The District's Lost Children

A Child Endangered, Without a Lifeline

By Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Last of four articles

Along Anacostia Avenue in the Mayfair Parkside section of the District, Regina Brown was known as the proud single mother of her only child, Sylvester, a third-grader with a slight lisp who loved to ride his bike with the big boys on the block. Brown spent her days copying microfilm for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the rest of her time doting on her son.

She bought Sylvester a mountain bike. A computer. Nintendo. Bunk beds so his friends could sleep over. Hot Wheels and Power Rangers. And $4,000 in U.S. savings bonds.

"I spoiled him even before he left the hospital," Brown would later say. "We were like brother and sister."

But beneath this pleasant exterior, Brown was succumbing to insanity. She thought TV talk show hosts were reading her mind. She believed God was instructing her to slay her son.

Those close to the 8-year-old boy knew he was in danger. They warned District police officers. They alerted social workers at the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, which has a legal obligation to protect abused and neglected children and was at the time under a federal court order to improve its services.

But a police officer dismissed a complaint against the mother after an incomplete investigation. Another officer failed to tell the agency that the mother was threatening her son. And city social workers turned away calls to a hot line, contending that the mother's mental state didn't constitute a case of neglect.

"There are two victims in this, the mother and my grandson," said Warren Hall, Sylvester's paternal grandfather. "The system failed them both."

A Vacuum

From 1993 through 2000, 229 children died after they or their families came to the attention of the District's child protection system because of neglect or abuse complaints. In dozens of cases, police officers and social workers responsible for the safety of children failed to take the most basic steps to shield them from harm, according to previously confidential government records obtained by The Washington Post.

The records show that at least nine D.C. children, including Sylvester, perished after police officers and social workers conducted incomplete investigations or left the children to fend for themselves with violent, neglectful or unstable parents or guardians.

The D.C. Child Fatality Review Committee, a panel created to examine child deaths and recommend improvements, urged 63 times in eight years that the police department and the child protection agency fix problems with investigations and monitoring. For years, the recommendations went unheeded.

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