The Forgotten Mr. Johnson

Friday, October 31, 2008

DISTRICT OFFICIALS admit they should have helped "Mr. Johnson," a man so severely disabled he could not care for himself. His death, at the age of 65, is causing the city to study what it should have done differently. Officials need look no further than to the example set by James Burrell. This good soul saw someone in need and did what he could -- and then some. It is telling that so basic a concept seems to be in short order in the government offices charged with looking out for the city's most vulnerable.

Mr. Burrell's heroic efforts to assist a fellow citizen and the District's dismal failure were detailed by The Post's Petula Dvorak in the case of "Mr. Johnson." That is the pseudonym given to a man left mentally disabled after he was hit by a bus when he was a small child. For decades, Mr. Johnson was at home, under his mother's care. When she died 15 years ago, Mr. Burrell, a volunteer with an AARP outreach group who had been assisting the man and his mother with bills and other paperwork, alerted the city to Mr. Johnson's situation and the need for government intervention, only to get the brushoff.

Mr. Burrell, himself aging and now 78, kept helping -- doing laundry, cleaning house, buying groceries, getting medical attention -- while the city kept on coming up with excuses for why Mr. Johnson wasn't entitled to government services. He didn't have the proper paperwork; he needed an MRI; he couldn't prove when he sustained his injuries. It didn't matter that he functioned at the level of a child, had no family and was in obvious, desperate need of help. Mr. Johnson died in February after he failed to take his medication and lapsed into a diabetic coma. Ironically, the city did pick up the tab for his burial.

The case highlights the continuing difficulties of the Department of Disability Services, the subject of a 30-year-old lawsuit over deficiencies in its services that could well result in a court takeover of the system. Others may be culpable as well. Where, for example, was Adult Protective Services? Even if Mr. Johnson didn't qualify for disability services, surely he should have been helped by the agency that is supposed to look out for vulnerable adults needing assistance. What's most troubling about the case is what it says about the mind-set of government workers. As Mayor Adrian M. Fenty acknowledged, they were preoccupied with dotting the i's and crossing the t's. No doubt they thought they were doing their jobs, even as Mr. Burrell was doing their work.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company