The Absent Protectors
How did a system with multiple layers of oversight -- city inspectors, federal courts, social service caseworkers -- fail Elroy and his housemates so completely?
The Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration is the city agency chiefly responsible for making Elroy's world safe. But records turned over to The Post indicate that there were only two visits to Elroy's home by monitoring staff between 1995 and 1998. City officials privately note that there was a practical reason for casting a blind eye: During the District's mid-decade budget crises, those who served the retarded were often viewed as non-priority creditors. The Washingtons and other companies had to wait months for their promised payments, giving the District little leverage in demanding quality care.
The Department of Health also was supposed to look out for Elroy, investigating complaints and enforcing minimum safety and treatment standards at his and other group homes. But as the men suffered, their putative inspectors were otherwise engaged. Department of Health officials say that in 1997, they detailed most of the inspectors of homes for the healthy mentally retarded to child-care centers, following a Post report about life-threatening conditions in those facilities. For more than a year, Health Department officials acknowledge, many of the 33 group homes for the high-functioning retarded -- as well as the city's 170 group homes for the mentally ill and the elderly -- went virtually unmonitored.
Even when agencies do investigate reports of abuse in group homes, they often don't get very far. Homes often attribute bruises and bloody lips to accidents or self-mutilation. Rapes get described as consensual sex. Those explanations may in some cases be accurate. But when they aren't, the few clients competent enough to describe what happened may choose, as Elroy does, not to make waves. "I don't think on the negative stuff," he says. "Although I might get hit by a car sometimes," he adds with what sounds like hope.
"When you have a system with so many structural problems," says John Connelly, a veteran lawyer for the retarded, "it's even more critical to have people with a genuine interest in the retarded coming in, looking with fresh eyes. But I haven't seen an advocate in years."
In addition to individual advocates, the federal court employs a nonprofit group as a "special monitor" to make sure that Elroy and the other surviving Forest Haveners are getting the services promised to them when the institution closed. Since 1995, that monitoring agency -- the District of Columbia Arc Inc. (not to be confused with the Community of the Ark) -- has sent Human Services officials, health inspectors and court representatives numerous urgent missives about the Washingtons' homes, detailing "serious questions of institutional neglect" and "serious concern" for the health and safety of residents. These chronicles of maltreatment do not include the havoc created by the sexual predator, about which the monitoring agency failed to learn.
But city officials are often slow to address the quality problems the monitor finds. And while the federal court can fine the District for failing to provide decent services, the plaintiffs in the Forest Haven case have pressed the court much harder on the issue of timely payments to providers, some of which are shoestring nonprofits. In the '90s, judges have fined the city stiffly for being late with payments to operators such as Rollie Washington. But they've never assessed a fine for poor treatment of the retarded.
The staff of Elroy's group home didn't inform city authorities of a crisis at the home until about six months after the predator's arrival, city records show. Residential director Tom Roberson says the staff initially considered the sex consensual. Then, he says, "we waited to see if [the predator's behavior] was an aberration." The home finally informed the Department of Human Services in April 1998, but the city took no action to rescue Elroy and his housemates. Nor did it in May, when city records indicate that the predator's behavior had become so uncontrolled that he had to be taken to D.C. General Hospital's Emergency Psychiatric Response Unit -- where he was evaluated and returned home to the room next to Elroy's. For the next two months, the acts that city officials summarized as "threats to harm himself and others, and persistent sexual advances" escalated. They also increasingly targeted Elroy, according to a graphic report the group home submitted to Department of Human Services officials.
But the department did not notify residents' families or court-appointed attorneys of the damage the predator was inflicting. And it waited until Aug. 31 to move him out of the home -- nearly a year after the attacks began, and five months after city officials learned there was a problem. One staff member describes those months like this: "so terrible, so sexualized, I dreaded going into the house."
Roberson concurs, laughing: "I mean, he was incessant. He could go forever. I told people, man, I want a prescription for whatever this guy's taking. This stuff is better than Viagra!"
Victim or Perp?
As Elroy sank into despondency, the agitation of his emotionally troubled friend DeWitt Stith spiraled. Earlier in the year, Stith had been disturbed to find rats in his bedroom. Now the predator was in there, too.
Stith repeatedly tried to escape from the home and his labor at the Washingtons' stables by standing in the street and faking seizures. Several times, these performances got him into a hospital, where he basked in the care of nurses until the group home staff found him and took him home. Once, he made his way to a police substation on Pennsylvania Avenue SE, where he lay on the ground by the entrance in the hope of getting an officer's attention. He was found, not by officers, but by a group home staff member. Returned, he grew defiant, violent -- once beating his roommate so badly the elderly man had to be hospitalized.
He was treated with the "reality therapy" of the farm, where -- despite his passionate protests during his annual assessment hearing last fall -- the city assigned him for another year.
The predator who hounded Stith now has a new residence: a home on 13th Street NW, where his room is down the way from a retarded man with stomach cancer.
Stith has a new residence, too: the D.C. jail. In January, he escaped the van that was taking him to the farm and traced a familiar arc of sexual abuse: The victim became an alleged perp. He was arrested a day later on a charge of molesting a 12-year-old retarded boy.
'We're All Scattered Now'
"RETARDS" reads a slash of paint on a door of the Forest Haven cottage where Elroy, Stith and the other "kids" used to live. The abandoned gym where they danced the mashed potato is now white with asbestos frost. About this ghost-place, a thousand case files lie discarded. Here is Elroy's. Here is Stith's, and the predator's -- clinical case jottings about subjects who once were children.
Elroy, that bit of a boy in outsize glasses, proudly leading the canteen cleanup crew.
DeWitt Stith, whom the other children chose on May Day to be the flag bearer. Who, asylum colors streaming, grinned and high-stepped his way across the grass.
Those kids are gone.
In the years after the asylum, some of Elroy and DeWitt's friends were helped, loved -- even transformed -- as were a retarded couple named Ricardo and Donna Thornton. After release from Forest Haven, they hooked up with one of the city's savviest advocates, a D.C. government retiree named Shirley Rees who sometimes walks the city's rougher neighborhoods looking for ex-Forest Haven residents who have chosen steam grates over group homes. She had the experience to truth-squad the system; the Thorntons had enough mental capacity to take advantage of opportunities called to their attention. Nowadays, the couple lives a life as beautifully dull as any other working couple's. They finish their jobs at a hospital and a public library and head home to a tidy subsidized apartment and their non-retarded 12-year-old son, Ricky, whose warmth and brightness have stretched their minds further.
The Thorntons have tried over the years to help lower-functioning Forest Haven friends squeeze similar help from the city. Tried to believe official assurances that life for the retarded would get better. But hope is sometimes hard to hold.
"We're all scattered now," Donna says. "More than likely, people are scared."
Donna starts many of her sentences with "more than likely." Retarded people can't always be certain that things are the way they seem. She wonders whether smarter people can make sense of what happened to the retarded after their liberation from Forest Haven.
A Saturday: Jittery Elroy travels across Southeast from his group home to the D.C. jail. A red pass lets you see a retarded man in an orange jumpsuit who sits in a fortified white cage.
Elroy has brought a greeting card for his friend DeWitt Stith. The guys in the house did their best to sign it. Its front, for some reason, is a smiley face.
Elroy and Stith converse disjointedly across a bulletproof divide. DeWitt doesn't mind the jail -- hash browns for breakfast, large-screen TV, no horse manure. Elroy does mind. It has taken his friend. In this mystifying world, he is even more alone.
Stith returns to his cell.
Elroy returns to his. Bible to stare at. Bedsheets to wash.
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