By Dagny Salas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Among photos and trinkets commemorating departmental success stories, Prince William County Social Services Director John P. "Jack" Ledden has a photo of an inquisitive-looking girl taped to a jelly bean jar in his office, and he wants you to ask about her.
That's because in the case of Alexis "Lexie" Agyepong-Glover, everything went wrong.
Despite reports to authorities by neighbors and bus drivers who saw signs of abuse, the system failed to rescue her. Lexie's body was found in early January in a frigid creek; her adoptive mother pleaded guilty in July to abusing and murdering her; social services employees were disciplined in the case; and the department was put under review.
Now, seven months and several investigations later, Ledden says he is determined to set things right by overhauling the way his department does business. He said he thinks about the Glover case "constantly, every day." The photo on the jar is a reminder that the decisions he is making are "crucial," he said.
"This is a priority," Ledden said. "By having her sitting there -- it's got to get done. It's got to get done like yesterday."
In the culture of social services agencies, transparency and communication with the public are not the norm. Records involving juveniles are kept confidential, often even after a child's death. Even investigators from other agencies seeking information on abused children can hit roadblocks, officials said.
Ledden declined to specify the ways in which his agency mishandled the Glover case, citing confidentiality written into the state code. He has said only that some workers failed to follow proper procedures or take action within the proper time frame.
But it is clear from those who reported abuse, and from evidence that surfaced in court, that officials failed to spot a pattern that spanned years and that Lexie's mother, Alfreedia Leona Gregg-Glover, was able to convince caseworkers and police officers that Lexie was disabled and dishonest.
In one instance the month before Lexie's death, neighbor Wes Byers reported finding Lexie wandering the streets in the freezing cold with a head wound. Lexie told Byers her mother had hit her with a stick and begged not to be sent home. Police and a social worker responded, and Lexie was taken to the hospital, where Gregg-Glover claimed Lexie had hit herself. Lexie was released to her mother that day. The incident came after years of similarly disturbing reports to police, social services and school officials, but no one in authority took meaningful action.
Ledden said he wasn't aware of the incident reports in Lexie's case before her death because casework doesn't usually rise to his management level. In late March, the agency began a new screening policy that would allow supervisors to take another look at a case if it had received three calls that, on their own, had not merited a site visit. If that policy had been in place when Lexie was alive, Ledden said, it might have made a difference.
Since Lexie's death, Ledden has spoken out about the case to other agencies -- a textbook example, several audits showed, of how poor communication across agencies, a deceptive parent and a dysfunctional bureaucracy can have lethal consequences. He met with state Child Protective Services officials last week to discuss possible collaboration and has invited officials from Fairfax and Loudoun counties to participate in meetings. Ledden's hope is for the county's changes to shape a social services model statewide, he said.
"People are surprised I talk about it, but I don't want people to forget about it," Ledden said. "The kid will change how we do business in the state."
Given the state of the department and the economy, that might be a tall order. Ledden has been able to add two investigators, but his agency suffered a net loss of 19 positions when budget cuts forced it to close group homes and eliminate other positions.
Meanwhile, Ledden has spent weeks researching how to bring the antiquated department up to speed. He wants to install laptops in county cars that emergency unit staffers take home at night. He also wants a staff increase and for police to train his case workers to be better investigators. He will go before the board of county supervisors next month with an estimate of how much state recommendations and his own ideas would cost.
Raised in southern Virginia, Ledden joined the department more than 20 years ago as a part-time relief counselor in boys' group homes. He studied social policy at George Mason University, where he was one of the few men in his field of study. A father of four, he has long enjoyed working with children, which made the Glover case so much harder to take.
He remembers standing in his bedroom in his Fauquier County home looking out at some woods in his back yard Jan. 9 -- two days after a massive search for Glover began -- when his division chief called. Glover's body had been found.
"I said to her, 'Nothing will ever be the same,' " Ledden said. "'Boy, do we have a lot of work to do.' "
For months after the call, the TV cameras, angry letters and calls for his resignation seemed constant. But Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said it would not have been fair to call for Ledden's resignation.
"If the state audit had concluded that this death was caused by mismanagement by Jack Ledden, he would've been terminated," Stewart said. "The audit did not conclude that there was systemic mismanagement in the department. It did conclude there were errors committed by specific employees."
Stewart said the board is committed to putting some of Ledden's reforms in place even with the tight budget.
Despite Ledden's intentions, one expert said it will be a difficult road to change the agency. Richard Gelles, dean at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, said real change in an organization with the size and scope of social services requires sustained efforts.
"It's called 'round up the usual suspects' when tragedy happens," Gelles said. "They need more money, more workers, fewer caseloads, but by the time reports are published, everyone has moved on. These are not systems that want to reform. System strength is dependent on its weakest link."
Even if Ledden achieves all the reforms he is seeking in the short term, he will still be far from the cutting edge, said Gelles, who, in conjunction with Montgomery County, Pa., police, is developing a handheld device that would provide real-time access to information caseworkers need when they make a site visit. Lagging technology is a problem plaguing social services departments across the country, Gelles said, an issue in a field where up-to-date information can be the difference between life and death.
Ledden acknowledges that change doesn't come overnight. But one look at the picture on the jelly bean jar, and he knows he has to try.
"This is not a job where you go home at the end of the day and say you put in your eight," Ledden said. "We didn't kill her, but I can't say we did everything possible. That's why it's going to change."