For the Unwanted, Few Options

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

In the District, there are few long-term alternatives for severely disabled children whom nobody wants: some group homes, expensive out-of-state institutions and foster homes like Betty Thompson's.

Thompson, 54, a retired postal worker, turned her two-story, four-bedroom Southeast town house into a place of last resort for six severely disabled children and two disabled adults. She received about $4,500 a month in foster-care and adoption payments from the District.

But once-confidential government records stated in 1999 that the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency violated its rules by placing children with Thompson because she had too many disabled children and her home was unlicensed by the city after 1996. Records compiled by the D.C. Child Fatality Review Committee also allege that Thompson and a companion were the subject of several child abuse complaints from 1977 to 1999 and that three children living in the home had died.

The panel said the Thompson case underscores the need for skilled medical facilities or foster homes for severely disabled D.C. children.

Thompson denied abusing children and said those who died had severe medical problems. She said her licensing was held up by agency paperwork, not problems in her home.

"My children love me, and I love them," said Thompson, who has adopted the children in her home. "I take excellent care of them. I work very hard with these kids to keep them clean and well-nourished. I give loving care to children who other people wouldn't spit on."

In 1986, six years after Thompson received a license to care for one severely disabled child, the agency notified her that her foster home would be closed "effective immediately" because of a child abuse complaint. But her home was never closed, and child protection agency officials could not explain why, fatality committee documents state. Thompson said she was allowed to keep her home open after an agency hearing.

"They gave me three or four kids after that," Thompson said. "If I had done anything to those children, I would be in jail."

A decade later, in March 1996, the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs refused to renew Thompson's foster home license because there were too many disabled people in the home -- a total of seven.

But an internal Child and Family Services Agency document defended Thompson, with a supervisor describing her as "caring and capable" with a "cheerful, pleasant personality." Government records show that agency supervisors knew Thompson operated her home without a license. Instead of removing the children, the agency gave her one more.

In March 1997, a D.C. social worker brought 9-month-old Ricky Anthony to Thompson's unlicensed home. Ricky had been severely beaten when he was 3 months old by Charles Jones, a family friend. Jones pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. Ricky's brain was damaged, leaving him blind, deaf, retarded and subject to seizures.

Nearly two and a half years later, Ricky was found dead in a corner of his crib, with a diaper draped over his face. D.C. Medical Examiner Jonathan L. Arden ruled the death a homicide, blaming the previous beating by Jones. Arden said there was no evidence of fresh injuries. Jones, who is serving 40 months to 10 years for beating Ricky, now faces second-degree murder charges. He has pleaded not guilty.

In its confidential review, the fatality committee called Thompson's home "a safety hazard" because seven individuals in wheelchairs were living on the second floor with no means of escape in a fire. Thompson said only five were in wheelchairs and that she had installed a sprinkler system and smoke detectors.

On Dec. 9, 1999, the fatality committee wrote to Ernestine F. Jones, then the federally appointed chief of Child and Family Services, that the case demonstrated "very serious and chronic" problems that "could have been contributing factors to several children's deaths that occurred in this caregiver's home."

Jones responded that her agency had found no neglect and had "no basis to further scrutinize this home." She also said the agency was working on drafting foster-home licensing regulations, which go into effect this fall.

While reviewing Ricky's case, the committee noted something unusual.

Although the D.C. Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Agency refused to give Thompson a license, Jones had issued Thompson a temporary or "provisional" foster-home license covering just three months in 1999. The committee questioned the timing, noting that the temporary license "happened to coincide" with the date of Ricky's death.

Thompson, who showed The Post all of her licenses since 1987, said she never received the temporary license.

"They're just lying to cover their butts," she said.

Jones did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

After Ricky's death, the agency decided not to give Thompson any more children. But the city still pays her about $3,000 a month in adoption subsidies, she said.

"They made a mistake closing my home," she said. "I'll go to my grave saying that."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company