D.C. Could Have Done More To Help 4 Sisters, Families Say

Banita Jacks
Banita Jacks (AP)
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By Keith L. Alexander and Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Relatives of the four girls whose decomposed bodies were found last month in a Southeast Washington rowhouse have hired lawyers to pursue claims against the D.C. government for failing to prevent months of neglect and abuse.

The lawyers served the city notice as the children's mother, Banita Jacks, remains jailed without bond on murder charges. In letters to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), two lawyers used the mayor's public statements to make a case that city agencies had warnings that the children were in trouble but failed to act aggressively to get the girls away from their mother.

Lawyers formally set the groundwork for legal claims on behalf of Jacks's mother, Mamie Jacks, and Jessie Fogle, grandmother of the two youngest children. In addition, a lawyer for the estate of the second-oldest daughter was retained by her father, Kevin J. Stoddard. The lawyer said yesterday that he plans to sue the city on behalf of the estate.

The bodies remain at the D.C. medical examiner's office, yet to be buried after their discovery Jan. 9 by deputy marshals serving an eviction notice at Jacks's Sixth Street SE address. The medical examiner's office was unable to say what led to the deaths of the girls -- ages 5, 6, 11 and 16 -- but the case was ruled homicide. Jacks, 33, has told police that the children were possessed by demons and that they died in their sleep, authorities have said.

It was unclear yesterday how much contact the grandmothers and other relatives had with Jacks. Police have said that no one had seen the children since spring or summer, and authorities have said the girls were dead for months. In interviews yesterday, the grandmothers' lawyers declined to say when their clients last saw Jacks or her daughters.

Fenty, who fired six child welfare workers days after the bodies were discovered, acted swiftly to show that he demands accountability. He revealed that five government agencies had contact with Jacks in the months before her children's deaths. Now, in addition to the potential litigation, he is getting pushback from within the government: A hearing officer recommended that three workers be reinstated and called the firings unwarranted.

Peter J. Nickles, the District's interim attorney general, said yesterday that the city has no intention of rehiring the employees, noting that the hearing officer's findings are advisory. Two of the workers staffed hotlines and took calls warning that the children were endangered: one from a nurse in July 2006 and another from a school social worker last April. A third visited Jacks's home last spring but never made contact with the mother. The city's Child and Family Services Agency later erroneously concluded that the family had moved. The agency closed the case.

"The culture in this town is that there is not a strict sense of accountability when people do not do their duty, and as a result, people are hurt," Nickles said. "In this case, we had the ultimate situation where these four kids were killed. We're not going to accept that."

Nickles called the possibility of lawsuits "unfortunate" but said he planned to meet with Jacks's relatives and their attorneys to "do what's fair," which he said could mean defending the lawsuits or resolving them "in some way" out of court.

The letters, hand-delivered to the mayor's office Feb. 11, are a necessary step under D.C. law before the filing of legal action for damages against the D.C. government. The city typically reviews letters, which give a broad outline of allegations, and decides whether to take action to avoid lawsuits.

Marshall W. Taylor, attorney for Mamie Jacks, wrote in his letter that the children needed the city's protection from the "abusive, neglectful, and/or dangerous custody of their mother." The city, he wrote "knew or should have known" of the risks.

Peter Scherr, on behalf of Jessie Fogle, wrote that the city "breached its duty," leading to "ongoing abuse," pain, suffering and mental injury.

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