St. Elizabeths Hospital announced yesterday a 30-day halt in sending patients to community group homes while District of Columbia officials said inspectors will check 560 such homes throughout the city for safety violations.
The two announcements came in the wake of Wednesday's fire that killed nine women at a group home for outpatients of St. Elizabeths, the city's public hospital for the mentally ill.
At a press conference, Mayor Marion Barry said homes not meeting public safety requirements will be brought up to "minimum standards" or closed. "If a facility is closed," he added, can alternate facility will be found."
A spokesman for St. Elizabeths said last night that about 45 persons would have been sent to group homes during the 30-days moratorium period.
Earlier, chief city building insepctor Ralph E. Spencer left a meeting with officials of four D.C. agencies to announce an emergency plan "to inspect all publicly owned and certain privately owned residential facilities."He said the purpose was to find what, if any, violations exist, "to cause any such violations, to be corrected in a timely manner, and failing this, to order the closing of these structures." Officials said housing and fire insepctors would be involved.
The announcement came after the release of a draft report by the city auditor, who said Thursday that at least 17 private residential homes under contract with the city have been operating illegally because they have not been inspected for housing, fire and health code requirements.
During the press conference, Barry agreed with Specner's acknowledgement Wednesday that the group home at 1715 Lamont St. NW where the nine women died should never have been licensed.
"Sometimes it takes something that you don't like to happen" before the government responds, said Barry. "The thing I've found about this government is that it's as though 50 or 60 separate governments are operating, everybody doing their own thing. We're going to stop that."
The mayor said he was bringing together insepctors from four department to work together on the inspections.
The insepctors, 93 of them, according to Spencer, will assemble Monday morning for an organizational meeting at the building inspection offices at 614 H St. NW. The Fire Department and the Department of Environmental Services will contribute five insepctors each. The Department of Human Resources will contribute three inspectors and the 80 other insepctors will come from the Department of Housing and Community Development, Spencer said.
Actual inspections probably will not begin until Tuesday or Wednesday, he said. "We'll be feeling our way at first," he said.
The chief building inspector also said that he will be authorized during the inspections "to grant variances (exceptions) where there are compensating factors. If there is a hardship on a particular facility where they can't meet the requirements of our regulation, we are authorized to grant variances consistent with the public safety so you don't close down badly needed facilities."
City administrator Elijah Rogers will make final decisions on any group home closings, Spencer said.
For example, Spencer said, if his inspectors find a group home that lacks adequate fire doors or fire exits like the Lamont Street home, "We will order the building closed and order the owner to install a fire escape in a timely fashion. If the owner is unable to install it, the D.C. government may install it at D.C. cost and charge it to the building owner in the way of taxes at the end of the year."
The group homes and half-way houses that pass inspection, Spencer said, will have to be in compliance with all city regulations. "They will have a valid certificate of occupancy and a valid license. For those facilities we find operating without certificates of occupancy, we will order them to make application, and we may or may now allow them to operate until they receive one, depending on the city's needs," he said.
Rogers, the city administrator, said that the District government operates or leases 26 group homes and holds contracts with private groups to operate another 55 to 60 homes.
Beyond that, he said, "There are more than 450 community residential facilities and the Department of Human Resources has the primary responsibility to insure that they are licensed."
In the draft report released Thursday, city auditor Matthew Watson said that 17 group homes for children and adults do not have occupancy certificates. The certificates are the basic operating permit that insures that a building has been insepcted for fire, safety and health standards.
The Department of Human Resources is in charge of supervising the city's group homes. Yesterday, DHR director Albert Russo called Watson an "apportunist" and said the report's release showed a "lack of eithics and sound professional judgment for releasing this report before the ink was even dry."
As for the absence of occupancy permits at the homes, Russo said, "Up until this time, because we are a government agency, we really are not required to have (the permit) because it is expected that a government agency would immediately comply."
However, Norman Wegner, of the city auditor's staff, said yesterday, "It is our position that a facility being funded by the District shoudl be licensed, especially when it is handling a population that can't handle stress well."
DHR currently has nearly $2 million in contracts with private organizations to operate 12 of the 17 group homes, which the auditor said were operating illegally, according to documents on file in the DHR contract office.
Between them, the 12 homes serve 409 youths and adults in residential care programs for the mentally retarded, alcoholics, the homeless, and mentally ill.
During the mayor's noontime press conference, called to herald the accomplishments of the first 100 days of his administration, questions that followed Barry's prepared speech were directed almost exclusively at the city's lagging safety code enforcement in group homes.
Barry again declined to name the housing inspector who certified that the Lamont Street residence where the nine women died was safe.
"This is a serious situation," Barry said. "It could even involve liability on the part of the District government, St. Elizabeths and the VOA." The VOA, or Volunteers of America, is the national service organization that operates the Lamont Street foster care home.