A Home With No Electricity, No Hope

By Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Like so many babies before him, King Richardson was born prematurely to a mother who had smoked crack while she was pregnant. Nineteen days later, in September 1997, Washington Hospital Center workers released King with an apnea monitor to track his breathing.

But he went to a home without electricity.

King's parents were struggling to feed four children and overcome drug habits. Two years before King was born, an anonymous caller had alerted the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency that King's mother might be neglecting her children, agency records show. The caller was concerned that the apartment was without power and the children had no medical care.

King's hospital pediatrician wrote a letter to Potomac Electric Power Co. requesting help on behalf of the family, which couldn't pay the bills, according to a report by the D.C. Child Fatality Review Committee. A Pepco spokesman said the company had no record of such a letter.

Child and Family Services policy requires an emergency investigation by social workers whenever children are living without electricity. But three weeks after King went home to his Southeast neighborhood, a social worker, Agnes Johnson, closed the case and stopped monitoring the family, even though the electricity was still out, according to the fatality committee report. An agency report stated that "hostility of the birth father appears to have intimidated staff." The father was described as "verbally abusive and physically aggressive."

A week later, King stopped breathing. He was 6 weeks old.

On Oct. 21, 1997, D.C. police officers found King unconscious in a filthy bedroom with no heat. Burnt-down candles sat atop a dresser. "The refrigerator when opened was overrun with roaches and was not working due to the power being off," the police report stated.

In King's cluttered crib was the apnea monitor. It was zipped in its case. King's parents said the battery was being charged at a neighbor's home, fatality committee records show.

Several hours later, King died of Group B streptococcal sepsis with meningitis, autopsy records show.

The fatality committee wrote: "The case was inappropriately closed. Home assessment not conducted . . . . The worker appears to have lost focus on why the case was initially opened."

The committee also found that the social worker, Johnson, was juggling too many cases -- at least 37 children, a violation of a federal court order setting a 17-child limit. Johnson declined to comment through an agency spokeswoman.

King's parents say they are now off drugs and both employed. They declined to discuss what happened to their son.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company