'Work Cut Out for All'
As part of what an internal D.C. government memo calls "a media strategy to reduce the impact of [The Post's] sensitive story," city agencies have in recent months sent crews of monitors and inspectors into homes where The Post found problems. They say that important steps already have been taken to rectify systemic failures, and that more are on the way: more monitoring and quality-assurance mechanisms at the mental retardation administration; more legal action against bad providers taken by the corporation counsel, which has filed only one enforcement case involving the mentally retarded in the last four years; and more fraud-detection efforts at the Medicaid office, which last year began ratcheting down the District's high provider payments. More health inspectors to monitor group homes are also promised, although officials can't say when those inspectors will be deployed.
City officials also told The Post they will finally promulgate the necessary fine schedules so that the city can punish abuse and neglect of the retarded.
"We've got our work cut out for all of us," says Department of Human Services Director Jearline F. Williams.
One of the first jobs will be getting agencies to trade information -- to begin identifying patterns of abuse or corruption that now get missed. The need for that broader view is illustrated by the recent history of the District's largest nonprofit group home provider: a company called D.C. Community Services. In the '90s, its managers have included a convicted embezzler and six others found guilty in Massachusetts of diverting money meant for the retarded to personal use.
Embezzling officers were not the nonprofit's only recurring problem. Consider the experience of a mute, severely retarded woman named Angela, who in 1997 was sent by the city to one of D.C. Community Services' 12 group homes. There was a vacancy at this Northwest Washington home because a previous resident had fallen out of the home's van and, caught in the door, been dragged face down on the pavement. A month after moving in, Angela, too, came to harm in the van. According to health inspectors' documents, a staff member pounded her head and upper body because she unfastened her seat belt. A woman driving behind the van, herself the mother of a disabled child, bravely intervened. Health inspectors substantiated her account of the beating. But bloodied Angela remained at the home.
Videotape shot at her day program two months after the incident shows her slumped and oblivious, day after day. In March, health inspectors cited D.C. Community Services for improperly drugging her -- a citation that came, as always, with no fine.
Meanwhile, the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, Angela's official caretaker, was seemingly unaware of her suffering: Records it provided to The Post show that trained monitors visited her home once between 1994 and 1998. Angela's caseworker did drop in after her beating and the drugging, records show. Noting no unusual incidents involving his client, the caseworker pronounced her living situation "good."
Running D.C. Community Services at the time of Angela's injuries was a man named Steven Pullman, who had been named to the job after the previous executive director had been convicted of defrauding the government and the nonprofit's board of directors. But Pullman himself had been convicted in the late '80s of bilking the Town of Vienna in his role as its chief financial officer. He stole the money, he told the judge, to finance a $500-a-day cocaine habit. Pullman, who declined to be interviewed, resigned from D.C. Community Services last summer -- shortly after its board of directors learned that the company no longer owned many of the homes where its clients live. A civil lawsuit filed by the board alleges that, through a series of unauthorized maneuvers, Pullman converted many of the nonprofit's homes, vans and other assets to his own name. Pullman says in a counter-suit that the deals were approved by the board president, the director of a Capitol Hill nursing home, and were appropriate.
As those charges of impropriety played out in court last year, D.C. Community Services collected about $5 million in city and federal money.
This year, D.C. Community Services has a new executive director, Nathaniel Jenkins, who has run programs for the retarded in Maryland. He said, "I have observed personally that the care going on is excellent." He declined to comment about Angela, whose home -- one of the few D.C. Community Services still owns -- appeared earlier this month in a tiny notice in the Washington Times. It was scheduled for auction because the nonprofit hadn't made its mortgage payments.
A World Without Words
Fred Brandenberg's retarded friends grieved. In his Wisconsin Avenue group home, in the day program where he played checkers and made popsicle-stick crafts, in group homes across the city where ex-Forest Haveners remember -- in some quarters, there were tears long after Fred's body was taken away.
But outside the claustral realm of the retarded, his death didn't resonate much. Perhaps that was evitable: The opinionated, off-key 57-year-old retarded man wasn't a fully functioning member of society, or even one of the docile disabled who sweep up stray french fries at McDonald's. But from a certain angle, there is particular tragedy in being born with very little and losing some or all of that.
In being 22-year-old, retarded, paraplegic Robert, who has legs the length of rulers, feet short some toes, chronically sopping Huggies -- and a mind uncannily able to recall every song in the hymnal.
Given up by his birth mother, then a foster one, he now has been sent by the city to his first group home. And he, who grew up without the shaping scars of Forest Haven, whose smile says, Stay and talk: He represents whatever hope there is.
"Where do you live?" Robert asks a rare visitor, fingering his bib. "Do you love me?" He allows that he has learned his address and his ABCs. But his attempts at dinner-table conversation are interrupted. His profoundly retarded housemates have forsaken their chicken noodle soup to hurl themselves against the living room walls.
There are benevolent laws on the books. There is money in the budget. There is magic in this lonely, miniature man. But District officials have placed him in a world without words.
One of his housemates bangs his head mutely. Another howls and pounds in need or anger. Two aides silently intervene. And Robert freezes, orange jello trembling on his spoon.
O beautiful, for spacious skies
Urgently, exquisitely, Robert tries to do what his city hasn't done for him. He comforts himself. He sings, until the heads hitting drywall overwhelm.
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