Steering a Troubled Disability Agency

Marsha H. Thompson, at Chestnut St. Home, has headed the mental retardation agency since last spring.
Marsha H. Thompson, at Chestnut St. Home, has headed the mental retardation agency since last spring. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The men and women in the photography class, all of whom have mental disabilities, were having lunch when Marsha H. Thompson arrived. The head of the District's mental retardation agency greeted several people by name, then noticed that one man's walker was broken. In a flash, she was on her cellphone, issuing urgent instructions to get it repaired.

"There are macro issues and micro issues," said Thompson, who had dropped by the program in Northeast during a long day of staff meetings and visits in the field. "This is one of those micro days."

Since taking over the troubled Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration last spring, Thompson's major challenge has been to fix chronic, critical failings that have impaired care for hundreds of people, among the most vulnerable in the city.

The agency is responsible for delivering a range of services for the developmentally disabled, everything from help with shopping for some who live in their own apartments to 24-hour care for those in fragile health who live in group homes.

By Thompson's count, she is the 17th or 18th administrator in the past dozen years. Combined with high turnover among other government officials, this has made it difficult to carry out a consistent reform effort, she and others said.

"Change should have happened a long time ago," Thompson said in a recent interview. The agency's critics "want people to come in with the thunder and lightning of God because people's lives are at risk. And they are at risk. I understand the frustration."

She also shares it. When the District recently brought in two new contractors to take over operations at 16 group homes, Thompson had to turn to several D.C. agencies to help with the transition. She personally walked the out-of-state vendors through the laborious paperwork.

"Moving a bureaucracy," she said glumly, "is like punching your arm into a wall full of jello."

Though praised for her hard work and experience, Thompson said she, like her predecessors, has become a flash point for those who are fed up with the agency's performance.

"Marsha Thompson is more knowledgeable and better than what we've had -- but that's setting the bar really low," said D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who chairs the human services committee that oversees Thompson's agency.

The council voted last week to cut nearly $15 million from the mental retardation agency's budget, approving about $61 million instead of the $76 million requested. Fenty and other members complained that Thompson's agency had overspent its budget while providing "a deplorable level" of services.

Since 1976, the District has been mired in a federal class-action lawsuit stemming from its poor care of the mentally disabled, many of whom also have serious physical disabilities. There are concerns about group home deaths and injuries, health care, staff training and the city's failure to set up services that can be paid for with matching federal funds.

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