The District's Lost Children

Without Help, Frail Infants Died

By Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 11, 2001; 12:03 AM

Third of four articles

The pattern was painstakingly documented. Fragile, sick babies were born to mothers in the District who had been abusing drugs or mistreating their children. Doctors and nurses noted their fears for the newborns' safety.

Still, the babies left the hospital with their mothers. And little was done to protect the infants -- even though a government panel repeatedly warned that they could die unless the city took action.

Eleven drug-exposed or medically frail newborns died from 1993 through 2000 after they were released to parents whose troubles were well documented by hospitals and social workers, according to previously confidential records obtained by The Washington Post.

The babies got lost in a system where no one assumes direct responsibility for them. Vague legal definitions and poor communication among caregivers hamstring those who would like to help, according to a review of case files and dozens of interviews conducted by The Post.

In the District's neonatal wards, few rules govern whether and when hospitals should release fragile, drug-exposed babies to troubled mothers. Hospital workers can call the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency when they are worried about sending an infant home, but each hospital makes those decisions differently.

In some instances when a sickly baby died, the hospitals did not notify the agency about the birth. In most cases, though, the agency failed to respond to the hospitals' calls, leaving babies in the hands of parents who were ill-equipped to care for them, according to government records.

"We do not have time to take care of everyone," agency social workers sometimes told hospital employees, according to a confidential survey of hospital staff members obtained by The Post.

"Child and Family Services says, 'We just can't handle all these cases,' " said Elizabeth Siegel, a lawyer who is a member of the D.C. Child Fatality Review Committee, a panel that examines the deaths of District children. "I say, 'We can't handle all these deaths.' "

Saying a Prayer

In her four years at the George Washington University Hospital's neonatal unit, hospital social worker Mary Kardauskas had seen her share of premature, drug-exposed babies. In October 1998, a baby girl named Tyrika Michelle Perry caught her eye.

Tyrika, a twin, was born six weeks early and weighed 4 pounds, 3 ounces. Her twin had serious respiratory and intestinal problems and was sent to another hospital.

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