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D.C. social workers fired in maelstrom of Banita Jacks case should be reinstated

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, June 25, 2010; B01

Carl Miller was a brand-new social worker in the District when he steeled himself for his second case -- a pregnant 11-year-old. Her 24-year-old mom had AIDS, and the aunt living with them, an exhausted 26-year-old, had eight kids of her own.

Miller worked hard to wrestle the troubled family back to health with doctor's appointments, counselors, legal hearings.

He couldn't imagine he'd ever encounter a worse case.

But one came in the form of a hotline call he answered.

It was about Banita Jacks and her four children. Her case horrified a city and tanked his career. Only now is he ready to talk about it.

All of the social workers who had anything to do with the Jacks case were thumped in grand fashion by an angry and decisive Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D).

For a city reeling from the discovery that Jacks's four children were dead and that Jacks had been living in squalor for weeks with their decaying bodies until she was found in January 2008, it felt righteous to fire everyone having anything to do with her case.

A new director of the Child and Family Services Agency was installed, and Jacks was convicted of killing her girls.

But Miller and two other social workers are still fighting the case every day. And the city is fighting back.

The case touched Miller's life in late 2007, when a school social worker called and told Miller that a student at her school had been truant, the mom wouldn't open the door when she came to investigate, and she was worried.

On the phone, Miller was matter-of-fact, reminding the social worker that the woman had no legal obligation to let her inside. It seemed like educational neglect, nothing more; the social worker said the kids looked unkempt and were watching TV. That sounds like my own childhood.

As satisfying as it may have been to can Miller because he didn't swoop in to save these girls, it's not realistic to end the career of a 34-year-old man who had been a reliable social worker for eight years.

"The people doing this, telling me I was being placed on administrative leave, they were crying. They knew it was not right," he told me.

The D.C. arbitrator agreed when he reviewed the firings.

"Basic notions of fairness and due process have not been met in this case," arbitrator John C. Truesdale wrote. In another review, he called the social workers' professional records otherwise "unblemished and stellar." He told the city to reinstate the workers and give them back pay, with interest.

The city appealed to the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board, which is where the case sits today. Meanwhile, the meter is running on the city's cost to keep these three social workers out of work.

Foletia Nguasong is waiting, working side jobs to pay his kid's college bills. He had been a social worker in the District for 14 years and won awards. He patched together families damaged by drugs, alcohol, mental illness.

"We show up at homes, sometimes in the middle of the night. There is no electricity. It is dark. We see guns, knives, drugs, men and women fighting. Sometimes there are needles all over the ground and we walk around them," Nguasong, who is soft-spoken and delicately mannered, told me.

When he goes over the Jacks case in his head, which he does just about every day, he still believes he did everything right, given the information he had at the time.

He went to the house, following up on a report that the older daughter hadn't been to school for a month. He wasn't allowed inside, so a police officer was sent to the house. Nguasong said the officer told him he saw the kids and they looked well-fed and cared for.

That officer later admitted that he never saw the kids.

Jacks and her broken family met with social workers, police officers, doctors, homeless-shelter workers, substance-abuse counselors, welfare workers, lawyers and at least one judge. But no one saved them.

I understand the need to roll some heads for what happened. The notion of civilized society is mocked when a mother can lose her marbles, kill her children and then go unnoticed for half a year until someone comes along to evict her.

Besides the people paid to take care of the children, weren't her family members -- who filed a civil suit against the city -- also responsible for caring?

Placing the blame solely on the shoulders of three social workers who by all accounts are solid, was a cheap political move on Fenty's part that made him look strong to some, cruel to others, and further endangers the city's most vulnerable population -- abused children. No social worker in Washington has been able to feel completely confident in the delicate, difficult decisions they make every day.

The city should make this right, listen to the arbitrator and bring those social workers back on the job. It won't bring those girls back, but it might prevent more from falling through the cracks.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

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