Sixteen months after advocates for retarded District residents sought access to D.C. Superior Court files--and four months after an exasperated federal judge took the rare step of intervening on their behalf--the local court has not complied.

The records are essential to hundreds of former residents of the District's decrepit Forest Haven asylum. In a broken system of care, defenders of the retarded want to know which of them have attorneys and which do not, which ones are competently represented and which are not.

Much of the information has always been within reach, in the file rooms of Superior Court. But gaining access to the records has proved impossible for advocates and now for a U.S. District judge who wants to resolve a 23-year-old class-action lawsuit.

The duel over the court files illustrates how the fate of the District's retarded people often hinges on small details and decisions.

Many months into the dispute, for example, Superior Court clerks told attorneys that they could retrieve only four files each day, despite the need to review 760 cases. One Superior Court judge said the effort would cost more money than the court could afford: $2,675.

At another point, Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton promised a response within days. Weeks went by, but Senior U.S. District Judge Stanley S. Harris said he never heard from Superior Court again.

A recent Washington Post investigation found 350 documented cases of abuse and 116 unexamined deaths of group home residents in an industry pocked by corporate fraud and government neglect. The District's network of homes and day programs, which spends about $100,000 annually per client, is among the costliest in the nation.

The dispute over the court files appears emblematic of the way D.C. authorities have failed the onetime residents of Forest Haven. What Harris terms the "unwillingness" of Superior Court to provide essential information adds a district judge's voice to the chorus of local and federal players who have recently criticized the court for poor performance and ineffective leadership.

Defenders of the retarded hope to improve conditions by ensuring that each person is represented by an attorney who is aware of the rights and guarantees defined in the 1976 class-action lawsuit now before Harris. Legal appointments are made by Superior Court, which is responsible for overseeing the commitment and treatment of the District's mentally retarded population.

"We suspected that the Superior Court cases were not as active as they should be and that attorneys were probably not checking on people's placements and doing the advocacy that the statute allows them to do and requires them to do," said Kelly Bagby, a lawyer with University Legal Services, a federally funded advocacy group. "We began discovering more and more cases of [retarded people] who were committed but had no attorney. No one had shown up at the house for years."

Family Court Presiding Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin said in an interview yesterday that Superior Court has been slowed by financial troubles and an overtaxed staff but is working to fulfill Harris's demand.

In February, Harris requested a report on the Superior Court advocacy system. That meant locating the lawyers, who can earn $1,300 or more a year representing the interests of the retarded.

A federal court monitor had been working since August 1998 to find the same information, according to a detailed ruling by Harris. Letters went unanswered by Charles Gaines, chief of Superior Court's mental health and mental retardation branch. Gaines later offered a series of explanations for being unable to deliver, Harris said, but eventually delivered an incomplete list of lawyers' names.

When court monitor Lydia Williams contacted the lawyers, she discovered that many no longer accepted court appointments--some because they were frustrated with the court's slow payment habits. Others knew nothing of their clients' special rights under the federal lawsuit--or even that the class-action case existed. Only one-third of the wards appeared to have a working attorney.

A series of fruitless dealings and petty frustrations followed.

When Family Court's Mitchell-Rankin explained that the court's files were not automated, the attorneys volunteered the services of law students. The judge rebuffed them, citing crowded courthouse work areas and worries that the volunteers would breach confidentiality rules.

As efforts stalled, Harris interceded.

Mitchell-Rankin stood him up once without explanation, he said. Then she said it would take 168 hours of overtime to review the 760 files and explained that Superior Court--which has an annual budget of $121 million--could not afford the $2,675 cost. Harris, declining to underwrite the expense, said the volunteer law student idea "seemed eminently feasible."

Mitchell-Rankin promised to confer with Chief Judge Hamilton and report back. She never did. Harris then spoke with Hamilton, who said he was aware of the issue and would contact Harris within a few days. Hamilton never got back in touch.

When Forest Haven class-action attorneys sought to review the files one by one, Superior Court officials denied them access, contending that only the individual attorneys--whose very names the lawyers were seeking--could review the material. Harris called the court's policy "wholly illogical."

On Aug. 20, Harris expressed his "acute disappointment" and ordered Superior Court to make the files available. He called the history of the dispute "rather remarkable."

"To me, this is like a non-issue," Mitchell-Rankin countered in an interview yesterday. "We've never been obstreperous. We've said from the very beginning that we're prepared to provide the information. Hopefully, with one more day of overtime, we will be completed."

Court oversight of the District's retarded wards was not meant to depend so heavily on lawyers. Under city law, Superior Court was supposed to appoint for each ward a "certified personal advocate": a trained volunteer to visit the ward in the group home and day program and convey his or her needs and concerns to court authorities. But fewer than 25 percent of the city's wards have an advocate today.

Mitchell-Rankin attributes the city's failure to comply with the law to a lack of public interest and a limited budget for recruiting and volunteer retention. She said a successful program costs "in excess of $12,000 to $15,000. That's not a terrific amount of money . . . but it's not chump change."

Tracy Dacosta, a 28-year-old legal assistant, sees things differently. In March, after reading a Washington Post series about unchecked abuse and neglect in city's group homes, she signed up to be an advocate and quickly completed the three-hour training course needed for certification.

Today, nine months later, she is still waiting to be assigned. "They're supposedly begging for volunteers, but it's been a bunch of runaround trying to be one," said Dacosta, thumbing through a detailed chronology of deferment.

Superior Court informed her this summer that she would be assigned to a 51-year-old woman named Mary Ann. Then the court hearing at which Dacosta was to be appointed was canceled. The city social worker and the lawyer had failed to show.

Through the autumn, Dacosta peppered the court and the lawyer with phone calls, but the hearing was never rescheduled. She recently learned that Mary Ann's annual review had been conducted without her.

"I wonder if the problem is that the city and the group homes don't want advocates snooping around," said Dacosta, who reported that the bureaucratic obstacles have only strengthened her sense of mission.

"One of these days I am going to get to meet her," she said of Mary Ann. "And we'll be laughing, saying, 'It's about time.' "

To read complete Post coverage of group homes and to see documents gathered by The Post, go to www.washingtonpost.com/

invisible.

CAPTION: Tracy Dacosta, who signed up to be an advocate and completed the training course for certification, hasn't been assigned.