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."
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.
"They went to the great burial place of recommendations," said Barry Holman, a former Child and Family Services employee who attended fatality committee meetings. "There's a vacuum out there, and there was no mechanism for delivering the recommendations to the agencies and making sure they were implemented."
The recommendations were intended to save children like Sylvester, whose story emerges from interviews, court records, police reports, psychiatric evaluations and documents from the child protection agency and the fatality committee.
A Call for Help
Sylvester and his mother were inseparable.
"She was beautiful with that child," said Francine Griffin, a neighbor who lived in the same apartment house on Anacostia Avenue.
But in the summer of 1996, the normally effervescent boy turned solemn. Without warning, Brown quit her microfilming job. Sylvester and neighbors told relatives she was "acting funny." She was leaving pots and pans on her kitchen stove until they caught fire. She was putting household belongings in the garbage, only to retrieve them minutes later.
Workers at a community social service group suspected that Brown was punching Sylvester and beating him with a belt.
They called police.
Vanessa M. Douglas was a youth services police officer with seven years on the force when she arrived at 721 Anacostia Ave. NE at 1:08 p.m. on July 8, 1996. She walked up a short flight of stairs to Apartment 14. Brown told the officer that she never beat Sylvester. She said she quit work because her son was having trouble in summer school. Douglas went to Thomas Elementary School to interview Sylvester. The boy told the officer his mother hit him during play fights. Nothing more.
Douglas closed the case, writing in her report: "There is no evidence to support any allegations of abuse."
There is also no evidence in fatality committee records or police reports that Douglas interviewed Brown's neighbors or relatives. Or that she brought Sylvester to a doctor for an examination. Or that she took photographs of his body. Or interviewed workers at Community Connections, the group that called in the complaint.
Police and child protection experts say that, at the very least, Douglas should have interviewed neighbors and relatives. More importantly, they say, the officer should have spoken to those who called in the original complaint.
Douglas said in a recent interview that she couldn't recall the case. But she said she was handling 30 to 40 cases simultaneously and had little time to devote to any one of them.
"We were limited to how long we could spend on investigations," said Douglas, who left the D.C. police department in 1999 and now works for the Library of Congress police force. "We really cared about kids. But the same kids were coming through the system over and over again, and the judges kept sending them back to the same homes.
"After a while, it got depressing."
Investigating child abuse complaints has long been a low priority, D.C. police officers and their supervisors say. When the District first divided the investigations between police and social workers 25 years ago, the plan seemed simple: Officers would handle physical abuse calls; city social workers would investigate neglect complaints.
In cases involving both abuse and neglect, officers and social workers would investigate jointly. This setup was unique. In most U.S. cities, social workers handle all complaints and call on police only when there is evidence that the abuse constitutes a possible crime.
Over the years, the District's method of investigating child abuse has caused deep dissent and widespread confusion within the police department and the child protection agency. Although many officers care passionately about conducting abuse investigations, others view the cases as menial tasks better handled by social workers, police supervisors say.
After Douglas filed her report, the case was closed as far as D.C. police were concerned. The decision, in effect, severed the first of several lifelines set up by the city's child protection system to keep children like Sylvester safe.
For two months, Brown had been hearing voices. They were calling her a "troll," telling her "nobody wants you," chanting, "Beast, beast, beast."
By the time Douglas visited Brown's home in early July 1996, the voices were becoming more persistent. She believed television talk show hosts were reading her mind and demons were coming to take her away. The voices were telling her that her son had a power that God wanted back. If that didn't happen, God was going to kill her.
Toward the end of August, Brown began to "purify" her apartment. She and Sylvester dragged chairs and lamps, tables and beds to the street. Then she told her son they had to bring the belongings back inside.
"It was bizarre," said a neighbor, Mary Beasley.
With the voices consuming her life, Brown decided to tell someone. At Sylvester's eighth birthday party in August 1996, she confided in Jenny Peterson, Sylvester's paternal grandmother, who was taking care of Sylvester during summer vacation. Brown told Peterson that someone or something was instructing her to slay her son.
"She told me she was going to kill him, that he was living in sin," Peterson recalled. "I said: 'Regina, what are you saying? He's not living in sin. He's 8 years old.' "
The next day, Peterson said, Brown called to say she was coming over to pick up her son from his grandmother's. "She told me she was going to kill him," said Peterson, who called police.
For the second time, the police dispatched a patrol car. Brown was at the house when the officers arrived.
"She kept saying she was going to kill him," Peterson said.
The officers decided to leave Sylvester with his grandmother and his father, Warren Holmes, at their Northeast Washington home and bring Brown to a hospital for an emergency psychiatric evaluation.
Before driving off, the officers gave Sylvester's grandmother a warning.
"They told me that when she gets out, you have to give him back," Peterson said. "The police officer said, 'You don't have custody of him, and if you don't give him back, we'll lock you up.' "
For the second time, someone had summoned police for help. And for the second time, police would sever a lifeline for Sylvester.
There is no documentation in government records that the officers notified the Child and Family Services Agency that Sylvester's mother had been hospitalized and her son would be staying with relatives. The agency had no idea that Sylvester's mother was slipping into psychosis.
By not contacting the agency that day, police failed to follow procedures set up under District law to protect children from "imminent danger." If police had made the call, Sylvester could have been placed under protective supervision, his case monitored by the agency's family services division. His case also would have come before a D.C. Superior Court judge to ensure that Sylvester's mother was mentally fit before she could be reunited with her son.
At Howard University Hospital's psychiatric ward, Brown was hallucinating. Doctors concluded that she had a psychotic disorder. She told them someone was controlling her mind.
"She was noted to be depressed, anxious and hopeless with suicidal thoughts," a court-appointed psychiatrist would later write in a report after reviewing Brown's records from Howard. "She had dreams her son would die."
Six days later, the hospital permitted Brown to check herself out against the advice of doctors. "Despite all these indications that she was psychotic and might be a danger to her son, she was allowed to discharge herself," the psychiatrist wrote.
There is no evidence in fatality committee files obtained by The Post that the hospital contacted the child protection agency. Hospital officials declined to discuss the case. "We have no comment, based on the laws governing patient confidentiality," said Donna L. Brock, a Howard University spokeswoman.
Child protection and legal experts say hospitals have an obligation under D.C. law to notify Child and Family Services, because the mother had been deemed a danger to her son. Doctors, nurses and other medical staffers are "mandatory reporters" under District law, and they must notify the agency if they suspect a child is in danger.
The failure to report when children are in danger has been a persistent problem in the child protection system. From 1993 through 2000, the Child Fatality Review Committee cited the failure to report children who needed help in the deaths of 16 children.
Another Call for Help
Soon the imaginary voices returned. Voices from relatives, taunting Brown, cursing at her. Her neighbors at the Parkside Addition apartment house on Anacostia Avenue were worried. For the first time, Brown told them about the voices. She didn't tell them what they were saying, but Tracey Wells was frightened for the family.
Wells lived one flight up from Brown. For five years, she took care of Sylvester while his mother was away at work. Wells told Brown she was going to call Child and Family Services.
For the first time in the sad odyssey of Sylvester Brown, the agency responsible for the well-being of the District's children was officially made aware of the boy's plight.
"I told them about the voices," Wells says. "I asked them what could they do, because she has a little boy. They said that wasn't something they could handle because it wasn't neglect."
Ten days later, Brown had gotten worse. Wells called the agency again.
"I told them Sylvester was in danger," she says. "The voices were coming more and more. The voices were telling her to do things that she didn't want to do."
She said an agency worker whose name she can't recall told her there was nothing Child and Family Services could do.
For years, the agency has been improperly turning away calls for help and conducting incomplete investigations into complaints of child neglect, fatality committee documents show. Many social workers were poorly trained, not enough were assigned to handle the calls, and their supervisors failed to check on the quality of their field work.
By refusing to follow up on the calls about Brown, the agency violated District law, veteran social workers say. Under it, an investigation is required if a parent is "unable to discharge his or her responsibilities" or to care for the child "because of incarceration, hospitalization, or other physical or mental incapacity."
The city had cut the last lifeline for Sylvester.
"She was sick," Wells would later say, "and they didn't help her."
Sylvester's mother had submitted to the voices.
Shortly before Christmas in 1996, Brown again began to empty her apartment, placing their belongings on the street: Sylvester's bunk bed, his bike, his savings bonds, his Christmas presents, still wrapped in colorful paper, and their tree, the lights dangling from its branches.
On Dec. 18, 1996, one week before Christmas, Brown made her son supper. She gave him a bath and put him to bed. A voice told her to get a knife, she would later say. Brown returned to her son's bedroom and stood in silence at the doorway until he fell asleep.
Neighbors had just finished putting up Christmas decorations when they heard Sylvester's screams in the apartment house hallway.
"Mama, no," the boy cried. "No more."
Police opened the door to Apartment 14. Inside, they found Sylvester on the floor next to his blood-soaked bed.
"God came to me and didn't give me words, but spoke to my subconscious," Brown would later try to explain to a psychiatrist. "He told me I could kill, but could never destroy, because only He has the power to destroy. That made me know Sylvester's safe in Heaven."
At the funeral, Sylvester's friends stepped up to the coffin. Someone had put a Power Ranger in his hand. One by one, they leaned over his body, and one by one, they placed Hot Wheels cars in his casket.
After examining Sylvester's case, the fatality committee said the police department should "examine its policies on abuse investigations and determine the need for change." Among the committee's suggestions: that officers photograph children, bring them to Children's Hospital for exams and interview witnesses outside the immediate family -- all the things officers failed to do in Sylvester's case.
Lt. Yvette Tate was a police representative on the fatality committee at the time of Sylvester's death. No longer a member of the panel, she said in a recent interview that she could not discuss committee business, citing confidentiality. When asked to discuss what happened to the recommendations intended to improve investigations, Tate said she didn't have time to talk and ended the interview.
Police supervisors say there are not enough officers assigned to investigate child abuse complaints. Until recently, when the department added 10 officers, the youth division was down by nearly a dozen. Instead of spending a week to examine serious complaints, officers were sometimes forced to close cases after a day or two.
Part of the problem is persuading officers to handle child abuse cases.
"We had to force people to the youth division," said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer. "They went kicking and screaming."
This fall, the District plans to end the practice of dividing investigations. The Child and Family Services Agency will conduct the initial investigation of abuse and neglect complaints and will call in police only in the most serious abuse cases.
Social workers say they fear that the additional cases will overwhelm an already chaotic agency.
Since 1995, the District has been proposing a better way: the Children's Advocacy Center, where social workers, police officers, lawyers and others would work together on child abuse and neglect cases. Although a small center already exists in the city, the District had promised a major expansion.
But in June, the executive director of the center submitted her resignation, citing frustration with top city officials. The director, Kimberly A. Shellman, said District officials were not willing to find a large enough space for the proposed expansion.
"It is with great regret and disappointment that on July 31, 2001, I will leave this project unfinished and in a state of no progress," Shellman wrote to Mayor Anthony A. Williams on June 15. She took a job in Atlanta to help child protection officials there create their own center.
Today, Regina Brown, 33, is confined to St. Elizabeths Hospital. She has been there since November 1997, after a judge found her not guilty by reason of insanity. From time to time, she calls Sylvester's paternal grandfather, Warren Hall.
"Mr. Hall, I'm sorry," she tells him. "They tell me I hurt Sylvester, but I would never hurt him."
Hall, 58, a driver for the city's income maintenance organization, tries to understand.
"That was the only child she had, and she doesn't even know what she did," he says. "I don't blame her."
But five years later, Hall remains haunted by what happened. He says he has a dream that he can't shake. In it, Sylvester is standing on the roof of his grandfather's Northeast town house. His arms outstretched, he asks his grandfather why no one helped him.
Hall feels himself pitching backward into darkness before he awakens, his fall broken by consciousness, his grandson's question unanswered.
"I don't know what to tell him," Hall says. "You could see it happening, and no one did anything to stop it."
Database editor Sarah Cohen and Metro researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.