The Washington Post

High price for swift action in Jacks case

Foletia Nguasong is going back to work Tuesday.

He’s a little nervous, though.

Because he still thinks — and at long last a court agrees with him — that he was following all the rules and doing his job right when he was fired by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) 31 / 2 years ago.

But, heck, who was going to listen to him back then?

When Nguasong was axed in January 2008, a disheveled mother in Northeast Washington was found living in squalor with the corpses of the four daughters she had killed, and somebody had to pay for this outrage.

*Banita Jacks. (Associated Press)

Fenty held a news conference a few days after Banita Jacks and her daughters’ bodies were discovered by the U.S. marshals who came to evict her.

The mayor ordered the swift firing of anyone in the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency who had anything to do with the case. Nguasong and five other social workers were fired. The head of that agency was replaced, and Jacks eventually pleaded guilty to killing her girls, ages 5, 6, 11 and 17.

That all looked so decisive — righteous and leaderly, even.

Fenty was a man taking action, holding people accountable and sending a message to any city worker who wasn’t taking the job seriously.

All of this made great theater. But as it turned out, much of it was an act.

After years of legal wrangling and numerous rulings by review boards and arbitrators, it became clear that the wrong people paid.

Jacks and her ailing family met with social workers, police officers, doctors, homeless-shelter workers, substance-abuse counselors, welfare workers, lawyers and at least one judge.

They had family members who lived a short drive or bus ride away. None of these people saw the entire picture. Three of the fired social workers appealed.

I sat down with them last summer, skeptical, quite frankly.

I, too, had a hard time believing that this horrific case could have happened if everyone had been doing their jobs correctly.

But the workers finally spoke out, and I was convinced that they, alone, could not have helped Jacks.

Carl Miller was one of the people fired.

He was manning an agency hotline when he took a call in 2007 from a school social worker who was worried that one of Jacks’s daughters was not coming to school.

On the phone, Miller took the woman’s information, told her it was probably a case of educational neglect, and forwarded the report for follow-up, just at the hotline workers are supposed to do.

The D.C. arbitrator said that simply taking information from a phone call was not cause for firing.

“Basic notions of fairness and due process have not been met in this case,” arbitrator John C. Truesdale wrote, not long after Miller was fired and his case was appealed. In another review, Truesdale called the social workers’ professional records otherwise “unblemished and stellar.” He told the city to reinstate the workers and give them back pay, with interest.

But the city slapped that down and appealed to the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board. The board sided with the workers yet again, and there the case sat.

After Fenty lost his reelection bid, Stephen White, who was the American Federation of State, County and Federal Employees District 20 representative for the social workers, met with the city’s new administration and asked that it review the case.

A few months and lots of negotiations later, the city agreed to take the three social workers back.

On Friday, their co-workers are having a party for them.

For sure, the fired social workers lost three years to anxiety and worry. Nguasong, 57, had been a social worker at the agency for 11 years and had won awards for his work. Suddenly, he was unemployed.

He took short-term jobs to pay for his two kids’ college tuition and stressed over his health and their bills. Miller left the city, taking a job as a social services tutor at Harvard University. He won’t be returning to CFSA. Still, he and the others will get back pay, interest and seniority.

The managerial lesson here is that knee-jerk, splashy firings that make news and feel good often end up in costly arbitration and cases that are overturned.

It’s rare that we get to hear the result of three years of appeals to learn a firing was wrong. But this went way beyond a simple personnel matter.

Canning those social workers sent a chill across the agency that the city’s abused and neglected children are still paying for today.

Social workers make serious decisions every day, balancing the level of abuse or neglect in a dysfunctional family against the knowledge that removing any child from a home is additional trauma.

In the months after the Jacks case and the firings, social workers went with an “if in doubt, pull them out” policy, yanking hundreds of kids from their homes and placing them in foster care.

Everyone was worried that they had a Jacks case next door, so the agency also experienced a 600 percent increase in calls reporting suspected child abuse. Foster homes were packed. Social workers had gigantic caseloads.

The agency cratered. It has an interim director, the third person to head the agency since the Jacks case ripped it apart. And still, the latest report by a court monitor on the agency’s performance was not stellar.

And that leads us back to why Nguasong is nervous about going back to work.

“[Jacks] will be on my mind every day,” he said. “A whole lot has changed in the agency after that case. A whole lot of the old workers left. The top management changed. Policies have changed. The way we do things has changed. Everybody has to think on each case, whether you can get fired even if you’re doing everything right.”

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.


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