A fire that killed six persons, including four foster children, has prompted the District of Columbia to require all private homes sheltering District foster children to be inspected by fire officials, according to David Rivers, the city's director of human services.
Foster homes currently are monitored by social workers from Human Services Department's Family Services Administration, who check structural items and fire safety after instructions from their supervisors, who have been briefed on fire safety by fire inspectors. City social services officials said that requiring fire inspections could reduce the number of parents willing to take in foster children and would disrupt the family atmosphere officials try to preserve.
The March 23 fire at the home of Frances P. Walker, 4286 Southern Ave. SE, may have been caused by combustible materials, fire officials said. No official report on the fire has been issued.
In a related development, Walker's pastor said that Walker was not attending a church trip in Pennsylvania at the time of the fire. City officials had said last week that they were told that Walker left that Friday for a church trip to Pennsylvania. Foster parents are supposed to notify District officials, either by letter or telephone, before they leave town so city officials know their whereabouts and who is caring for the children.
Charles Seigel, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said the department was unable to verify Walker's whereabouts that weekend and whether she had notified the city before she left.
Pastor Harold Lee, of the Fort Dupont Seventh-day Adventist Church, said, "There was nothing even related to a church trip that weekend." He added that Walker, the church's chief deaconess, is "an extraordinarily competent person."
It could not be determined yesterday whether Walker was out of the District on other religious business that weekend. She could not be reached for comment.
All five of the children living in her home died as a result of the fire. Ellis Meeks, 55, described as a friend of the family, was caring for the children at the time of the fire. He also died in the blaze. Walker, a single working mother, hired her regular baby sitter for the children to care for them earlier in the evening.
In a press conference last week, Social Services Director Audrey Rowe said there are sufficient homes to handle the 2,300 District children in foster care. Department officials estimate there are 400 foster homes in the District and 500 in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
Although department officials said last week that four is the maximum number of children the city asks parents to accept, Virginia Minnis of Lanham, who said she has been a foster parent for District children for 31 years, said she currently cares for five foster children and has cared for others when officials from Protective Services have an emergency.
"I have had more," Minnis said. "I'd rather see them in a home than an institution."
Seigel said District officials were unable yesterday to explain the deviation from their guidelines.