The private agency that placed a neglected District toddler with a foster family expressed outrage yesterday that the child was returned to her mother's home, where she suffered fatal injuries last week.
An executive with PSI Family Services--which placed Brianna Blackmond and an older sister with a Northwest Washington foster family after city social workers had taken the girls from their mother in June 1998--said the foster parents had so bonded with the girls that they were moving to adopt them.
"This was absolutely a great placement," said Yvonne Ali, executive vice president of PSI. "The kids were part of the family. They had bonded and were happy there. It was a shock to us when we were told we had to give the kids back to their mother."
That order by a D.C. Superior Court judge came Dec. 23, after the girls' mother, Charrisise Blackmond, appealed to have the girls given back to her in time for the holidays. Foster care cases are confidential, but sources said yesterday that after Blackmond was found in a 1998 trial to have neglected her children, she lost at least four subsequent attempts to have them returned.
But last month, after Blackmond moved into a home on Bates Street NW with another mother, authorities relented and returned 23-month-old Brianna and her 3-year-old sister to Blackmond.
Two weeks later, Brianna was dead from a blow to the head, the medical examiner said. The case has been ruled a homicide, and police are investigating Blackmond, 31, and her housemate. Ali said the foster family that cared for Brianna for more than half her life was distraught over her death, which led authorities to remove Brianna's sister and several other children from Blackmond's home.
At Blackmond's row house yesterday, a woman said Blackmond was there, but then slammed the door shut, saying, "No, we aren't talking to no press, to nobody."
Meanwhile, authorities continued to point fingers at each other over who was responsible for apparently placing Brianna in danger by returning her to her mother's home.
In part, officials' anxiety over the case reflected the risks inherent in social service agencies' stated goal of returning children to their biological parents whenever possible--a policy that officials acknowledge sometimes involves granting more trust and forgiveness than some parents have earned.
Officials with Child and Family Services, the D.C. agency that oversees the city's troubled foster-care system, told Mayor Anthony A. Williams's office that they had not wanted to send Brianna back to her mother because of continued concerns about neglect.
"The case was made that the child go home and spend the holidays with her parent," said Deputy Mayor Carolyn N. Graham, who oversees child-welfare issues for the mayor and discussed the case yesterday with Child and Family Services receiver Ernestine F. Jones. "But the feeling of the agency was that there was still a tremendous amount of work that needed to be done."
But Samuel Adewusi, Brianna's attorney and legal guardian, tells a different story.
Adewusi says he opposed the return but acquiesced after a Child and Family Services social worker, Yvonne Dubose, told him that she had inspected Blackmond's house and that she believed the children would be safe there. Blackmond was living with another woman, who had several children of her own.
Dubose could not be reached for comment yesterday.
After his own visit to Blackmond's home, Adewusi said, he still wasn't satisfied and asked Blackmond's attorney, Jackie Walsh, to arrange to have someone in the home to help Blackmond.
He said that the issue in Blackmond's case was strictly one of neglect and that Blackmond had never been accused of abusing the children physically. She had been arrested in October 1998 and charged with possession of cocaine, but the charge was dropped, according to court records.
Adewusi said that Walsh agreed to help arrange for an assistant in the home but that such a condition was never written in Superior Court Judge Evelyn E.C. Queen's Dec. 23 order to send Brianna and her sister home.
Walsh could not be reached for comment.
Frustrated D.C. officials said they would not be able to say who was telling the truth until various investigations are complete.
"It's a very sad thing when a child dies, and this kind of death touches the mayor deeply," said Williams's spokeswoman, Peggy Armstrong. "But at this point, we need to allow the appropriate investigations to take place."
Brianna had been in foster care nearly all her life. She was 4 months old when she and her five siblings were taken from Blackmond's former home on Dix Street NE in June 1998. A D.C. Superior Court trial later determined that Brianna and her siblings had been neglected, sources said.
Karen Kushner, a spokeswoman for Child and Family Services, said neither she nor agency officials could discuss the case or the trial because the matter was confidential.
The six children were placed in foster care, with Brianna and her sister being sent to the Northwest Washington foster family. Blackmond continued to go to court, asking to have her children returned. That request was denied each time until the case went before Queen last month.
PSI had asked the court to reconsider the idea of reunifying the family and instead terminate Blackmond's rights as a mother to Brianna and her sister because she had not complied with visitation rules, Ali said, having visited the children only twice in a year.
Ali said such visits generally are supposed to take place once a week, if the goal is to reunite the children with their biological parents.
Staff writers Peter Slevin and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.