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Fenty Describes Missteps Before Girls Died
After Efforts to Help, Agency Erred in Closing Cases, Mayor Says

By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008

Five government agencies had contact with Banita Jacks in the months leading up to the deaths of her four daughters, according to a timeline that D.C. officials released yesterday detailing the family's descent. But at least twice, the agencies charged with protecting the children apparently lost track of them.

In a news conference, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and other city officials listed steps taken by social workers, police officers and school officials to try to help Jacks, her companion and her daughters, who she told police were possessed by demons.

At one point, Fenty said, a nurse at George Washington University Hospital called the Child and Family Services Agency's hotline to report that the family was living in a van. But the hotline worker immediately closed the case because the family had no fixed address, Fenty (D) said.

The bodies of the children, allegedly killed by their mother, were found in a Southeast Washington residence Wednesday. Months earlier, police were called to the house after receiving a report that the mother might have been holding her eldest daughter hostage. But D.C. social workers dropped another inquiry because of an inaccurate report that the family had moved to Maryland. Authorities have said the children might have been dead since May.

The case, with its young victims, ages 5, 6, 11 and 17, has left city officials swamped with concerns that the children were lost by the system. Fenty called the case record "extremely underwhelming and disappointing" and vowed to change procedures and punish or fire employees found responsible for letting the family slip through the cracks.

"These matters were not handled as they should have been," he said sternly as he announced the results of a two-day investigation by the city's acting attorney general, Peter Nickles, and City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. The five agencies that had contact with Jacks were Family Services, the public school system and the police, human services and health departments.

"Anytime you lose a life in the District of Columbia, it's a sad day," he said. "But not many days at all have rivaled the type of grief this has sparked in the hearts and minds of this community."

Fenty said city officials have reopened every other case that the Child and Family Services Agency closed with an "incomplete" status, as the Jacks case was. He said 309 cases will be reviewed "to see if they were closed without the proper level of inquiry."

He also vowed to establish a system to track children who are home-schooled or who move from school to school. After Jacks's daughters were withdrawn from D.C. charter schools, she sent word through a school employee that she would home-school the girls.

Jacks, 33, who was charged with murder Thursday, has denied killing the children. The bodies were found in an advanced state of decomposition after marshals arrived to serve eviction papers at a two-story brick rowhouse in the 4200 block of Sixth Street SE.

A family friend has said that Jacks was devastated by the Feb. 19 death from cancer of her longtime boyfriend, Nathaniel Fogle Jr., the father of her two youngest children, but kept telling concerned relatives that she and the girls were doing well.

Fenty said the family moved to the District in December 2005, apparently from Maryland.

Fogle, Jacks and the four girls entered the D.C. General hypothermia shelter, where they stayed for four months. They applied for Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance, and the two oldest girls enrolled in public schools.

The first alarming report about their status came in July 2006, when the nurse contacted the child protection agency. Fogle had checked himself out of the hospital, and the caller was concerned that one or maybe both parents had substance abuse problems, Fenty said. The caller said the family was living in a van.

"Unfortunately, that call went into a CFSA hotline, and the hotline worker immediately closed the case because the family did not have a fixed address," Fenty said. "We have already investigated that as an incident that was not handled properly."

By that fall, the children were enrolled in charter schools -- Brittany, 17, at Booker T. Washington Public, and Aja, 5, N'Kiah, 6, and Tatianna, 11, at Meridian. On Nov. 30, 2006, the family's food stamp benefits were terminated.

After Fogle's death in February, things unraveled quickly. Brittany stopped attending school March 2; the younger girls were withdrawn March 21.

On April 27, a social worker from Booker T. Washington notified authorities that Brittany had missed 33 days of school. She said Jacks would not let her into the home when she went by to check on the girl. The next day, a social worker with the Child and Family Services Agency visited the residence and, when no one answered, left written information asking Jacks to contact her.

On April 30, the school social worker went back and spoke with Jacks but was not allowed inside. She called police and the child protection agency, saying that Jacks appeared to have mental health problems and that she feared Jacks was not allowing Brittany to attend school.

A police officer who went to the home found the children "well and healthy," Fenty said. Told that the children were being home-schooled, the officer saw books that she had for the children and informed her of the proper procedure for home-schooling, he said.

The school system's home-school office requires parents to fill out a form to obtain approval to withdraw their children from the schools. But the charter schools have no such policy.

"When a parent chooses to withdraw their student, a charter school must honor their request, and the charter school does not have the authority to certify the parent's capacity to home-school," said Nona Mitchell Richardson, spokeswoman for the Public Charter School Board. "The parent does not have to provide where the student is going when he withdraws."

According to the Home School Legal Defense Association, the District and 14 states provide "low regulation" of home-schooling. Maryland and Virginia, like 17 other states, provide "moderate regulation."

Maryland requires parents to sign a statement promising to provide instruction and maintain a portfolio with the students' work that is subject to review. In Virginia, state law requires that home-schooling parents have a high school diploma and prove their ability to provide an adequate education.

The April 30 visit was the last time authorities saw the children alive.

Jacks told police that they died in their sleep.

Prosecutors say their end was more violent: Brittany had puncture wounds indicating that she was stabbed; Tatianna and N'Kiah had marks suggesting strangling; and Aja had blunt force marks on the back of her head.

Staff writer V. Dion Haynes contributed to this report.

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