The District's Lost Children

A Foster Girl Is Sent Away And Dies Alone

By Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 10, 2001

Second of four articles

Bent over in her wheelchair, her spine twisted by scoliosis, NickiColma Spriggs died at age 15 in the hallway of a Delaware nursing home on Thanksgiving Day 1998. Her body looked like an upside-down L.

A child of the District, Nicki had been sent to Delaware in 1992. During the next six years, child protection workers who were her guardians under D.C. law and a federal court order failed to monitor the curvature of her spine and promptly arrange corrective surgery. Her back pitched sideways, slowly and painfully, until it was set at a right angle, with her head tipped at the side of her body.

"We really didn't pay attention to the children who were sent to live outside the District, and that's sad for me to say, because I was involved," said Pablo Ruiz-Salomon, a former social worker at the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency who supervised Nicki's foster-care case during the last year of her life. "By the time we started to look at that facility and others, and scrutinize what was going on with Nicki, it was too late."

What happened to Nicki Spriggs, one of 229 D.C. children who died from 1993 through 2000 after they or their families came to the attention of the child protection system, exposes the many ways in which the system can fail to protect abused and neglected children. Nicki is among 40 children who lost their lives after government workers failed to take key preventive actions or placed the children in unsafe homes or institutions, a Washington Post investigation found.

Even though Nicki had a court-appointed attorney, three D.C. Superior Court judges, four agency supervisors and eight different District social workers assigned to her case, she was visited just twice during the six years she spent in Delaware. A surgeon there examined Nicki in 1992 and scheduled a follow-up appointment for six months later. But he did not see her then, and he did not see her again for six more years.

Finding safe places for severely disabled foster children like Nicki has been a decades-long problem in the District. Child protection officials are forced to look beyond the city to such states as Florida, Pennsylvania and Delaware, where institutions and nursing homes have built wings and added floors to capture the lucrative market in hard-to-place foster-care children.

"The kids were basically dumped," said Jerome G. Miller, who was chief of Child and Family Services from 1995 to 1997. "They were stashed and forgotten."

'Always Worrisome'

When Nicki came under the protection of the District in 1990 -- after her mother had neglected her -- a nursing home near the Delaware Bay with a new 36-room pediatric wing seemed the perfect place for the disabled girl from Northeast Washington.

Then-D.C. Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler signed the transfer papers in 1991. Nicki would live at the Harbor Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Lewes, Del., a three-year-old private, for-profit facility with 180 beds. Such care usually costs at least $65,000 a year in Medicaid funds. D.C. agency social workers would be responsible for reporting to the judge on Nicki's condition and progress.

"It was always worrisome, sending these children out of the District," Kessler, now a U.S. District judge, said in a recent interview. "You have to rely on the agency to keep track of them, and they just wouldn't do it."

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