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Four Deaths and Words, Words, Words

The city's politicians are virtually falling over one another to praise Mayor Adrian Fenty for sacking six child welfare workers who failed to rescue Banita Jacks's four girls, Brittany, Tatianna, N'Kiah and Aja.

The heads of a slew of city agencies are busy detailing how their employees ignored warnings about the disappearance and apparent abuse of the four girls, whose decomposed bodies were found in their home in Southeast last week.

So we get some firings, and grand announcements of reforms, and hearings -- there must always be hearings -- and solemn promises that this will, as D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz put it, "never, never, ever, ever, ever happen again."

Until, of course, the next time.

At which point the avalanche of words will once again commence. Because what great public tragedies produce from the District government is, above all else, words.

Good words, about how "four young girls slipped through our hands" and how the Child and Family Services Agency's "response was not even close," as council member Tommy Wells, himself a social worker, said at a hearing this week.

Sharp words, such as council member Yvette Alexander's pointed reminder that it is not just the government's job to find and help hurting children. "Where is the family? Where are the neighbors?" she asked.

Theatrical words, such as those of the guy who runs the D.C. attorney general's office yet cannot be bothered to live in the city he claims to hold so dear. "This is not a case where everyone is to blame so that no one is to blame," said Peter Nickles, the mayor's consigliere. The children are dead "because of lack of caring, because of lack of urgency. This government failed this family."

Banal words, such as those of council member Marion Barry, who showed up to a hearing more than an hour late and immediately asked for a moment of silence, which the council had already taken to honor the dead children's memory. "Let's do it again," Barry said when informed of the first observance. "We need all the prayer we can get."

But how can words mend shattered families or save doomed children? The District's child welfare agency, a public shame for decades, has been through every form of regulation and punishment known to modern democracy. The feds took over, the courts watched over, and still, according to a federal report a little more than a year ago, CFSA's performance "remains well below benchmarks, raising questions about the agency's ability to meet all of the court-ordered requirements."

Six workers have been selected for ritual sacrifice -- and justifiably so, judging by the utter lack of interest shown by the agency's hotline operator when a counselor from Brittany's school called to beg for city intervention.

But in classic bureaucratic fashion, the folks at the top somehow remain in their jobs, brows furrowed, ready with long lists of new reforms.

The bureaucrats can find their scripts in their own archives. Check out these words from Sharlynn Bobo, CFSA's director, at her confirmation hearing in November, when the four girls had been lying dead inside their home for about half a year:

"The District's child welfare system has come a very long way. It's nearly impossible to overstate the high degree of professionalism; hard work; tolerance for constant, rapid change; and sheer perseverance that CFSA staff has exerted" to achieve improvements such as "strengthening the critical gateway to the public child protection system by ensuring that ..... investigations are both timely and thorough.

The torrent of words stretches back through the years, long before Brittany and her sisters died, long before they were born. And still: Banita Jacks's ludicrous story about why her kids weren't attending school led to the revelation that the District has no clue about how many children are being home-schooled. The District doesn't really know how many children do not go to school, Victor Reinoso, the deputy mayor for education, told me.

In essence, school is voluntary in Washington. No one can claim to be shocked by this: When I arrived here in 1986 to cover the D.C. schools, one of the first questions I asked at the system's headquarters was what the truancy rate was. "We don't really track that," came the response.

Each new horror lets us pretend to discover the same flaws in the system that were supposedly bared by the last unacceptable tragedy. We get to be shocked all over again.

If not words, then what? Kathy Lopes, the Booker T. Washington Public Charter School social worker who rang the alarm about the Jacks kids only to run into the brick wall of bureaucracy, did what all of us must do. She acted on her own. She went to the house, banged on the door and then demanded that the rest of us pay attention.

Lopes wasn't at the hearing this week. She has not spoken to reporters. "She's too freaked out," Wells told me. "Even though she did what we would hope everyone would do, she's the type of person who still wonders what more she could have done."

That's the kind of person I want watching over my kids, and because that's what we would all want, that's what we must all be. Only then can we force officials to act before the next tragedy, to treat other people's children as if they were their own. The alternative is to drown in another ocean of words.

By Marc Fisher |  January 17, 2008; 7:27 AM ET
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The phony outrage and fake sense of urgency is almost as sickening as the death of four little. Have we forgotten mayor Adrian Fenty's oversight and handling of MRDDA and DMH. As head of the Committee on Human Services, chaired by then Ward 4 councilmember Fenty, there were ongoing horrors in the Departments of Mental Health (DMH) and the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration (MRDDA). Mayor Fenty needs to stop the predictable ambulance chasing for photo-ops to present the image of a mayor-in-charge and on the case. Remember, it has been one year since Fenty's election, with the "promise" of better governance. Brittany, Tatianna, N'Kiah and Aja suffered and died well within the Fenty Administration. Firing those directly responsible is one thing. However, if you don't pay attention to the details of correcting the systemic problems that caused the death of these four girls, there will be more horrors to come. Having ADD (administrative deficit disorder) since his chairmanship of the Committee on Human Services, we may have to settle for more horrors resulting from the neglect and incompetence already in progress. Mayor Adrian Fenty needs to be effectively proactive and pay attention before the news cameras arrive.

Dennis Moore, Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control (DCICC) Political Party
http://www.DCIndependents.org
dennis@dcindependents.org

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 17, 2008 9:03 AM

WE'VE BEEN HERE BEFORE - MORE HORRORS TO COME

The phony outrage and fake sense of urgency is almost as sickening as the death of four little girls. Have we forgotten mayor Adrian Fenty's oversight and handling of MRDDA and DMH. As head of the Committee on Human Services, chaired by then Ward 4 councilmember Fenty, there were ongoing horrors in the Departments of Mental Health (DMH) and the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration (MRDDA). Mayor Fenty needs to stop the predictable ambulance chasing for photo-ops to present the image of a mayor-in-charge and on the case. Remember, it has been one year since Fenty's election, with the "promise" of better governance. Brittany, Tatianna, N'Kiah and Aja suffered and died well within the Fenty Administration. Firing those directly responsible is one thing. However, if you don't pay attention to the details of correcting the systemic problems that caused the death of these four girls, there will be more horrors to come. Having ADD (administrative deficit disorder) since his chairmanship of the Committee on Human Services, we may have to settle for more horrors resulting from the neglect and incompetence already in progress. Mayor Adrian Fenty needs to be effectively proactive and pay attention before the news cameras arrive.

Dennis Moore, Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control (DCICC) Political Party
http://www.DCIndependents.org
dennis@dcindependents.org

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 17, 2008 9:10 AM

Give Kathy Lopes Sharlynn Bobo's job.

Posted by: Mike Licht | January 17, 2008 10:03 AM

What about calling the police? I've attended several seminars in my neighborhood where the Arlington County Police send someone to discuss crime prevention, and every time they stress the importance of calling them if we ever see anything suspicious. One of the examples they always give is if you not seen your neighbor for a while and you are concerned that something has happened to them -- just call the non-emergency number and they will send someone out to make sure everything is okay. So if I was concerned that I hadn't been able to reach my relatives, or my neighbor's kids had disappeared, or someone at work had stopped showing up and we couldn't reach them, I know if it happened in Arlington I could get the police to look into it. Would the MPD have helped in this case?

Posted by: arlington | January 17, 2008 1:53 PM

I don't understand something. Why is it that, when a person dies, it's always the government's fault? Why is it that we, as a society, expect the nanny-state government as the baseline for all of life's activities? And when someone manages to avoid the nanny-state government's detection, it's now the "failure" of the nanny-state government?

Why can't we assign blame where it belongs? This was the mother's fault. She clearly lost her marbles and killed her kids. She didn't notify anyone of this. She didn't advertise it. It's not anyone else's fault that this happened. These are unfortunate events that occur in life, but the blame should be placed on the proximal cause of what happened.

Would it have been nice if the child and welfare services people had worked harder? Yes, but when you can't find the people in question and the police investigate and say that nothing appears wrong, what are you, as a social worker, supposed to do at that point? Especially when you have a full load of cases -- and any one of them could lead to disaster if you neglect it to spend more time on a case where the police already found nothing wrong.

How are you, as a social worker, supposed to know which cases to neglect so that you can focus on others? Remember: time is a zero-sum game. Spend extra time on one case; have to spend less time on another case. So, which case(s) would you have had the social worker neglect?

Posted by: Ryan | January 17, 2008 1:54 PM

When You Pay Taxes, Our Government Is Never Blameless!

Ryan, the point here is that when the government takes our hard earned tax dollars and says that it will take responsibility and accountability for our common public safety with various publicly funded services and legislation, then it IS "the government's fault" when they fail.

If you were walking home from work or a night out on the town, and then you were robbed at gunpoint, is being a robbery victim your fault for walking home?

These four girls, and their mother, are the victims of negligence and incompetence, by several taxpayer funded agencies that are mandated and funded to oversee and remedy children and parents known to be in potential trouble.

No doubt, the District is virtually overloaded with domestic and socioeconomic problems. The major part of government's responsibility is to use best practices for operating public agencies effectively. So far, the Fenty Administration years are trending toward becoming some of D.C.'s worst on numerous accounts.

Connect the dots and read the signs, they are big. Moreover, D.C. government officials hired or elected and paid by us have not seen fit to even begin systemic repairs on numerous related problems. The warning signs were all there. Only the negligent and incompetent did not connect the dots in a timely and effective manner to prevent our latest horror.

When the responsible officials (from the mayor on down) are considered blameless and should not be held accountable, then you have to ask why are you paying them for fatal mismanagement?

Should the District's actual motto be Taxation Without Expectation?

Dennis Moore, Chairperson,
District of Columbia Independents for Citizen Control (DCICC) Political Party
http://www.DCIndependents.org
dennis@dcindependents.org

Posted by: Dennis Moore | January 18, 2008 1:15 AM

Dennis, let's take your comparative example for a moment:
"If you were walking home from work or a night out on the town, and then you were robbed at gunpoint, is being a robbery victim your fault for walking home?"

I did not suggest that it was the girls' faults that they got killed. Rather, I suggested that it was the mother's fault -- and her fault may not be as serious as other murderers due to her state of mind.

However, in your example, let me ask you something: Is being a robbery victim the fault of the police who were not there to stop the robbery? I pay taxes that pay for the police. So, why isn't it their fault that I got robbed?

Well, because that's an impossible view of the government and because it's the ROBBER'S fault!! Yes, that's right: The robber is the one who committed the crime -- not the government!

By the way, thank you for the example that perfectly fits what I was saying.

Posted by: Ryan | January 18, 2008 1:11 PM

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