The District agency charged with protecting neglected children had concluded that Brianna Blackmond should not be returned to her biological mother, but a D.C. judge did not see the agency's report before ordering that the toddler be sent back to the mother's home--where the girl later was killed by a blow to the head.
The report by the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency was to be presented to D.C. Superior Court Judge Evelyn E.C. Queen during a hearing last month, but Queen indefinitely postponed the hearing for administrative reasons, sources said yesterday.
Without a hearing--and without the report from Child and Family Services--Queen on Dec. 23 granted a request by the mother's attorney to take 23-month-old Brianna, her 3-year-old sister and two other siblings out of foster care and send them back to the mother, Charrisise Blackmond.
Meanwhile, a letter obtained by The Washington Post indicates that three weeks before Queen's order, a social services worker tried to warn the judge about the risks of returning the two other siblings to Blackmond's home. The foster parents did not return the siblings to Blackmond before Brianna was fatally injured last week because the children were sick.
It is unclear exactly what led Queen to order the children back to Blackmond, whose requests to have Brianna and her siblings returned had been denied at least four times since Blackmond was found neglectful of her eight children at a trial about a year ago. Brianna's attorney, Samuel Adewusi, has said he had reservations about agreeing to the mother's request but said he relented once the mother's attorney assured him that the city would hire someone to help Blackmond care for her children.
Also unclear is why Child and Family Services officials, knowing of Queen's order and their own report citing the risks of returning Brianna, did not protest. Spokeswoman Karen Kushner said yesterday that no agency officials could discuss the case, citing confidentiality laws.
Queen, 54, who has been on the Superior Court bench since 1986, said yesterday through an aide that she would have no comment on the case. A court spokeswoman cited D.C. court policy preventing judges from discussing cases over which they are presiding. Adewusi did not return messages seeking comment. Jackie Walsh, Blackmond's attorney, has said she would not comment on the case. Both were told by Queen not to discuss it with anyone.
Although the case has been wrapped in the secrecy mandated by child welfare laws and a homicide investigation, sources said the case has roiled the District's foster-care system by highlighting how neglected or abused children can fall through a series of safety nets designed to protect them.
Despite the lack of a report on Brianna from Child and Family Services, Queen apparently did have some warning of the risks for children in Blackmond's home. Three weeks before the judge's Dec. 23 order, a social services worker wrote Queen to warn her that there were serious risks in returning two of the girl's siblings to Blackmond.
In the Nov. 30 letter to Queen, the worker expressed her "deepest concern" that "major decisions" would be made about sending the children home before the judge obtained enough information about how Blackmond's neglect was damaging the children.
"I have concerns about returning these children to their biological parent at this time," she told the judge in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Post.
The worker, who spoke on the condition that she not be identified, yesterday recalled taking the unusual step of appealing directly to the judge because of her frustration in getting any response from the children's legal guardian, Adewusi.
Adewusi had been appointed guardian ad litem for Brianna and several of her siblings, meaning that he was charged with monitoring the children's well-being and representing them in court.
However, Adewusi apparently lost track of where Brianna and her 3-year-old sister were living last year. The foster family that was caring for the girls moved from a Columbia Heights apartment to a new home in the District last summer. Adewusi did not visit the girls in their new home, and in an interview this week, he indicated that he did not know the foster family had moved.
"A good guardian ad litem sees the kids about once a month," said Elizabeth Siegel, a D.C. lawyer and child welfare expert.
The social services worker who wrote to Queen said she never got a response.
In her letter, she also told the judge that she was turning to her because she had been unable to reach case managers involved with the Blackmond children. The D.C. government's case manager didn't return her calls, and a private agency's case manager who had worked with the children had been fired, she told the judge in the letter.
"As case managers in both agencies seem to be in flux, I wanted to contact you directly with my concerns," she wrote.
The worker's letter went on to tell Queen that when one of the children visits Blackmond, the child "reverts to negative behaviors, and is often very anxious" after returning to foster care. One of the children, she told the judge, "is afraid of returning home at this time."
In the letter, the worker urged that the case managers, lawyers, therapists and others involved with the children meet to share their information about visits to Blackmond's home. She praised the foster mother of two of the children for working "very closely" with them.
Confidential documents obtained by The Post shed further light on the wretched conditions in which Blackmond's children were living when social workers first came across them digging in dumpsters for food near their Dix Street NE home in May 1997.
The case apparently was monitored by the agency for about a year until June 8, 1998, when the children were taken away because the home was found to be "environmentally hazardous."
"Dirty clothes with feces and urine were frequently laying around the home, trash and debris on the floor of the bedroom in which the children were confined was observed on most visits . . . roaches and rodents observed in . . . the kitchen where the food is kept and prepared," the agency internal report said.
The social worker also found that the "children were not receiving regular medical care" and that all of them had ringworm.
"The mother had been given medication, which was not administered to the children. Nor did she keep the scheduled return visits" for medical care, the report said. School attendance records for the children indicated "persistent tardiness and absenteeism."
The children told a social worker that they had seen drug and criminal activity, as well as domestic violence, in their home, the report said. They said they were confined to their room for long periods, said the report, which added that the children also complained of "frequent physical punishment" and their mother "consistently hollering at them."
"The children reported not being able to sleep at night due to the noise and number of people moving around in their home," the report added.
The report said that Blackmond, now 31, had received special education services when she was younger and that she had exhibited characteristics of "mild to moderate mental retardation."
A father of one of Blackmond's children told an agency social worker that he had seen Blackmond drinking alcohol frequently. Blackmond told the social worker that she did not use drugs or alcohol. The report said that two of Blackmond's sisters acknowledged using crack cocaine.
Four months after the Child and Family Services report--and just after her children were first taken away from her--Blackmond was charged with cocaine possession. The charge was later dropped.
"This is what we call chronic neglect," Thomas Wells, executive director of the D.C. Consortium for Child Welfare, said of neglect cases like Blackmond's, which pose more difficulty for social service agencies than cases in which children are clearly being physically abused.
Many parents do not "have sufficient parenting skills or resources to keep the kids safe or help them thrive," said Wells, a children's advocate who has no involvement in the Blackmond case. "Add the stresses related to poverty, drugs or other people who are substance abusers, then a parent with limited capacity can be put over the edge. And an added stressor is having too many kids around."
Assistant Police Chief William McManus said yesterday that authorities are continuing to investigate Blackmond and two other adults who may have been in the home when Brianna was fatally injured by a blow to the head Jan. 5. Blackmond told police that Brianna fell down the stairs, but the D.C. medical examiner said the girl's injuries were much more severe.
Child welfare and police sources said that the other suspects include a boyfriend of Blackmond and another woman who lived with Blackmond, had several children of her own and also was known to social workers who deal with neglected and abused children. No details of that case were available yesterday.
Judith Meltzer, the court-appointed monitor of the D.C. child welfare system, said Brianna's death has cast a spotlight on long-standing problems in the city's efforts to protect vulnerable children.
"The facts of this case have been troubling to everyone who has been involved," she said. "My hope is that there will be lessons that can be drawn from this tragedy for systemic improvements."
CAPTION: Top, Brianna Blackmond. Above, Superior Court Judge Evelyn E.C. Queen, who ordered the girl returned to her mother.