, the court monitor in a long-standing class-action lawsuit against the D.C. government found that a pattern of neglect led to four deaths in the past year. The federal judge in the case has warned that the District is running out of time to show improvement in services for its most vulnerable citizens.

The Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration's fatality review committee was created by Williams after a series of articles in The Washington Post in 1999 revealed 350 documented cases of abuse and neglect, as well as profiteering, in the group homes. The series found that none of the 116 deaths since 1993 had been investigated. The committee has 11 members, seven from the government and four from the public.

The court monitor, Elizabeth Jones, told Fenty during an oversight hearing last week that she observed two fatality review panel meetings and that one egregious case of neglect "brought the medical examiner almost out of her chair."

Jones expressed concern that the meetings are dominated by the government members, with scant participation by the panel's appointees from the public, a situation that Fenty said means "the fox is guarding the henhouse."

Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said it was wrong for Williams's administration to withhold information about fatalities among the disabled. She called it a matter of confidentiality vs. accountability.

"The executive branch has demonstrated a real unwillingness to be forthcoming about information on harm" to group home residents, Patterson said during the hearing. "What exactly happened? Who did what, when and where? There needs to be greater transparency."

Fenty's committee posed 32 written questions to the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration in advance of last week's hearing. Agency officials answered 28 of the queries but balked at providing what they said was confidential information about the fatality review panel.

The committee asked the agency for a copy of any final report from the panel since Sept. 30; copies of its recommendations and whether the agency and group home contractors followed them; and the number of times government and public members of the panel attended or missed meetings.

Charlotte Brookins-Hudson, the council's general counsel, said it was unprecedented for a council member to have to file a FOIA request to get information from a D.C. agency. "I've never heard of such a thing," she said and noted that the council has subpoena powers.

In June 2000, the mayor told the council that his then-new administration would share information about group home operations -- and that there would be "no need" for FOIA requests.

"The press has a role to play in this," Williams testified at a council hearing at the time. "Everyone under my guidance is under the instruction that there's no need for a Freedom of Information suit. That information ought to be readily available."

The fatality review committee is chaired by the D.C. medical examiner and by Marsha Thompson, interim administrator of the mental retardation agency. Thompson said at the hearing last week that she wanted to give Fenty the information but was told she could not. She did not return calls seeking the name of the official who barred her from releasing the information.

Patterson said the executive branch is misinterpreting and misusing the FOIA statute to deny access to public information. She and Fenty said they will draft legislation to make the law on releasing materials from the mental retardation fatality review panel the same as legislative amendments Patterson introduced to make records available from the D.C. committee that reviews children's deaths.

Joseph Cammarata, a lawyer who has represented families whose mentally disabled relatives were neglected, abused or died in city-run group homes, accused Williams of doing "a complete about-face" from his position in 2000.

"He's playing hide-and-seek with information that's vital to the health and well-being of the developmentally disabled," Cammarata said. "It's critical that information that goes to the heart of how these group homes are run and what underlies the systemic neglect of these innocent people not be held from public view."

In January, after protracted negotiations to obtain copies of group home death investigations conducted in recent years, The Post filed suit to get the records. The newspaper asked for the reports with the names of the deceased deleted. District officials, citing the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the mayor's order creating the review panel, continued to express concerns about privacy.

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