The D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is conducting inspections of 400 foster and day care homes in the wake of a March fire that killed six persons, including four children in the city's foster care system.
Frances Bowie, a consumer and regulatory affairs administrator, told about 50 foster care parents during a meeting yesterday that the city began the inspections under a program called Operation Safe Child a week ago and will continue them for four to six weeks.
In the past, Bowie said, permits for foster homes were issued based on certification by private child placement agencies and the city's Department of Human Services. She said the new program will help the city determine whether a home has the approved number of children, meets fire safety regulations and generally provides the proper atmosphere for foster children.
To allow the inspections, all but emergency inspections of the city's child development centers and similar facilities have been suspended temporarily, according to Bowie.
The District's foster care system has undergone close scrutiny since the fire at the home of foster parent Frances P. Walker, which killed five children and their baby sitter, Ellis Raymond Meeks. Four of the children were wards of the District and a fifth was a former foster child who was adopted by Walker two months before the fire.
Following the fire, the city acknowledged that it had ignored its guidelines by placing three infants in a single foster home. They also discovered that Meeks, who had previously been convicted of manslaughter, did not have the city's approval to care for the children and was drunk at the time of the fire.
As members of the Metropolitan Foster Care Parents Association gathered yesterday to meet with city officials, talk of the fire dominated the session.
Some foster parents told city officials that although they did not object to the new inspections, they have been angered by the city's approach. They complained of unannounced visits by city inspectors, including one who peered into the refrigerator and checked the bed linen.
Mary Grayson, president of the foster care association, said she had received at least 150 complaints about the inspections from foster parents. She said city officials have reacted to the fire by shifting the burden to foster parents.
" Nobody should be knocking on the doors to come in unless you have said you want a date," Grayson told the city officials attending the meeting. "The children used to have health certificates before they came to us. Now they can come into our houses with AIDS. They can be dope addicts and we take them in . . . . Don't start with me. Start from the housetop on down when you do your monitoring."
Regina Bernard, director of the Department of Human Services' foster care program, told the parents that the Walker fire has caused the department to review some aspects of the program. Since the fire, the city has removed children from some houses because of crowding, Bernard said.
But foster parents told city officials that the problems with the foster care program, which involves 2,300 children, cannot be properly addressed by inspections.
Foster parents receive $287 a month for a child who is not handicapped, and parents attending yesterday's meeting complained that they do not receive enough money to cover the food and clothing bills.
One woman holding a baby in her arms said she had the child for six weeks before receiving any money to buy clothes for the child. Others stressed that although they often care for troubled children, the city does not view them as employes and has ignored their request for liability insurance coverage.
"You need to take a total look at the whole foster program and not just that this woman had a fire," said foster parent Juanita Johnson. "The image of foster parents right now is nil. It is in the basement, and we want to bring it above the roof."