D.C. shelter says it erred in not informing city of sexual allegations

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

The managers of the District's Family Emergency Shelter acknowledged at a public hearing Wednesday that two employees were fired last month for either soliciting or engaging in sex with female residents at the shelter.

The admission by the chief executive and program manager of Families Forward, which operates the shelter at the D.C. General Hospital complex in Southeast, came during a seven-hour oversight hearing of the D.C. Council Human Services Committee. The group previously has admitted the same thing in a letter to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.

Other testimony from nonprofit shelter managers and residents concerned problems that have developed as the city housed a record number of residents during one of the harshest winters in history.

Managers of the family shelter said a 5-week-old infant died of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, at the shelter on Feb. 7. At the nearby Harriet Tubman Women's Shelter, run by Catholic Charities, a maintenance worker, Howard R. Barnes, 59, was arrested March 17 after undercover police allegedly purchased heroin from him on the grounds of the former hospital complex, according to federal court documents. And at a New York Avenue shelter, resident Dwayne Harper said, there was no hot water for several weeks when two boilers shut down.

But much of Wednesday's testimony focused on the poor condition of the once-overcrowded family shelter and accusations that employees solicited sex from female residents. Several women said the employees included a security guard.

Ruby King-Gregory, Families Forward's chief executive, and Joi Buford, the shelter's manager, said management first heard on March 8 that there was an allegation of sexual misconduct at the shelter the day before. "That person was removed from the schedule" and subsequently fired, King-Gregory said.

An allegation about a sexual act surfaced two days later, Buford said. "It was found that the person did have inappropriate contact. We took them off the schedule. They were officially terminated," she said.

But King-Gregory and Buford failed to notify the city of the incidents, as required in the organization's $2.5 million contract with the city. "I erred in not notifying them," King-Gregory said. "There is no excuse." Since then, said Buford, "we have had numerous phone conversations to discuss what happened" with the Department of Human Services.

DHS Director Clarence H. Carter said his department launched an investigation of the allegations after learning of them in a March 17 e-mail to Fenty from a resident who identified herself using the initials "P.H." The resident said a shelter employee had asked her out and invited her to sleep at his home. She alleged that a friend had slept with another employee at the shelter.

In questioning by committee Chairman Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Carter refused to divulge the results of the investigation, saying he was advised by the city inspector general's and attorney general's offices not to discuss the findings. Wells told Carter that his refusal was absurd.

"You don't work for the inspector general," Wells said. "But you take direction from the inspector general? I'm a little stunned that you have been advised not to share information about this program."

Families Forward said the Nov. 1 through March 31 hypothermia season was its most difficult ever because of the number of days when the temperature fell below freezing, and the record snowfall.

Some testified that Families Forward might have been set up to fail because DHS did not set aside enough winter housing for families during the recession. Demand for family housing increased by 20 percent over last year, and as DHS placed residents into apartments to relieve overcrowding at the shelters, the number of families in permanent supportive housing increased by 69 percent, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

Dozens of residents testified on Families Forward's behalf, including Desiree Outlaw, who said, "If it wasn't for them, I'd be sleeping on the street." Outlaw wept before regaining her composure. "The system is not perfect," she said. "But I'm there. I have somewhere to stay, and my kids aren't on the street."

Other residents were not as forgiving. "This organization does not have the proper staffing to move families forward," said Aaron McCormick. "The first thing you see when you walk in . . . is mud and ceilings falling down."

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