D.C. Mayor Fires Director Of Agency for the Disabled

Marsha H. Thompson, dismissed as head of the District's disabilities office, is the first agency head fired in years, Mayor Anthony A. Williams says.
Marsha H. Thompson, dismissed as head of the District's disabilities office, is the first agency head fired in years, Mayor Anthony A. Williams says. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery and Karylyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams fired the director of the District agency that cares for the mentally retarded yesterday in hopes of averting a court takeover of the troubled bureaucracy, which is facing fresh allegations of abuse and neglect in city-funded group homes.

After barely a year on the job, Marsha H. Thompson was dismissed as administrator of the city's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration. Williams said it was the first firing of an agency head in years.

In her place, Williams appointed Kathy Elmore Sawyer, retired commissioner of Alabama's mental health department and an experienced advocate for the mentally disabled. Sawyer now serves as a consultant to the D.C. agency. She will work under a six-month contract that ends shortly before Williams (D) leaves office in January.

During a news conference, Williams introduced Sawyer as "a nationally recognized expert who I believe can make an immediate impact on the staff, on the operations, on the mission and strategy of this important agency. . . . We believe she is the ideal, really the perfect person to get this job done."

Williams said he hopes Sawyer's appointment "can reassure the court and the lawyers for our clients that receivership is not the right choice at this time."

Several advocates called Sawyer a respected administrator with a sterling reputation. But the move will not stave off a push to have a receiver take control of the agency, the target of a 1976 class action lawsuit over care of the mentally disabled. University Legal Services, a group representing the plaintiffs, recently asked a federal judge to appoint a receiver, and a hearing is set for June 29.

"It isn't as simple as shuffling people and removing an administrator to fix 30 years of problems," said Sandy Bernstein, legal director of University Legal Services. The agency has had nine administrators in seven years, she said. Sawyer "will be the 10th."

A court takeover of the mental retardation agency would mark a major embarrassment for Williams during his final year in office. When he became mayor in 1999, five agencies were in receivership, including those responsible for housing, child welfare and mental health. Williams made it a priority to regain control, doing so by 2002. The District has not lost control of any city function during his administration.

Problems at the mental retardation agency -- which employs more than 200 people to oversee 90 residential and day program contractors, as well as 360 group homes -- have persisted.

Two weeks ago, as plaintiffs requested a receiver, the U.S. Justice Department urged the judge to hold the District in contempt of court because, it said, the city had not met promises to improve health care and other services at group homes and because of 14 "preventable and questionable" deaths since January 2003. The papers gave vivid and startling details about the extent of the abuse, which ranged from severe scaldings to fatal starvation.

In its court filing, the Justice Department criticized Williams, saying he has known about problems for more than 10 years, dating to his tenure as the city's chief financial officer.

Meanwhile, agency officials reluctantly revealed to council members that they had run out of money to pay the private providers who run the city's network of group homes. Last week, the mayor asked the council to approve an additional $18 million for the fiscal year that ends in September.

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