Dispatched by the chief judge, the Aug. 16 memo explained regretfully that "budgetary constraints" required D.C. Superior Court to close out a program that provided valuable therapy to scores of troubled children and their families.
Counselors had been instructed to "finalize sessions" with their clients within days, Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton wrote. The program would not be available for the last seven weeks of the 1999 budget year except in "extreme emergencies."
Distressed social workers and probation officers at the D.C. courthouse scrambled to patch together alternatives, with limited success. They wondered how the court's $121 million operating budget could be so threadbare that these services, of all services, had to be halted so abruptly.
The interruption in funding, accompanied by noteworthy inconsistencies in court directives and explanations, provides a small but revealing example of Superior Court's continuing management problems. The episode and the resulting uncertainty also help explain the credibility crisis confronting court administrators inside and outside the building.
"You've got a sex abuse victim and things are going well, and suddenly, the money stops," one veteran Superior Court probation officer said. "With kids, you've got to grab them when you can. Are we going to be able to get back the momentum?"
A court social worker struggled last week to explain to a client that the court's money troubles meant sex abuse counseling would not be available to her family, which includes an abused child and the abuser. Nor would some adolescent lawbreakers get the help judges sought for them.
"Most of these kids already are dealing with abandonment issues," said the social worker. "You cut them off, and they say, 'Here's another adult I can't trust.' And you wonder why they have chips on their shoulders."
Court Executive Ulysses B. Hammond confirmed on Aug. 27 that the program had been suspended. But, Hamilton's memorandum to the contrary, Hammond said services had been stopped for just nine days, from Aug. 12 to Aug. 20, to give the court time to find out how much money remained in its budget.
By Hammond's account, the program had been back up and running for a week. He said in a written response to questions from The Post, "It is not expected that any services for children or adults will be interrupted or disrupted between August 20 and October 1."
Yet probation officers had not been told. Counselors had not been told. Judges had not been told. Hamilton had dispatched no directive reversing his memorandum. And dozens of children and parents had just been informed that their therapy sessions were over for now.
Three employees of the Social Services Division, which administers the program, said the order to terminate therapy came without warning in mid-August, the 11th month of the budget year. They hurried to find other programs and other sources of money, including the court-administered Crime Victims Compensation Fund.
Two providers, in fact, told The Post on Aug. 27 that they ended counseling sessions in 22 cases, as instructed by the court. They said they had been given no indication that the program, as Hammond put it, had been "temporarily suspended for a week."
One counselor, who asked not to be identified, said that the court originally gave him just 24 hours to finish his counseling sessions and submit his bills but that the time limit was later extended by a few days.
The second provider, psychologist James E. Savage Jr., said Superior Court administrators notified him to stop providing therapy in 10 cases "because their funds would be cut off on a certain date."
"We did have some people who would have continued to need services," said Savage, executive director of the Institute for Life Enrichment. "When you cut something like that and you've been effective in the past, it's going to have an effect."
Savage expressed confidence that D.C. children would prove "resilient" as services are restarted. One well-placed court official predicted "most of the kids" would get needed services within weeks. But as of Tuesday, probation officers had received no official word that funding was again available.
Also, two federal sources assert that Hammond and other court staffers promised--days before the program was suspended--that the court would not run out of money for such services. One year ago, also without warning, the court's coffers ran dry, and hundreds of lawyers for the city's poorest defendants went unpaid for months.
Critics have assailed the court for haphazard accounting practices and a freewheeling approach to budgetary categories. A congressional committee recently likened the court's financial moves to "shell games." Members of the court's judicial leadership learned that, as funds ran low, administrators did not know how much the court still owed its suppliers.
"We have such a tenuous grasp on our books, we don't know what's out there," said one court manager. "This isn't an issue of Congress not giving us enough money or our not having the latest, greatest software. It's a sign that the court has lost its way."
Since November, court finance and personnel practices have been under investigation by the General Accounting Office. Just last week, the GAO released a report saying the court's decisions on staff deployment should be "more rigorous." Congress is seeking improvements.
Inside the Indiana Avenue NW courthouse, cases are being heard and justice is being dispensed daily, but morale is low. A growing number of judges have suggested privately that Hammond and Hamilton should step aside for the court's good.
Respected employee Nancy Cohen drew cheers from dozens of colleagues at an Aug. 12 meeting when she accused Hammond and the five-judge policymaking committee of a debilitating "lack of leadership." She reported that Hamilton and Hammond hardly speak to one another.
The meeting took place as the court, nearing its spending ceiling, announced the closing of the account that provides special services for abused children, delinquent teenagers and some parents. Funding would be provided only when personally approved by the chief judge, Hamilton declared.
At the beginning of the year, the so-called purchase of services program accounted for a scant $229,000 of the court's $121 million operating budget, according to Hammond. But as the end of the budget year neared, the court was counting dollars by the hundreds and thousands, looking for savings wherever they could be found.
That meant closing out the program and finding alternatives "throughout the remainder of the fiscal year," as Hamilton put it. Psychologists and counselors were told to halt sessions, with no suggestion the halt was to last only days.
One counselor, who asked not to be identified for fear his contract would not be renewed, described giving the news to the adolescent youths in his charge. He anticipated their reaction: "Here somebody else has stepped into my life and stepped back out."
"Services were cut off in the midst of working with clients," he said. "I just found it extremely difficult to call and explain the real reason is because of budgets, because it makes it seem the only reason I'm working with them is for the money."
A probation officer described the rush to find alternatives--"We were told, 'There is no more money' "--and wondered why the court did not plan better, to ensure no disruptions.
"This can set you back months," said the probation officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If we've got the family on a roll and they're taking the kid to therapy and we stop it, they're never going to appreciate the need for consistency again."
A senior official estimated that more than 100 children and families have been affected at least temporarily by the court's action. Lois Valladares, a family and sex abuse counselor in Chevy Chase, put it this way: "We're the only continuing constant in some kids' lives."
As the suspension took hold, two well-placed sources told The Post, consistent with Hamilton's memorandum, that the program had been halted until Sept. 30, the end of the budget year. But Hammond at first ducked detailed questions, and Hamilton did not return calls seeking explanation.
On Aug. 19--three days after Hamilton's directive--The Post asked Hammond to confirm and explain the program's suspension, the amount the court had been spending and how many children would be affected. He responded only that the purchase of services "had been reduced, where possible."
On Aug. 23--three days after the "temporary suspension" had ended, in Hammond's later account--court spokeswoman Margaret Summers responded to follow-up questions by declining to provide details: "There won't be anything else said."
On Aug. 26, Hammond supplied more information. Without mentioning dates, he acknowledged that "some purchase of services agreements were suspended temporarily." Asked how many clients would be affected, he said, "We do not expect any impact on services for the remainder of the fiscal year."
On Aug. 27, Hammond named Aug. 12-20 as the dates of the suspension. He said the program was back in operation and reported that $49,000 remained in the account. He declined to say how many clients had been notified that services were being suspended or to specify the likely impact.
On Sept. 1, court staff received a memo saying funding would "resume immediately." The directive was dated Aug. 30.
In addition to making things difficult for courthouse staff, therapists and clients, the mixed signals seem likely to add to the credibility gap experienced by court leaders on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.
For two tumultuous years, since the federal government became the paymaster for Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, court leaders have complained that Congress and other federal authorities failed to budget enough money. In 1998, said appellate Chief Judge Annice M. Wagner, the underfunding was $11 million. In 1999, despite a significant budget increase, she said it was $8 million.
Critics counter that the court is failing to manage its money and is refusing to live within its budget as other agencies do. Capitol Hill and Clinton administration staff asked for proof of the alleged 1998 underfunding but said the court failed to document any unmet costs.
Two members of Congress were publicly angry in May when Hammond testified at great length that the court had not roped off $31.9 million for court-appointed lawyers as mandated by Congress.
But Wagner sent an updated budget document to Capitol Hill the next day, indicating that Hammond's testimony was wrong and that the money had indeed been set aside.
"They create these crises for themselves," lamented a court manager. "But things don't work. Things don't get done in a timely fashion. The frustration level is almost unbelievable."