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.

The bureaucrats can find their scripts in their own archives. Check out these words from Sharlynn Bobo, CFSA's director, at her confirmation hearing in November, when the four girls had been lying dead inside their home for about half a year:

"The District's child welfare system has come a very long way. It's nearly impossible to overstate the high degree of professionalism; hard work; tolerance for constant, rapid change; and sheer perseverance that CFSA staff has exerted" to achieve improvements such as "strengthening the critical gateway to the public child protection system by ensuring that . . . investigations are both timely and thorough."

The torrent of words stretches back through the years, long before Brittany and her sisters died, long before they were born. And still: Banita Jacks's ludicrous story about why her kids weren't attending school led to the revelation that the District has no clue about how many children are being home-schooled. The District doesn't really know how many children do not go to school, Victor Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, told me.

In essence, school is voluntary in Washington. No one can claim to be shocked by this: When I arrived here in 1986 to cover the D.C. schools, one of the first questions I asked at the system's headquarters was what the truancy rate was. "We don't really track that," came the response.

Each new horror lets us pretend to discover the same flaws in the system that were supposedly bared by the last unacceptable tragedy. We get to be shocked all over again.

If not words, then what? Kathy Lopes, the Booker T. Washington Public Charter School social worker who rang the alarm about the Jacks kids only to run into the brick wall of bureaucracy, did what all of us must do. She acted on her own. She went to the house, banged on the door and then demanded that the rest of us pay attention.

Lopes wasn't at the hearing this week. She has not spoken to reporters. "She's too freaked out," Wells told me. "Even though she did what we would hope everyone would do, she's the type of person who still wonders what more she could have done."

That's the kind of person I want watching over my kids, and because that's what we would all want, that's what we must all be. Only then can we force officials to act before the next tragedy, to treat other people's children as if they were their own. The alternative is to drown in another ocean of words.

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