With family members, legal advocates and city officials looking on, the District government yesterday unveiled a memorial plaque that will hang in the lobby of the Department of Human Services to commemorate men and women who died in the care of its long-troubled group home system for the mentally retarded.
The poignant ceremony paid tribute to Fred Brandenburg, William Moxley Jr. and eight others listed on the plaque who died several years ago amid allegations of questionable care in the group homes, which are overseen by the agency's Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration (MRDDA).
The District's agreement to display the plaque at its Northeast headquarters was part of a recent $500,000 settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of Moxley, 34, who died in December 1999 at a group home after months of repeated warnings from federal investigators that he had urgent care needs the home was not meeting.
Moxley's father, William Moxley Sr., said he wanted the plaque to serve as a reminder to provide good care so that others do not suffer.
"I think the families deserve recognition to show that the lives of the people they lost were not wasted, that the lives are not forgotten," he said.
Juanita DeButts, Brandenburg's sister, yesterday described how "Freddie" loved country music, his guitar and the Bible. He was 57 when he died in January 1997 after failing to receive prompt medical attention. She said he and others in the city's care "were unique individuals who were dearly loved by their families."
In displaying the plaque, with an inscription that cites "the importance of protecting the lives of all vulnerable citizens of the District of Columbia," officials reaffirmed the city's commitment to quality care.
"We focus on these people because they were vulnerable human beings with developmental disabilities whose daily lives were the responsibility of the MRDDA," said Yvonne Gilchrist, director of the Department of Human Services. "These individuals were to have received and did indeed deserve the best possible care. Their welfare and their lives mattered."
Gilchrist said city officials have overhauled operations in recent years, hired better-qualified professional staff and improved management practices to provide better oversight of residential facilities, including investigating deaths or serious incidents.
The MRDDA "is better today than it has ever been before in delivering quality care and supportive services to its clients living in group homes," Gilchrist said.
Ira Sherman, who with his law partner, Joseph Cammarata, represented families of the 10 residents in lawsuits filed against the District, said "all participants in the system can take pride in this closure." He credited the families of the dead "who stepped forward and made a difference in the lives of every single resident in the group homes now and forever more."
The plaque, Sherman said, "was forged in brass but polished with perseverance."
Cammarata said nine of the 10 lawsuits had been settled on behalf of the plaintiffs, with one pending.
Robert Utiger, senior counsel for the District's office of the attorney general, said none of the settlements included an admission of liability by the city government.
The District is the defendant in a 28-year-old federal lawsuit concerning the quality of care for retarded people, many of whom have severe physical disabilities. In January, the judge ordered Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to assign a deputy mayor to take charge of achieving long-promised improvements.
A 1999 series in The Washington Post disclosed 350 documented cases of abuse and neglect, as well as instances of profiteering, in the city's group homes. The series also found that none of the 116 deaths that had occurred in the homes since 1993 was investigated.
The Post has requested copies of death investigations conducted in recent years. The Department of Human Services has rejected the request, citing confidentiality.