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Katherine Boo on 'Invisible Deaths'

Washington Post Staff Writer Katharine Boo is the author of "Invisible Deaths: The Fatal Neglect of D.C.'s Retarded," a Post investigative piece that ran on Sunday. She also wrote "Invisible Lives: D.C.'s Troubled System for the Retarded" in March.

Boo has been an investigative reporter for The Post since 1993, specializing in subjects that affect the poor. A native of the District, she was an editor at the Washington City Paper and The Washington Monthly before coming to The Post.

Below is today's transcript.


Capitol Hill, DC: When I read your article last spring, I assumed that it meant things would start to change. It is heartbreaking and shameful to read 8 months later that almost nothing has happened yet.

Your Sunday article suggested that District officials have been less than cooperative with a Justice Department civil rights investigation of this mess. Has Mayor Williams or anyone else in his Administration promised to fully cooperate with Justice and other Federal authorities?

Katherine Boo: why didn't anything happen? that's a question I ask myself. as for mayor Williams he has said he will fully cooperate with the Justice Department probe. he's also said that, as
someone misdiagnosed as developmentally disabled in his early years, he's personally committed to fixing the system. we'll see what happens.

Dallas TX: Not a question but a comment: I think that I am "compassioned-out" by all the horror & tragedy in the world but I was in tears after reading Invisible Deaths. It is beautifully written. Your choice of words throughout the piece makes these poor souls so real, so important, & so worthy of care. I am ashamed to live in the most prosperous country on earth & know that there is such a poverty of values, in the nation's capital no less.


Katherine Boo: Victoria thank you.

Evanston, Illinois: Your article was amazing--one of the best things I've read in the paper this year. Help us understand the amount of time and effort you put into the story. How many people did you talk to? How hard was the story given that the disabled persons had so little family?

Katherine Boo: I worked on this story for seven months, and yeah I gotta say it was hard, because the documents the city gave me had so little information that wasn't blacked out. the key thing to me was the memories of the disabled themselves. they remembered and named their own dead.

Gaithersburg MD: Katherine,

I do not have a question, but I felt compelled to write and THANK YOU for the Washington Post article. It brought tears to my eyes to know that some of our most vulnerable citizens are being treated that way. Sounds like it's all about MONEY for many of these facility owners. I hope and pray that something is soon done about these types of atrocities. Again, THANK YOU!!

Katherine Boo: yes, I think you're talking about a time-honored tradition in programs that serve the poor.
contractors get million-dollar houses, workers get pittances, and clients get the bad end of the math. one of the things that always startles me, whether I am working on
welfare reform or group homes, is how little of the money designated to help the disadvantaged ever makes it to the poor folks' side of town.

Falls Church, VA: I found your article extremely disturbing. I can't comprehend how people -- both in the DC government and in the group homes -- could be so dismissive of some of the most vulnerable people. Any ideas on how these workers got to be so callous and uncaring? What did they think they were getting paid for? Did any of the involved workers express any remorse or regret for actions taken or untaken?

Katherine Boo: I think, as I wrote in my story, that what happened was an incremental hardening. caring people left, new people knew that respectful attention to the living didn't matter, and everyone knew the city didn't care.

Hyattsville, MD: I am presently employed by the VOCA, Corporation, a subsidiary of ResCare, Incorporated. I have been following your articles on the deplorable conditions that exist, when it comes to the treatment and care of mentally challenged individuals, in the care of the various group homes in the District of Columbia.

I found especially interesting in the article in today's Washington Post.The comments that were attributed to Mr. Cleveland Corbett, vice president of Voca. Mr. Corbett states that the direct-care workers "earn as much as $12 dollars per hour, nothing could be further from the truth.

The starting pay prior to the merger between VOCA Corporation and ResCare Incorporated at union houses is $6.05 per hour, and to start at nonunion houses is $7.15 per hour. The yearly raises at unionized VOCA homes are .20 per year,and at nonunion houses somewhere in the area of .40 per year.

These low starting salaries have quite a lot to do with the quality of personnel that are hired to care for the people who need help the most in our society, the mentally handicapped person. Many highly skilled and motivated direct-care workers are turned off by the low starting salaries that are offered
by the company, and subsequently turn down offers of employment by VOCA.

In return VOCA hires many individuals who can
hardly take care of themselves let alone mentally challenged individuals who need constant care, and your undivided attention in addressing the consumers needs.
The issues that you have raised in you article concerning the time it takes to make a phone call to 911 in the case of an emergency at a VOCA home. And the time it takes for anyone to make a life or death decision on the condition of the consumer,is something that occurs in my group home on a constant basis and is very troubling to staff.

[Edited for Space]

Katherine Boo: you say it better than I can here. thanks.

I am Marie Bumper, Calvin Bumper's mother. Calvin is a client at Ontario House in N.W. D.C. . My question is was the death of Robert Watts, former client of Ontario House, ever investigated? My concern is why must the employees wait for an okay before taking the client to the hospital when they all have health insurance? My belief is Mr. Watt did not receive adequate health care, he should have seen a doctor sooner but because of the approval policy, he did not see a doctor until it was to late. Mr. Watts later died in Georgetown University Hospital.

Katherine Boo: Marie Bumper, hello. Robert Watts' death was never investigated. Like so many others, he died, and then city officials just shelved the file. I will look into this.

Columbia, MD: Where is the collective outrage from the " Civil Rights Community" about this National Disgrace? -Your paper has aired these startling investigative details since March, and I've not seen nor heard nor read a reaction from civil rights leaders.]

Katherine Boo: that's a good question, and I don't know the answer.

Washington, DC: Thank you again, Katherine, for your heart-rending expose. As a therapist in this field, and as a resident of DC, what can I-we do to turn this awful system around? Who do we write to? Where can we protest? This has to stop!

Katherine Boo: my favorite question here. I think what you can do depends how you think that broken government systems get changed. you might call the mayor--vote by phone at 727-2980. or if you also believe that change comes incrementally, inch by inch, w/ direct personal involvement you can volunteer to become a court-appointed personal advocate for one of the individuals who live in the group homes. the job of these volunteers can be crucial: to visit the client regularly and make sure he is not being neglected or abused, and to make sure that the services the city has ordered for him (and his paying for) are actually getting
to him. call 879-1040.
I gotta mention some truly exceptional nonprofits that serve the city's retarded. first off, dc special olympics, where the workers' respect for the individuals that the system calls cases‘ kept me going when I felt discouraged.
(544-7770). then there is community of the ark, a small nonprofit that runs two of the most wonderful group homes in the world, and which I wrote about in a series earlier
this year. there is love in those homes

Morgantown, WV: Congratulations on an excellent piece of work that will have a huge impact on how mentally disabled citizens are treated in D.C.

My question is: How long did it take to assemble this story -it looks like years worth of research-? And what kind of resistance did you meet with the D.C. bureaucracy?

Katherine Boo: when I first asked for documents regarding deaths, I received from the dc government heavily inked out documents on only 11 deaths--and interestingly, one broken thumb. there was deep resistance in the bureaucracy to the story. but there were also caring workers who helped--and who want real reform to happen.

Charlottesville, VA: I am 49 years old and yours is the most shocking exposé that I've ever read in a daily newspaper. I'm still reeling. It is good to note this morning's report that some of the cases are being reopened, but the systemic failures that these cases bring to public scrutiny seem to me to extend beyond the care of the mentally ill--it seems that even under the care of the Control Board, these and other ills have continued to fester.

Will D.C. -ever- be able to make home rule work? Is it not time to wipe the slate clean and start over?

Katherine Boo: wow what a good hard question, about home rule. I cant answer it except to say that I was born here, I live here, and I hope it can.

D.C.: Dear Katherine,

This article demonstrates beautifully whey we need the Fourth Estate. I was impressed and amazed at the thoroughness of your investigation. Here is my question to you:

I have a 30 year background in public policy at the federal level; I am completing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. What can a person with my skills do to assist these people who have no voice? Are there already advocacy groups? And if there are, where the h$-&% have they been?


Katherine Boo: skills like yours are really important to this system, and there are advocacy groups, but I think some of them have had as much difficulty as I had getting information from the system.

Fairfax, Virginia: Several questions.
1. Since federal funds are being used, why isn't a federal investigation underway here?
2. Why doesn't the federal govt. intervene since the DC govt. is so inept?
3. Why aren't all of the individuals involved with this fired -or at least suspended immediately- until a thorough investigation -due process- is done?
4. Why aren't criminal charges being brought against more of those responsible? It looks like a few slaps on the wrists.

In my opinion, some legal eagle should step in a freeze ALL the assets of these firms who are responsible for this horrendous situation. A team of experts from other states should be brought in to serve while the mess is being cleaned up - immediately.

If I had a relative in such an arrangement, I would be rattling a lot of cages.

Thank you for your efforts to being it to the public's attention!

Katherine Boo: excellent questions. may I steal them to use for follow-up stories??

Alexandria, VA.: Hello, and thank you so much for your hard work. One reason why your stories are so powerful, it seems to me, is because of the detail. How, for instance, did you know that Mr. Lovelle was strangled with a baby-blue blanket? Or that one caretaker sat eating her fish and bread dinner as her patient was choking on plastic bags in his nearby room? Can you talk a little about your reporting techniques, and how you were able to get such amazing detail, especially when there were plenty of forces at work to keep these cases secret.


Katherine Boo: baby-blue blanket, fish and bread dinner, all those details were in documents and statements from the police, other city officials. I strongly believe in using details like them, especially in stories about people whose names and stories have been erased, because it reminds me--and I hope you--of their real, physical presence. they ate their cheerios too, and had pajamas. they were more like us than we sometimes want to remember.

Washington, D.C.: I just want to congratulate you on the excellent investigative journalism. The Post has truly been doing an amazing job in investigating corrupt and incompetent city agencies and personnel. Both you and paper deserve a Pulitzer. Please keep up the great work: You are making a difference.

Katherine Boo: gosh. you are nice. we'll see if it makes a difference.

Fairfax, VA: Katherine,
I just wanted you to know, that as a result of your article, I have written emails to:
-1- the chairs of the judiciary, ethics, budget and appropriations committees;
-2- my representative

I hope this will also help with the effort you have started in bringing about change.

Perhaps if you have a follow-up, you can provide names and contact info for others to whom we -concerned public- can write to, to demand action.


Katherine Boo: for me one of the coolest things about working at the post is that the readers rock. they care. thanks

Suitland MD,: Will criminal charges be filed against the owners of the home -Authur Stubbs,Shelia Gaither-where Frederick E Brandenburg died.

Katherine Boo: we'll see. the police said yesterday that making a case would be tough, since so many documents on the case were shredded by his DHS caseworker.

Somewhere, USA: Dear Katherine. I think your article was well written and needed. I don't have a question, but I would like to tell you that I use to be employed by PSI in a different unit and left because of poor staffing. I hope your article will promote the overdue change needed in the system.

Katherine Boo: thanks, somewhere.

Arlington, VA: First of all, a big thank you to the Post and Katherine Boo for that article. I was riveted and sickened by it. The Post deserves credit for allowing a reporter to spend that kind of time to report in-depth on a subject that is so clearly brushed under the carpet by too many, especially our government and the people charged with the care of the mentally ill. Katherine, thank you for taking on that subject and covering it with such respect and care. Your writing is a joy to read and your investigative reporting is incredibly impressive.

My question is, after all the reporting you've done on this subject, what do you think the answer is to insuring that the retarded get proper care? Clearly, the large institutional model failed. Yet, these group homes have been too vulnerable to corruption. What do you think? Did you find a model in another city that seemed to work?


Katherine Boo: this is such an important question. I think community-based systems can work, and can give people fuller, richer lives than they would have in asylums, if government did its job to make sure they were safe. Maryland investigates every death in a home except those where people had had cancer. Delaware takes its oversight very seriously too--the government is an advocate for the disabled, instead of covering up for providers. it can be done. it is being done elsewhere.

washingtonpost.com: We've asked Katherine to put together a list of people who readers can contact if they want to express themselves on this issue. She'll also put together a list of things people can do to help as individuals. We'll have it on the site later today, so check back this afternoon.

Washington, DC: What happens to the residents of these group homes who have been victimized? Is there any victim assistance counseling-therapy or legal assistance made available to them? Is there a provision for this type of help in the city regulations?

Katherine Boo: after my march series a group of volunteer lawyers tried to represent some men who had been repeatedly sexually violated in their group homes. but the city said that they weren't competent enough to hire lawyers.

Columbia MD: I am the father of a 7 year old boy who is likely, at some point in his life, be a resident in a group home. He is retarded, lacks speech and his mom and I won't live forever. As we do planning for the future, what can we do to ensure that he is well treated, gets the attention he needs, is provided opportunity and dignity if he enters a group home? I hate to blacken all state efforts by the tragedies in DC, but in your opinion should we as parents use some of our assets to "purchase" the kind of oversight we'd provide as parents, if we were around? Someone not with the state or the group home whose job would be to act in our son's best interests? -I'm appalled to even ask the question, it creates the "haves" and the "have nots" but as the series shows, the system isn't working and he's my son, and my responsibility.]

Katherine Boo: call the community of the ark. call the kennedy institute. talk to some of the city's good group homes, and see what kind of practical preparations you can make ahead of time. research it within an inch of your life. one of the most important aspects of ensuring your child's safety is making people know how much you care, and lining up people to watch over him in the group home if you are no longer there to do it/

Washington, DC: Katherine --

I'm interested in knowing whether you think the deaths chronicled in your excellent piece are a result of the same glassy-eyed apathy that, with rare exception, characterizes DC government as a whole. Are we facing an "I don't care" municipal government culture that needs to be uprooted?

Katherine Boo: in the area of human services i believe--and i think officials there believe too--there is deep apathy that goes back a long time. the retarded are sometimes literally voiceless. they cant fight for services. so abuse, death, rape gets filed away.

Washington, DC: Do you have any information about the candlelight vigil that is supposed to take place on Wednesday evening in the plaza outside the Mayor's office? I believe it is being organized by Capital area ADAPT. Have you heard anything about this vigil? Perhaps someone else has more details.

Katherine Boo: first time i've heard about it. i'd like more details too.

Greenbelt, Maryland:
What in the world is the criteria for the contractors who receive millions of dollars to open and run these homes? It does not appear that they have any experience in working with special needs populations much less providing residential services. If the people who receive the money to provide the service are not held accountable and required to have training and experience in the first place how will any thing change?

Katherine Boo: there are virtually no requirements for running a group home in this city. even i would be eligible to run one, which is a pretty scary thought.

Alexandria, VA: It is particularly appalling to hear that the City government refused to deal with the group of volunteer lawyers, because the people were not competent to hire a lawyer, but that is the very reason why they need someone to represent their interests. Has the volunteer group petitioned the courts to named as guardians for the residents of these homes? Surely, the courts would rule in their favor.

Katherine Boo: patrick malone, the guy who is organizing the lawyers--and who has a disabled son himself--is intending to press the issue. we'll see what happens.

Washington,DC: Hi Kate:

Thanks for doing such a fine job in reporting the facts as you saw them. Our family is most appreciative for your efforts on behalf of handicapped individuals.

I will contact you later.

Juanita DeButts
Frederick E. Brandenburg's sister

Katherine Boo: juanita thank you.

Rockville, MD: As the sister of a mentally disabled man who will eventually live in a group home your article brought many emotions to me: shock, horror, fear, dismay, profound sadness and, unfortunately, a feeling of helplessness. The DC system appears so tangled and deceitful that it seems impossible to trust that it will get straightened out. I’d like to help personally, in whatever small way, to help move the reform forward but wouldn’t even know where to start.

You mentioned that we could volunteer to become a court-appointed advocate for one of these individuals. How many of the people have advocates now? Did those who died have someone looking out for them on a regular basis?

Katherine Boo: when deinstitutionalization got under way, DC law said every retarded ward of the state be assigned would be an appointed advocate. that mandate is one of countless
policies enacted to protect the retarded that have been ignored, i'm afraid. the truth is that only a handful of retarded men and women have an active advocate today.

Fort Belvoir, VA: Hello,

Here is a call to action with details for the vigil. Contact info is at the end. Hope to see a good sized crowd of people there who truly care to see change.

2500 Q Street, NW #121
Washington, D.C. 20007

116 D.C. People With Disabilities Dead
A Call To Action

Capital Area ADAPT is calling a vigil December 8, 1999 at 4:45 p.m. in
front of the Mayor’s office at One Judiciary Square -Judiciary Square Metro

The vigil is to protest the deaths of 116 of our brothers and sisters
with mental retardation who died in contract group homes funded by the
District. Many of these individuals died from criminal neglect. Abuse and
neglect were covered up, records destroyed, bodies cremated prior to autopsy.
District officials participated in the cover-up.
Our people are dying in institutions. We must stop D.C. from using
disabled people as crops to line the pockets of profiteers.

It is time for the Capital Area disability rights community once again to lift our voices for those who have died and for those who are hidden away and
unable to speak out!

Please join Justin Dart, Jr. and other disability rights advocates at the
vigil Wednesday evening. For more information, call Janine Bertram Kemp,
202-342-9439,Robert Coward at 202-397-1668 or Marjorie Rifkin 202-387-7663.

Katherine Boo: thanks.

washingtonpost.com: This just in from the Associated Press: Lawyers for the family of a mentally retarded man who died in a D.C. group home say they are filing a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court today.
Named as defendants in the suit are the owners of the group home and the District of Columbia.
The relatives of Frederick Brandenburg have hired attorney Joseph Cammarata. He represented Paula Jones in her suit against President Clinton.

Rochester, NY: I read your story with disbelief. I have worked with this population most of my life. We -service providers- in Rochester are scrutinized by the state, on many levels, regarding the care we provide for our most vulnerable citizens. I'm not saying that every provider is perfect, but I can't imagine things ever getting close to the point you describe--given the high standards we are expected -and rightly so- to follow. How could this happen? I can't understand how so many years have gone by with these atrocities going on and not being addressed--no one being held accountable. I guess this is more a statement than a question as I felt a need to vent. Where is people's sense of right and wrong...their integritiy anymore...how do they live with themselves, both the care givers and the government agencies that stand by and allow this to go on? Thank you for your hard work--please keep it up. Sincerely Mary C.-Rochester, NY

Katherine Boo: mary thank you. it doesnt have to be this way does it?

Fairfax, VA: Since there was a consent decree in the closing of the District's institution for people with mental retardation, I wonder why the Department of Justice was not more aggressive in ensuring the safety of the individuals who moved into the community. If the Department of Justice can't help vulnerable people who can?

Katherine Boo: good question, to which i have no answer.

Washington, DC: As an advocate in the Mental Retardation System, I truly appreciate your investigative story. My prayer is that something will be done! Keep up the good work and keep bringing before the world the plight of the mentally retarded and the greed of the people surrounding them.

Katherine Boo: hey, you're the one doing the real work, as an advocate. that is crucial.

Alexandria, Virginia: Not a question but two comments. First, you gave the number of the mayor's office to call and express our outrage. I called and was told by an indifferent receptionist that I needed to talk to the Department of Public Health. The mayor's office needs to get with it, and show that they care.
Second, people should call Rep Thomas Davis' District Oversight Subcommittee -225-6751- and tell him something needs to be done IMMEDIATELY. Part of what needs to be done is Congress should repeal the law that has permitted D.C. to hide its records about the retarded in the name of their privacy and dignity.

Katherine Boo: interesting, that.

Washington, D.C.: As a Provider of Residential Services for the mentally disabled here in the District, I must say that although your articles have caused me no inconsiderable pain, they have also brought about some changes in the way DC agencies have dealt with my questions, needs, and concerns for my residents. Because of your articles, I have been able to talk to officials who otherwise would not give me the time of day. I will call you later to see if you would like to have a follow-up with me on this and other issues.

Katherine Boo: i am sorry to have caused you pain, but i am glad you feel, there on the inside, that people are listening.

Washington DC: Thanks for your article. It was hard to read, given that it seems little has happened since the last time you wrote, but if we all work together - maybe this can change.
I work for an agency in DC and I knew several of the individuals you profiled - as I worked for 3 years at Forest Haven. One of the big deficits in the system -back then and now-is that staff are given way too much responsibility and way too little training and resources to do their jobs.
One very specific area where staff are left hanging is in training for communicating effectively with persons they serve and learning strategies to avoid behavioral problems. The training folks sometimes do get is how to "manage disruptive behavior" - i.e. how to restrain someone who has gone out of control. There is a huge window prior to "disruptive behavior" called "communication" and there are very specific skills and strategies that folks can learn to work more effectively with the people they serve.
Understanding behavior is key to decreasing a significant number of the incidents that occur - some of which lead to serious injury or death. In addition, behavioral training can help staff look at individuals as people - with their own interests, skills, values and hobbies - and learn to build a richer, fuller, more interesting life for folks.
Thanks again for your work.

Katherine Boo: change. i hope.

washington, dc: What can parents do to help? I have kept my child at home because i know the systemis so poorly run. Now that i am 70 years old I know my time as an advocate is running low. Can you put me in touch with other parents in this position? We need to organize ourselves to try and help our children and maybe one day the City.

Katherine Boo: call me, 334-6054, and i'll try to put you together with some parents.

rockville, md: Katherine: in answer to the man who said he will have to put his son in a group home at some point: has he considered the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes in rockville. They are non-sectarian and have a very good reputation. it may be something he should check out.

Katherine Boo: great thanks.

Towson, MD: Why hasn't HCFA intervened, since Medicaid money is involved? Who's been accrediting and approving these dreadful agencies?

Katherine Boo: a darn good question.

Baltimore, MD: Had there been an increase of deaths in the
system since the early 90`s, when the
singular facilities changed to the group home
Could you ever imagine a reversal to the
singular large facilities and away fron the
group homes?

Katherine Boo: it is hard for me to imagine a return to the age of asylums. i hope not, because i think community systems can work, if people take them seriously.

washingtonpost.com: Katherine, thanks so much for joining us. It's obvious from the responses that your story deeply moved many readers. And there are still obviously a lot of questions out there. So let's resume this conversation again later in the week! Come back to washingtonpost.com Thursday at noon for another "Live Online" with Katherine Boo.

Katherine Boo: hey it was fun--my first time. thanks/../

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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