WITH EACH passing week, new questions emerge concerning the circumstances leading up to the death of Brianna Blackmond, the 23-month-old child who was taken out of foster care and returned to her mother by order of D.C. Superior Court Judge Evelyn E. C. Queen. Unfortunately, officials who could provide answers about the way in which the child welfare system and the court handled the toddler have been silenced by foster-care confidentiality policies and Judge Queen's own gag order.
Thanks to the reporting of staff writer Sari Horwitz, we now know that when Judge Queen ordered Brianna out of a foster home where she was well cared-for, the child was turned over to her mother who was an illegal tenant in a federally subsidized housing unit. What we don't know is why the judge, the child welfare agency and two lawyers involved in the decision to return Brianna to her mother apparently didn't know that the mother did not have her own place of residence and was essentially on the verge of homelessness. Neither do we know if the judge knew about the living arrangement and who else was living in the household. It turns out that Brianna, two siblings and her mother were sharing the four-bedroom row house with her mother's friend and her five children. The landlord said he would have evicted Ms. Blackmond and her three children had he known they were living in the house because there was no room for them. Brianna was already a neglect case; why did the judge let children go back to that kind of environment?
Those questions cry out for explanations, especially since the child welfare agency had completed a report recommending that Brianna not be returned to her mother, who had been found neglectful of her eight children in a trial a little more than a year ago. The social workers never got the chance to present their report, however, because Judge Queen postponed a scheduled hearing on the matter. Instead of holding another hearing, the judge went ahead and ordered Brianna turned over to her mother. Two weeks later, the little child was slain by a blow to the head. Her case, now labeled a homicide, is before a Superior Court grand jury.
The criminal investigation must follow its course, but Brianna's handling or mishandling by the child welfare system and the court cries out for a public airing. The city's Child and Family Services agency is conducting an internal review to determine what went wrong. That agency's report will be sent to a citywide child fatality review team which investigates all unexpected deaths of residents under age 21. But under the city's restrictive confidentiality statutes, both reviews will be kept secret.
That is unacceptable. Without knowing what happened or failed to happen in Brianna's case--and the steps that will be taken to prevent a recurrence--how will we learn from her tragic death? The public is owed answers.