4 Deaths, and Words, Words, Words

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 17, 2008

The city's politicians are virtually falling over one another to praise Mayor Adrian Fenty for sacking six child welfare workers who failed to rescue Banita Jacks's four girls, Brittany, Tatianna, N'Kiah and Aja.

The heads of a slew of city agencies are busy detailing how their employees ignored warnings about the disappearance and apparent abuse of the four girls, whose decomposed bodies were found in their home in Southeast last week.

So we get some firings, and grand announcements of reforms, and hearings -- there must always be hearings -- and solemn promises that this will, as D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz put it, "never, never, ever, ever, ever happen again."

Until, of course, the next time.

At which point the avalanche of words will once again commence. Because what great public tragedies produce from the District government is, above all else, words.

Good words, about how "four young girls slipped through our hands" and how the Child and Family Services Agency's "response was not even close," as council member Tommy Wells, himself a social worker, said at a hearing this week.

Sharp words, such as council member Yvette Alexander's pointed reminder that it is not just the government's job to find and help hurting children. "Where is the family? Where are the neighbors?" she asked.

Theatrical words, such as those of the guy who runs the D.C. attorney general's office yet cannot be bothered to live in the city he claims to hold so dear. "This is not a case where everyone is to blame so that no one is to blame," said Peter Nickles, the mayor's consigliere. The children are dead "because of lack of caring, because of lack of urgency. This government failed this family."

Banal words, such as those of council member Marion Barry, who showed up to a hearing more than an hour late and immediately asked for a moment of silence, which the council had already taken to honor the dead children's memory. "Let's do it again," Barry said when informed of the first observance. "We need all the prayer we can get."

But how can words mend shattered families or save doomed children? The District's child welfare agency, a public shame for decades, has been through every form of regulation and punishment known to modern democracy. The feds took over, the courts watched over, and still, according to a federal report a little more than a year ago, CFSA's performance "remains well below benchmarks, raising questions about the agency's ability to meet all of the court-ordered requirements."

Six workers have been selected for ritual sacrifice -- and justifiably so, judging by the utter lack of interest shown by the agency's hotline operator when a counselor from Brittany's school called to beg for city intervention.

But in classic bureaucratic fashion, the folks at the top somehow remain in their jobs, brows furrowed, ready with long lists of new reforms.

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