Even in city custody, no refuge from the streets

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 28, 2010

"I don't want to see my son end up like that," said Rhonda Hart when we spoke by phone in May. Hart was referring to three teens under the care of the city's Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services who had just been charged with the slaying of D.C. school principal Brian Betts.

Hart told me her son, Keith Deantre Washington, then 16, had a juvenile record, was under DYRS supervision and had run away three times from DYRS community facilities. She said she called because Keith was still on the loose and she had been unable to get the agency to place him in a rehabilitation facility that he couldn't easily leave. "He's either going to get himself hurt or end up hurting someone if he isn't caught and placed in detention where he can get help," she said.

Last Tuesday afternoon, Hart called to say that Keith had been found dead early Sunday morning in Maryland, just across the District line. He had been murdered.

I wrote about Hart, her son and DYRS in May ["A mother's tale of D.C. juvenile custody," May 8]. It was an exercise in futility. The boy's dead. His mom's dying inside. His DYRS case manager is still drawing a paycheck.

Sadly, that's not what people care about these days. It's all about Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee: Will her coattails pull Mayor Adrian Fenty to electoral victory? About D.C. Council chairman and mayoral contender Vincent Gray: Can he do well west of 16th Street NW? And about power: Which side of the District has the most political clout?

The conversation is certainly not about the destruction -- and self-destruction -- of young black boys in our city. Naw, black boys are the source of all the bad stuff that keeps the District from becoming a world-class city. They are the face of the school system's high dropout rates. They are the earners of those low test scores in the achievement gap. They are the bodies lying on the ground behind the yellow tape. Black boys are best not discussed these days in polite company or on the campaign trail.

Nonetheless, I sat down this week at an Adams Morgan restaurant with Bryan Weaver, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and Democratic D.C. Council candidate for Ward 1 who has been working in the trenches for years, trying to find alternatives for youth caught up in street life. I was also following up on an Aug. 17 e-mail Weaver sent to me and others about youth violence around 17th and Euclid streets NW -- another subject of past columns ["The View from 17th and Euclid," May 3, 2003; "Homeland Security, Washington Style," May 10, 2003; "Gun 'n' Run -- D.C.'s Game," Nov. 8, 2003]. Weaver was trying to come to grips with the latest murder of a youth with Adams Morgan roots, the 10th homicide victim since his election to the ANC in 2002.

"Almost every young man from our community that in past years has been shot or arrested," Weaver wrote, "had at some point in time been under supervision of DYRS."

We talked about the city's New Beginnings facility for the worst juvenile offenders, located in Laurel.

As Weaver's e-mail noted: 60 beds for 550 youths who in 2009 were charged with the most violent crimes -- robbery, rape and homicide. Those 60 beds, Weaver observed, don't even begin to cover the more than 1,500 other juvenile offenders who were sent home or to halfway houses -- often back in the same neighborhoods where they got in trouble.

"The facility has 60 available beds, and some fear that dangerous criminals might be released for sheer lack of space," The Post reported on May 29, 2009, a few days before the $46 million New Beginnings facility opened. If only the John Wilson Building politicians had listened.

Had the administrations of former mayors Sharon Pratt Kelly or Anthony Williams made such a lamebrained decision, the media would have pounded them into the ground.

Today, that building, those young offenders and the conditions in their homes and community that helped land them where they are have been conveniently dropped from the discussion. But not before Fenty changed DYRS leadership last month. It was too late, far too late, however, to stop Rhonda Hart from having to make funeral arrangements for her son this week.

Note: When contacted this week about Keith Washington, Robert Hildum, interim DYRS director, said confidentiality statutes precluded him from commenting on cases involving youth under DYRS supervision.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company