D.C. behind in probes of abuse of developmentally disabled

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 28, 2009

The D.C. agency that oversees the care of people with developmental disabilities is hundreds of cases behind in its investigations of abuse, neglect and other serious incidents, a monitoring organization has found.

In an analysis, the Quality Trust for Individuals With Disabilities found that the Department on Disability Services had not filed timely reports in connection with more than 400 incidents. That is up by more than 200 from five months earlier.

"It's incredibly disturbing to us," said Tina Campanella, executive director of the Quality Trust, a watchdog group that was created in 2001 as part of a decades-old class action lawsuit against the District over its care of people with developmental disabilities.

DDS Director Judith E. Heumann said that a 60 percent increase in serious incidents, to 1,057 in fiscal 2009, was the primary cause of the backlog and that the agency has been taking a number of steps, including hiring additional staff members, to help investigators catch up.

In a written response to questions from The Washington Post, Heumann said the surge in reports of serious incidents might be a byproduct of the agency's reform efforts. DDS has, for example, been intensifying its oversight of the private organizations that provide most care and demanding more follow-up by its investigators, Heumann said. The initiatives, she said, "logically would have resulted in an increase in incident reporting."

About 2,000 people receive services through DDS, and about a third of them were residents of the notorious Forest Haven institution, which until its court-ordered closure in 1991 housed many developmentally disabled people from the District.

Although the trust's report notes progress in aspects of DDS's performance, the backlog is a big concern and not the only one, the organization said.

The increasing number of emergency room visits by people receiving DDS services is troubling, the trust said, and could be a sign of inadequate routine health care. DDS said the increase is probably a function of the overall increase in reporting of serious incidents and of efforts to move people into less institutional settings.

The number of developmentally disabled people who have been prescribed medication for mental illness, especially those receiving multiple medications, is a continuing concern, the trust said. DDS said that it "generally" shares the trust's concerns and that it is studying the issue. But the agency said that medication can be an important part of mental health therapy and that the trust is "misleading" in its assertion about how widespread such medication use is.

Created as a Cabinet-level agency in 2007 to raise the profile of its mission, DDS is facing a crucial test of its performance. The mayor and the attorney general said the department has demonstrated considerable improvement, and they want a federal judge to end the 1976 class action suit, now known as Evans v. Fenty.

Last month, in a very public action, the city took a longtime group home operator to court. The attorney general argued that residents of two of the nonprofit operator's facilities were in danger and asked the court to appoint a receiver to run the homes. The legal action, which ended in a settlement, might well have signaled a more aggressive posture by the city.

But the episode also showed that group homes and the system for monitoring them remain a troubled part of District social services, too troubled, the plaintiffs say, to consider ending the Evans case. Instead, they are asking the court to impose greater oversight.

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