Fenty Vows Mental Health Reforms

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty pledged yesterday to overhaul the District department assigned to care for disabled residents, naming a new director and outlining a plan that includes 64 reform measures.

Fenty (D) nominated Judith E. Heumann, a former adviser on disability and diversity issues to the World Bank, to lead the city's Department of Disability Services, which was formerly known as the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration.

That agency has been under the watch of a court monitor as part of a long-running class-action lawsuit against the city over care of people with mental retardation. About 643 of the plaintiffs survive, all onetime residents of Forest Haven, the District's former institution for the mentally retarded.

A federal judge has threatened to place the agency in receivership if improvements are not made. In February, Elizabeth Jones, the court monitor, reported that the city had yet to make significant progress.

In her report, Jones noted that 13 members of the class-action suit have died since the last status hearing in October and that the lack of independent investigations into the deaths has "grave consequences for the protection of health and safety."

Peter Nickles, Fenty's general counsel, called Heumann a "superstar" and vowed to launch immediate reforms.

"We are going to bring relief not just to folks entangled in the lawsuit, but to all the vulnerable folks in our community," said Nickles, who had sued the city as a private attorney over care of the homeless and mentally retarded before joining the Fenty administration. "We are intent on changing the culture of those who work with the vulnerable in the city."

Heumann, who will be paid $170,000, served in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services from 1993 to 2001. In 2002, she joined the World Bank, where she worked on disability initiatives.

"I understand discrimination firsthand," said Heumann, who uses a wheelchair. The biggest challenge in joining the city government, she added, will be "taking the plans that have been put on paper and making them a reality."

Fenty's reform plan covers four areas -- leadership and organization, health, safety and welfare. The administration pledges to identify care facilities with long-standing records of poor performance, find ways to bring new providers to the city and retrain staff on new policies and procedures. But most of the initiatives do not have specific timetable. Nickles said that the reforms could cost up to $1.8 million to implement and that the bulk of the overhaul will be put in place by November.

"We have much to do," he said. "A federal judge gave an opinion two weeks ago that the city has had 30 years of failure and neglect. That's not acceptable."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company