A task force of D.C. building inspectors has ordered the operators of 50 foster care homes to spend more than $142,000 to install fire escapes, extinguishers and alarms and to hire additional employes to safeguard a total of 1,110 residents.
In a report released yesterday, the inspectors said they found cockroaches and rodent droppings in the kitchens and food storage areas of more than a third of the homes operated under contract with the D.C. government or operated privately for mental outpatients from St. Elizabeths Hospital.
The inspections, ordered by Major Marion Barry, followed the worst fire in the City's history at a group home for mental outpatients at 1715 Lamont St. NW in the Mount Pleasant area. Nine women died in the April 11 blaze and a tenth died later from severe burns.
"We found some very loose run operations," said Ralph E. Spencer, the city's chief building inspector, before he turned over his report to City Administration Elijah B. Rogers.
Spencer said he did not recommend that any of the homes be closed or that their residents be withdrawn because all of the violation could be corrected within 30 days. He added that his inspection teams are working under a mandate from Mayor Barry to "bend over backwards . . . to eliminate the need for closing these facilities," but at the same time forcing compliance with city health and safety codes."
Nine of the foster care homes were ordered to install fire escapes to comply with building code requirements that multi-story buildings have a least one alternate exit during emergencies. The cost of each installation was estimated at $4,000.
The lack of a fire escape has been a central issue in the investigations following the Lamont Street fire, in which residents on two upper floors were trapped or forced to jump out of windows because a central open stairwell was the only means of escape. The fire rendered that stairwell almost immediately impassable.
The homes required to install fire escapes are: 1117 Euclid St. NW; 3112 13th St. NW; 1746 Lanier P1. NW; 83 W St. NW; 3822 8th St. NW; 2844 Langston P1. SE; 1438 Minnesota Ave. SE; 811 Butternut St. NW and 13th and G streets NE (House of Ruth).
In his report, Spencer criticized what he called "poor practices" by the Department of Human Resources (DHR) in negotiating contracts with group homes operators.
"It seems that each (DHR) contracting officer may prepare the document in a manner he or she deems appropriate, with no particular basic uniformity of format," Spencer said in the report.
He added that some of the unstructured contracts failed to mention the "requirement for life and fire safety protection" measures by group home operators. Spencer also found instances in which DHR officials failed to require that operators obtain occurpancy (See INSPECT, C3, Col.1) (INSPECT, From C1)permits or to specify the maximum number of residents at a home.
DHR director, Albert P. Russo, who was reprimanded by Mayor Barry late last month following a first round of inspections at foster care homes operated directly by city employes, could not be reached for comment.
Russo was reprimanded after it was determined that of the 27 cityrun homes, six lacked fire escapes, seven lacked smoke detectors and 10 lacked adequate fire extinguishers, fire doors or alarm and exit light systems.
Spencer would not comment on DHR beyond the critica6 language of the report. It's very painful . . . I have to work with these guys," he said. He did say that DHR had incorporated his recommendations into procedures for writing future contracts.
Following the release of the report yesterday, Spencer said the "heart of our operation" is completed. However, he added, 288 group homes and boarding houses operated privately remain to be inspected. Most of them house less than five residents, he said.
To better monitor conditions at group homes in the future, Spencer said he is recommending that a permanent four-man team be established with members from the housing, fire, human resources and environmental services departments.