D.C. officials have instituted stricter procedures for handling emergency child abuse cases after the death in February of a 5-year-old child who was taken home by a city social worker even though he had been identified as a possible abuse victim.
The new provisions include a rule that allows the Corporation Counsel's office to intervene if police and social workers disagree over whether potential child abuse victims should be removed from their parents.
Another provision is that when city social workers come across a possible abuse victim at night and the child lives outside Washington, they cannot take the child home until a fuller determination of the situation is made the next morning.
The tighter procedures come after the city's child protection system apparently broke down on Feb. 28 when a D.C. social worker drove home a mother and her young son to Columbia, Md., around 4 a.m., despite an earlier decision to separate the two and hospitalize the boy. Within an hour the child had been drowned and his body placed on the stove to burn. The mother has been charged with murder and arson in the case and is awaiting a June 30 trial in Howard County.
"I'm reasonably confident that this kind of situation, given the same circumstances, would not happen again" under the new rules, said Audrey Rowe, D.C. commissioner of social services.
The D.C. Office of Inspector General, meanwhile, reported to Mayor Marion Barry on April 30 that after a two-month investigation it was unable to pin down exact responsibility for the incident, according to informed sources. Investigators were unable to resolve differing testimony from individuals in the case, sources said.
Rowe said in an interview that her staff had "acted in a professional manner" and said no disciplinary action would be taken against Andrew Hardy, the social worker who drove the woman and her son home.
City officials yesterday declined to release the 11-page report. Hardy could not be reached for comment.
The mother, Beverly Pouncey, 26, has pleaded "innocent by reason of insanity," according to prosecutor James Dudley. She now is undergoing tests to determine her sanity at the time of the incident, and whether she is competent to stand trial.
Witnesses had reported seeing Pouncey and her son wander aimlessly through both of Washington's bus terminals for two days in February. The boy appeared to be dazed and the mother was mumbling about the devil and anonymous assassins. A security guard finally called police after he saw the woman apparently try to kill herself with an overdose of pills.
A total of 11 individuals -- including social workers, police, shelter home personnel, bus station security guards and a concerned citizen -- said they witnessed the Pounceys' strange behavior. Social workers at the city's Protective Services Agency decided to separate the two and send the boy to Children's Hospital.
Under D.C. law, social workers may remove a child from its parent if the parent agrees, as Pouncey apparently had at first. Only the police may take such action if parental consent is lacking.
The Inspector General's office was unable to reconcile conflicting testimony as to why, in the Pouncey case, no such action was taken.
The social worker who drove the Pounceys home said that Beverly Pouncey recanted her permission to have the child taken, and that police refused to give the necessary authorization. The police have said that no such request ever was made.
The Corporation Counsel's office says that it has been given authority to intervene in such cases in the future.
Department of Human Services officials said that a new training program on the procedures has been instituted for social workers and police, and more accountability will be required of individual social workers' decisions.
Allegations by some sources that the Pounceys were sent home solely because they were Maryland residents were held untrue by Annie J. Goodson, the city's family services administrator. Said Goodson, "They spent too many hours with the woman to say it was a 'dump job.' "
The Pouncey case also prompted a coordination of night-time emergency procedures in child abuse cases between the city and outlying jurisdictions, according to Mary L. Holman, director of the child protection center at Children's Hospital.
Holman said, "It's too bad this terrible tragedy happened, but it's good that the response to it has been so positive. . . . There was not much talking across state lines before, and there is now."