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    Dewitt Stith
DeWitt Stith, left, worked for seven years at Rollie Washington's horse farm and estate in Upper Marlboro. He and other retarded workers were paid $5 a day to clean out the stables.
(Frank Johnson – The Washington Post)
Page Two
The Manor Farm

He sells stallions for a quarter million a mane. Wears a cowboy hat, collects Mercedes-Benzes. He had little experience caring for the mentally retarded. He did have experience making profits on the poor. In the '80s, he had a Department of Human Services contract to house the homeless in grim Southeast Washington apartments for which he charged the city $3,000 a month apiece -- until a city auditor objected.

As Forest Haven was closing, Washington applied for and received generous federal Medicaid funding to set up homes for retarded people with medical needs. But Medicaid officials started disputing the quality of his services and billing practices. So Washington turned to the D.C. Department of Human Services, which decided he was qualified to care for a dozen of Forest Haven's healthier cases, including mildly retarded Elroy.

The Washingtons' group homes claimed to provide special care for some of the many ex-Forest Haveners who had emotional or behavioral troubles. But before long, records show, city health inspectors were expressing dissatisfaction with what they saw of that care: poor physical conditions the Washingtons were slow to correct and required treatments the residents weren't getting. So, in early 1996, city health inspectors urged that Elroy's home and another one Washington and his wife run be closed because of care so inadequate that its residents were judged to be in danger.

Over the following two years, a federal court monitor urgently petitioned city agencies to protect the residents. But it wasn't until late 1998, 2 1/2 years after health inspectors requested the closure, that city enforcement lawyers met with a representative of the Washingtons' company to discuss problems at the homes. The District's lawyers subsequently declared past concerns allayed -- just days before health inspectors, prompted by The Post's inquiries, returned to the homes and found and reported a level of neglect and squalor they termed "life-threatening."

In interviews, Rollie Washington declined to review documents calling his homes "deplorable" and said the city hadn't complained to him about problems in them. While he refused to discuss the specifics of his contracts, he said he provides services that meet or exceed city requirements. "If I wasn't doing what I should be doing," he said, "why would they have done business with me all these years?"

The Department of Human Services acknowledged that "it is conceivable" that it gave the Washingtons contracts while "failing to scrutinize or question the absence of other documentation," such as licenses to do business in the city. But the department did more for the Washingtons than pay their company at least $4 million during the six years it wasn't licensed. Year after year, the department has also decided that the best "therapeutic vocational training" for several of the city's dependents is mucking out the stables and mowing the lawns at the Washingtons' "manor farm," where the couple breeds thoroughbreds to sell or race at a Bowie track. With the department's permission, these retarded farm workers last year earned, for five-hour days, five days a week, $5 or less a day.

City records show that last year, the Washingtons received an additional $180,000 in public money for providing this "day program."

Under the law, mentally retarded workers may be paid less than the minimum wage for work done
as part of a treatment or job-training program.

Under the law, mentally retarded workers may be paid less than the minimum wage for work done as part of a treatment or job-training program. But in the early '90s, Human Services officials raised questions about the possible exploitation of the Washingtons' farm workers and the accuracy of claims about the therapies for which they were billing. A 1994 department investigation called for immediate improvements in services and conditions. Agency records indicate that trained monitors never returned to see whether improvements had been made. Instead, the government relied for information about the well-being of the workers primarily on the monthly reports of a therapist paid by the Washingtons. Rollie Washington declined to say how often the therapist was on the farm.

"I believe in reality therapy," said Washington, who notes that he recently confiscated one of his ward's shoes to keep him from running away. "If you do something wrong, you are going to have to be dealt with."

Reality: a bone-chill morning at the Washingtons' estate. At the manor house, up past the paddocks, Rollie Washington is talking with his lawyer. Down another road, Elroy's housemate DeWitt Stith labors beside a deaf-mute man who lives in another group home run by the Washingtons. They are cleaning stables in unsupervised silence. Startled by visitors, the deaf man brandishes his shovel. But gray-haired Stith sprints over, shedding his dung-smeared gloves. Stith, 52, has been laboring at this farm since 1991, despite his thick-tongued objections: "Work too hard." "Mr. Washington play too rough."

City officials say that Stith needs to be isolated at the farm because he behaves inappropriately in social settings and that he is receiving socialization therapy while training for free-market work as a stable hand. But therapists aren't in evidence. And the career ladder is equally hard to perceive: Stith has "apprenticed" at shoveling and other menial tasks five days a week for seven years. In those seven years, city officials have noted frequently in case files their plans to find Stith better day program options. They declined to produce for The Post any documents showing that such options have been pursued. Department of Human Services officials acknowledge that, because of budget and staff cuts, they have not monitored the farm program, or many other day programs for the retarded, for four years.

In minutes, Rollie Washington will speed to the stables and order Stith back to his low-paid labor. But for now, Stith believes that the visitors have come to liberate him from the farm -- free him to go, instead, to a sheltered workshop he's heard about. Elroy, he hopes, will work there, too. Together, they'll learn to make furniture. At the idea of this imaginary rescue, a toothless smile breaks over Stith's face.

"Today," he says happily, inaccurately -- "today is my last day on the farm!"

Elroy's Despair

"You drop a fish into the tank who suddenly eats all your other fish up. That's pretty much how it was." The residential director of Elroy's group home, Tom Roberson, is describing life in the house for most of last year. The piranha: a heavyset Forest Haven graduate who, after being sexually abused as a youth, developed a history of sexually predatory behavior.

In 1997, D.C. Medicaid officials decided he wasn't sick enough to rate the expensive treatment he had theoretically been getting at a home operated by a nonprofit company. So the Department of Human Services sent the man to the Southeast home, where monitors and inspectors regularly decried a lack of services and therapy.

Before long, in the bathtub, in the basement, in bedrooms across the house, the man regressed to compulsive sexual behavior, according to city records and interviews with residents, staff and Rollie Washington. "He'd even come after people when they went to use the bathroom," Washington says. "The whole house went crazy."

Elroy, besieged by constant demands to participate in what the new housemate called "digging," couldn't even escape during the day. The predator, as city documents call him, worked beside him in a job-training program at a nursing facility. Elroy grew suicidal, telling staff and relatives that he was going to get AIDS and burn in hell. In 1995, while in the group home's care, he had been run over by a car on Minnesota Avenue, breaking an arm and a leg. Now, announcing his desire to die, he flung himself into the middle of the street on purpose.

He put a fist through a windowpane. He smashed his own glasses, without which -- given blindness in one eye and glaucoma in the other -- he was virtually helpless. Worried about his self-destructive behavior, his day program suspended him from its apprentice cleaning crew, a job that the meticulous Elroy had loved. He spent the next six months, while the city looked with little apparent urgency for a new day program, riding around the District in a van that delivered his housemates to their day programs. Then he went home to sitcoms and some strange televised proceedings regarding Bill Clinton and "Monica Melinsky."

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