The facade of 3932 14th St. NW looks eerie: T sloppily drawn shades, half-torn and hanging from the rod. An unswept porch and a dry, dead lawn suggest this row house is abandoned. It isn't. It's a group foster home for dependent, neglected District of Columbia children that is one of five run by the Institute for Behaviorial Research under a contract with the city.
This institute is the same organization that goes to court next Tuesday on charges that one of its divisions allegedly mistreated 17 monkeys kept in a laboratory in Silver Spring.
On its face, there is nothing wrong with the idea of that same institute running a foster home in Washington, though I must admit that my eyebrows arched dramatically when I heard it. The city signed the $930,000 contract nearly two years ago, long before the furor over the monkeys developed. What's more, the institute hasn't yet been convicted of anything.
But I was curious and, frankly, a bit paranoid, which is perhaps a healthy state of mind some times. My interest deepened when the city confirmed with embarrassment that the people who allegedly so abused monkeys that a passel of animal lovers swept them away in the dead of night also had another division that was taking care of 56 abandoned city children.
At the 14th Street facility and two others, instead of a traditional group home where the children are cared for by men and women working eight-hour shifts, the institute has organized the facility around a live-in family called "teaching-parents" who it says teach the children self-care and self-management.
It all sounds harmless, maybe even superior to the concept of the traditional group home.
My red flag went up, however, when I heard they were collecting and studying data on the children.
IBR's research was news to me. It was also news to the social service commissioner in the Department of Human Services, who said she didn't know that data was being collected and sent to Boys Town, Neb., and later, to the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda.
The commissioner, Audrey Rowe, is a veteran of the civil rights movement and not the kind of person who would knowingly do anything that was not in the interest of her young charges, most of whom are black. It also may be unrealistic to expect the person in charge to know about every contract let by her agency.
But if you care about the rights of children, and your suspicions are tweaked by the people in charge of them, it's a bad feeling when an outside behavior service institute is doing something that the responsible people don't know about.
There is a principle involved here -- the rights of children. IQ and psychological tests are controversial, often fighting issues with many blacks.
A call was made to Boys Town, another to NIMH. Both explained that homes like the one on 14th Street were urban versions of the "teaching/parent" models tried successfully in rural areas. The District provided a desired, predominately black, urban laboratory.
That sounded okay. Even the research on the children's behavior sounded innocent -- it had nothing to do with any kind of psychological or aptitude testing. Rather, the institute was collecting data on life skills and the ability of the children to read labels and know about jobs and work permits. But, I learned in subsequent calls that DHS and the institute were at odds on what kind of data collection had been agreed on.
Who knows what's really going on? Not the worst, to be certain. Then what? That is unclear.
This is no way to run a program for children. It's unsettling to learn that people can come into our city, get involved with our kids and collect data without the responsible people at the Department of Human Services having a firm handle on what is taking place.
Nearly half the children in Washington come from relatively poor families. They're easy targets. Even with rigid rules, abuses occur. If the people in charge of them don't know what's going on, heaven help the children.