Officials at the District Building were forced to baby-sit three young children for several hours Wednesday and yesterday when a frustrated young mother abandoned the youngsters in a desperate effort to find a better place to live.
Sheila Austin, who has lived at the Potomac Gardens public housing project in Southeast Washington for three years, said she left her children -- Tameka, 8, Daerrico, 6, and Sammarria, 2 -- outside Mayor Marion Barry's office because he had not helped her find a new and safer apartment. Austin claimed she has been having fights with her neighbors, including one incident last January when she said her face was slashed with a knife.
"I called the police, social workers, everyone, and nobody helped. So two weeks ago I wrote Barry, President Reagan and Seven on Your Side WJLA-TV's consumer program , and none of them even answered me. So I just decided to see Barry himself. And when I couldn't, I just decided right there that my kids would be safer down there at Barry's office than in this place," Austin said last night, after she had reclaimed her children and returned home.
Diane Lewis, a city social services official, said officials released the children to Austin after deciding that the woman abandoned them only in an act of desperation to get publicity for her plight. Lewis said that Austin's complaints will be investigated today.
The city offered to put Austin and her children in a shelter overnight, but she refused, saying that one more night in her current apartment at 1000 12th St. SE wouldn't matter.
"I think she was irresponsible," Barry told WDVM-TV before Austin explained to city officials why she had abandoned her children.
Austin and the children first went to the city hall late Wednesday, officials said. Security guards remembered a woman asking for directions to Barry's office. Barry's aides told her that the mayor was not in and suggested she talk with City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers, whose office is down the fifth floor hall, but no one in Rogers' office remembers the woman coming in for help.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Special Police Sgt. Willie Squire noticed the children playing near a metal detector near a ground floor entrance of the District Building. "I asked them where their mama was and they said upstairs," he said.
Squire had his officers search the building, and when the children's mother was not found, he began questioning the children. They gave him the address of their grandmother's home and he took them there. Austin was not there.
"They the children really were cute," he explained. "I tied the little girl's shoes and tucked in the boy's shirt. They seemed very happy."
Shortly after 1 p.m. yesterday, the children again walked into the District Building, this time with their mother. Squire said the children waved when they passed his office.
"I was worried that she might be leaving them again," he said. "So I asked her where she was going and she said up to see Mr. Rogers." The mother and children took the elevator upstairs.
Austin said she went to the mayor's office and when she did not find him there, she told her children, "Don't be scared. They're not going to hurt you, but help you."
She said she then left the children without telling Barry's aides what she wanted.
"The children didn't seem distressed or worried," said Veronica Page, a special assistant to Rogers, who took care of the children while waiting for social workers.
For more than an hour the children were the center of attention. Some staff members gave the children cookies and orange juice. Austin finally reclaimed her children early last night after social workers called her and she explained why she had abandoned the youngsters for five hours.
While it is not unusual for D.C. residents to demand audiences with Barry, this is the first time anyone has left children outside the mayor's door, Page said.
Austin said she did not regret abandoning her children to make her point.
"It's the only thing I could do to get help," she said.