A Blow to Everyone's Heart

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

A 7-YEAR-OLD girl is discovered bruised and bloodied, allegedly beaten by the woman who adopted her. The bodies of two other girls, 9 and 11, are found in a freezer, and their adoptive mother is suspected in their deaths. The horrific events unfolding in Maryland bring to mind the deaths of four other young girls, their decayed bodies found in January in a Southeast Washington rowhouse and their mother charged with murder. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that D.C.'s troubled child welfare agency had a role in both cases.

The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency -- which failed to properly investigate complaints about Banita Jacks before the deaths of her four daughters -- also recommended Renee D. Bowman as a suitable adoptive parent. A D.C. Superior Court judge approved the adoptions after a private firm under contract to the city conducted background investigations. While authorities investigate the deaths of her two older daughters, Ms. Bowman is being held on charges that she beat her youngest daughter. Authorities say that further tests are needed to determine cause of death.

Much more must be known about this case before any judgments are reached. City officials said that all the proper steps were taken: Ms. Bowman was a foster parent who underwent the required training and investigations that included police checks and home studies. The process stretched over years. Clearly, though, if initial reports are correct, the agency that city officials relied on to investigate Ms. Bowman overlooked some critical information. Neither Ms. Bowman's misdemeanor conviction for making verbal threats nor her filing for bankruptcy protection would have been automatic disqualifiers, but they should have been known and probed. It is critical that city and court officials find out how this information was overlooked and whether that indicates any weaknesses in the evaluation and placement process. We are glad to hear that Acting Attorney General Peter J. Nickles is seeking to have the adoption file unsealed so that a more complete review can be undertaken.

At a news conference on Monday about the city's role in the case, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) pointed out that the adoptions occurred well before he took over as mayor. That was the wrong note to sound, since the agency's problems have only worsened under Mr. Fenty's administration. Where once the agency was seen to be on the upswing, it is now in crisis with a backlog of cases to be investigated, a soaring number of job openings and a dispirited workforce. The judge presiding over a long-running lawsuit against the child welfare system has given the city a deadline to come up with a plan to turn the system around. If the threat of being held in contempt or of being ordered into receivership isn't enough to spur the mayor to come to grips with the issues, perhaps he should listen to his own words. It is "a blow to everyone's heart and psyche that we could lose two more young people," he said.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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