Exactly one week before Easter, during the early morning hours, a fire whipped through an Anacostia foster home, leaving five persons dead -- including three infants who were wards of the D.C. government. Four days later, a fourth foster child, age 8, became the fire's sixth victim.
The blaze also killed a former foster child recently adopted by Frances P. Walker, the house's owner, whom the D.C. Department of Human Services had licensed to care for foster children. The final victim was a family friend, Ellis Meeks, 55, who was baby-sitting for the children during Walker's absence.
In the days since the tragedy, several questions have arisen about the city's regulations for foster homes. Fire Department officials do not inspect such houses, but rather use specially briefed employes of the Department of Social Services to "monitor" the varying conditions at the homes.
If that's not bad enough, city officials said the District's regulations call for placing only two infants in each foster home. In the case of the Walker home, a third infant had been placed there during an emergency several weeks earlier. Explaining why the city had broken its own rules, Regina Bernard, director of the Department of Human Services' foster care program, said, "Sometimes emergencies overrule the regulations."
By the next day, Social Services Commissioner Audrey Rowe said her department had erred in stating that it had a regulation forbidding more than two infants in a foster care home. According to Rowe, the two-child restriction is merely a guideline that her department is in the process of adopting as policy.
Much attention has been drawn to the fact that foster parent Walker, who was on a weekend church trip to Pennsylvania when the fire broke out, works full time as a Red Cross caseworker and had hired a baby sitter to care for the children. Rowe defended the city's practice by noting that restricting working people from caring for infants would limit the age and diversity of foster parents available to the city.
At a time when most American women with families work, I don't have an intrinsic problem with a foster parent holding a job, if that person makes responsible arrangements for the care of the children. Walker submitted to the city adequate plans for the children's care.
But whether the practice in question is a "guideline" or a regulation, why should this city not follow the basic standard urged by the Child Welfare League that no more than two children under the age of 2 be placed in a single foster home? It appears to me that this city is not operating with high enough standards if a lone foster parent is caring for three tiny infants, especially if the parent has a full-time job.
But other child welfare experts have a different opinion.
"We need to look at why the situation arises in which the department has to violate its guidelines in the first place," says Nancy Smith, until recently the director of the Child Advocacy Center and former chairman of the Mayor's Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. "One reason would be the lack of foster homes."
Smith is probably right when she says that a shortage of foster parents is a perennial problem and that the city should develop a vigorous campaign to recruit more. Rowe has said this is not a critical problem at the moment, but having more parents available would certainly allow the city to set more rigorous standards. Why doesn't the city come up with a creative and vigorous campaign to recruit foster parents?
Rowe has defended the city's role in this tragedy, and also has defended Walker. "It may sound a bit trite," said Rowe, "but this is almost one of those tragic accidents that I don't know what could have been done to prevent it."
Nonetheless, the deaths of these foster children have shown that there is trouble within the city's social services apparatus. Is any vigorous thought guiding its actions about what is best for the children under its care?
Every city resident must be concerned about the standards of services that should be offered to families once the state intervenes in their lives. We as a community must ask ourselves what we expect the social services unit to accomplish, and what resources are needed to do the job.
After the fire, D.C. Fire Department spokesman Ray Alfred said, "These are very young children. They never had a chance." If those babies are not to have died in vain, this community must demand greater accountability from those who care for our children, lest many other youngsters will find that they too will never have a chance.