POST REPORTER Katherine Boo's stunning front-page story on Sunday detailing the fatal neglect of mentally retarded people caught in the city's taxpayer-funded network of care should have every resident up in arms. The story not only documents a shameful history of deaths, delayed treatment and neglect of the District's most vulnerable residents. It also found shocking evidence that corporate misrepresentation and city complicity have concealed the facts surrounding dozens of troubling deaths.
The Post unearthed 116 deaths in the D.C.-financed group home system for the mentally retarded from 1993 through September 1999. That's 47 more than the Department of Human Services--responsible for group homes--had been able to document. But then again, DHS is notoriously bad when it comes to documenting the truth.
More than one-third of the Post-identified deaths contained evidence of delayed treatment, neglect, falsification of circumstances or other lapses. Confronted with the facts, DHS first asserted that deaths are regularly investigated. In the face of ample Post evidence to the contrary, however, DHS couldn't document a single agency review going back to 1993. That's not unusual. When a Post series in March uncovered unchecked abuses in group homes, officials promised to implement a law allowing stiff fines to be levied against homes that maltreat the retarded. The paperwork still hasn't been done.
DHS doesn't protect the retarded, but it tries to cover its own tracks. Today, records on many mentally retarded deaths have vanished. A fired DHS worker admitted to The Post that he destroyed documents on a questionable group home death. He also said agency case managers were encouraged to "hush up problem deaths and other screw ups."
It took months of pressing by The Post, using the Freedom of Information Act, before DHS turned over death certificates supposedly representing 114 deaths--45 more than it had previously disclosed. Most of the details on the certificates, however, had been whited out--hiding who had died, where, how or under whose care.
Some contractors, paid millions of dollars to care for the retarded, exploit their associations with DHS bureaucrats and regard the city as nothing but a free lunch. When asked for other records, DHS not only inked out the names of the retarded, it also concealed the names of the companies running the group homes, the city caseworkers and the health inspectors charged with monitoring the homes. But despite attempts to throw a shroud over the scandal, The Post still found that the city's failure to investigate deaths was systemic: a multi-agency breakdown involving DHS, the police department, health inspectors and the medical examiner's office.
With problems in the mental retardation program now exposed, DHS director Jearline Williams issued a statement touting new "collaborative efforts [which] have generated constructive dialogue, renewed trust and optimism, and a keen awareness of the complexities of system reform and the extensive resources necessary to fully implement them." Such platitudes won't do.
Mayor Anthony Williams must ensure that city officials or contractors involved in wrongdoing or found neglecting and mistreating mentally retarded citizens are fired and, if possible, prosecuted. The shielding of companies and city workers involved in problem deaths should end, too. Too much damage has been done to the mentally retarded in the name of the District of Columbia. It's time for reform-minded District leaders concerned about the city's good name and its responsibility to its most dependent citizens to strike back.