The District's Lost Children

'Protected' Children Died as Government Did Little

By Sari Horwitz, Scott Higham and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 9, 2001

First of four articles

The decision sealed the fate of 2-month-old Wesley Lucas.

D.C. social workers were assigned to protect Wesley from his neglectful mother, a crack addict. So they allowed the baby to stay with his mother's boyfriend. The 69-year-old man was dying of lung cancer, but the workers promised to provide a caretaker to help.

They decided not to send anyone over the long Presidents' Day weekend in 1998.

That Saturday, Wesley began to cry, a plaintive wail that echoed for hours down the narrow four-story stairwell of a pale yellow Northeast Washington apartment building. Finally, there was nothing but silence. When a maintenance worker opened Apartment 5's brown steel door on Tuesday, the man was found faceup in his bed, dead from his disease.

On his chest lay Wesley. The baby boy had died of severe dehydration. His death was officially ruled an accident, and his tiny body was cremated.

Social workers, who had an obligation under D.C. law and a federal court order to protect children like Wesley, later said they believed there was little risk in leaving the baby alone with the dying man over the three-day weekend.

"Who would have thought that the harm would have come in the form of no food, water or other sustenance?" government officials wrote.

Wesley Lucas is among the 229 boys and girls who perished from 1993 through 2000 after their families had come to the attention of the District's child protection system, a network of social workers, police officers, judges and other city employees. The children include Rhonda Morris, Cecelia Rushing, Robert Charles Williams Jr., King Richardson, Diante Aikens and Brianna Blackmond, whose death last year outraged the city.

In a year-long investigation, The Washington Post obtained records documenting the deaths of 180 of the 229 children. The circumstances of the deaths -- and the District's culpability in many of them -- have been hidden from the public for years. Some children died in accidents or shootings on the streets. Others succumbed to disease.

But one in five -- 40 boys and girls, most of them infants and toddlers -- lost their lives after government workers failed to take key preventive action or placed children in unsafe homes or institutions, The Post found. Although 15 of the 40 deaths were ruled to be due to natural causes, government officials reviewing those cases found numerous critical errors. Seventeen of the deaths were homicides, most of them in homes.

Thousands of once-secret documents provide an unprecedented look inside the city's child protection agency -- the only one in the nation to operate under federal court control as part of a large-scale reform effort that began in 1991. The records illustrate how the decade-long effort failed some of the District's youngest wards. Interviews and additional investigation uncovered the reasons the children lost their lives, the government agencies involved, and the identities of the workers who committed critical mistakes and errors of judgment.

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© 2001 The Washington Post Company