D.C. government officials perform no fire inspections at foster homes such as the one in Southeast that burned Sunday, killing five persons, because of a belief that too much regulation would disrupt a sought-after "family atmosphere," a top city official said yesterday.
Social Services Commissioner Audrey Rowe confirmed that there are no fire inspections at the foster homes, which care for about 2,300 District children who are wards of the city, during a news conference yesterday to discuss Sunday's early morning blaze.
The fire killed three infants in city foster care, a 2-year-old boy adopted from the foster care program and a 55-year-old man.
Instead of performing inspections, Department of Social Services employes "monitor" private houses used for foster care, using instructions from supervisors who have been briefed by fire inspectors on how to check for structural problems, Rowe said.
In other developments, city officials said the foster parent licensed to care for the three infants who died and for an 8-year-old girl who was seriously injured in the fire works full time as a Red Cross caseworker and hired a baby sitter to care for them plus her 2-year-old adopted son.
The parent, Frances P. Walker, was on a weekend church trip in Pennsylvania when the fire broke out. According to city officials, at various times Saturday night the children were cared for by their regular baby sitter, Walker's son and daughter-in-law, and a 55-year-old family friend, Ellis Meeks, who died in the fire.
The 8-year-old girl who survived the fire received massive respiratory injuries and was being kept alive by life-support equipment at D.C. General Hospital, Rowe said. She said an ethics committee at the hospital, along with District officials, will decide whether she is legally dead.
The girl, listed in hospital records as Maria Walker, has lived at Frances Walker's home since January 1984.
D.C. officials identified those who died in the blaze as Meeks, 2-year-old Eric Walker, 5-month-old twins Steven and Stephanie Edwards and 1-month-old Paul Holmes.
Rowe said yesterday that letters will be sent to the 400 foster parents in the District and the 500 homes in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs where District children are cared for to emphasize the importance of using approved baby sitters when the foster parents leave town.
Also, the city will begin investigating other homes where more than one infant is being cared for, she said.
Walker followed her approved plan for most of Saturday evening, Rowe said, which states that her son or daughter will care for the children in her absence. The children's baby sitter put the children in bed and left about 7 p.m. when Walker's son and his wife arrived. "His wife left about 9 p.m.," Rowe said, which was about the time that Meeks arrived. Meeks stayed at the home, and Timothy Walker left about 11 p.m., she said.
Timothy Walker returned about 12:15 a.m. to find smoke alarms ringing and the house filled with smoke too dense to enter, she said. He ran to the nearby Boulevard Heights fire station to report the blaze, she said.
Rowe said a city caseworker had visited the house as recently as March 7 to make an emergency placement of Paul Holmes. Rowe said the worker looked in the basement, where fire officials believe the blaze began, and found nothing out of order. A humidifier was added to the house's furnace three weeks ago, she said.
"It may sound a bit trite, but this is almost one of those tragic accidents that I don't know what could have been done to prevent it," Rowe said.
Regina Bernard, director of the city's foster care program, said it is a "normal family arrangement" to place three infants and another child with a single working mother who has a 2-year-old child of her own.
Rowe explained, "If you've certified a parent as being responsible of taking care of a number of children, you assume that the arrangements these parents will make will be responsible."
Walker, 45, has been a foster parent since 1983. The city pays $287 per child per month for their care. Walker selected and paid for their baby sitter, an arrangement that did not have to be cleared with the District.
"She's a very caring, responsible, loving individual," said Rowe.
Red Cross officials said Walker is a full-time caseworker at the agency's Northeast service center, involved in helping families who need emergency housing and helping veterans and others with family and benefits problems.