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  How the Dead Were Found

Thelma was a treat. Geraldine could take out walls. Pearlene was the one they called the country girl; she wasn’t even retarded until the District got ahold of her.

The Post’s effort to discover the human beings beneath the black ink of city documents often began with such memory fragments from their mentally disabled friends or caretakers. Because of the city’s ironclad privacy rules on information about the retarded, those memories were essential. In the case of Helen Andrews (the sole document from DHS concerning her death appears above), old friends from Forest Haven and newer ones from her day program, St. John’s Community Services, provided The Post with its first clue to her 1994 passing. But they did not know exactly how or when she had died.

After determining her full name, The Post examined Social Security and other death records for individuals with that name who died in the spring of 1994. (Death databases were more likely to include the high-functioning mentally disabled than the profoundly disabled.) Other means of establishing identity – and the group home where an individual resided – were court records, Medicaid documents from the early ’90s (when the subjects were alive) and funeral home and cemetery records. A small number of group home officials surveyed by The Post volunteered the names of their dead. The Post also canvassed attorneys for the retarded and area doctors who had worked in the group homes or had treated group home residents when they were hospitalized.

The Post compared the basic information it had been able to glean with the data that had not been blacked out of city documents, to eliminate possible wrong matches. In some cases, the date of death given by the city was incorrect. In more than a dozen cases, The Post’s efforts were unsuccessful: no name, and sometimes not even an age or gender, could be discovered. But The Post eventually identified most of the names and causes of death.

Andrews’s case was a relatively simple one: The dates of death in Social Security death records and the city’s single document aligned, her friends remembered where she lived, and the director of her group home eventually confirmed that she was the woman who had died of "Tuberculous" – a fact that shocked those who knew her.

The fact that the cause of Helen Andrews’s death was not blacked out was an apparent error on the part of DHS. In almost all the other documents provided to The Post, DHS removed that information. DHS also removed the names of relatives of the dead. The Post’s efforts to identify and locate those relatives were largely fruitless.

The Post found Helen Andrews’s numbered grave, and the graves of other men and women who died in District custody, by visiting a dozen local cemeteries, looking at records there, and – when there were markers – locating them. Many had sunk into the earth and had to be dug out by hand.

Invisible Deaths: The Fatal Neglect of D.C.'s Retarded

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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