Shelter Operator’s Problems Were No Secret To City Officials
Mayor Adrian Fenty announced today that the city is terminating Families Forward's contract to run the troubled D.C. General family shelter and its Park Road shelter. At his press conference, the mayor made sure to praise the swift actions of Attorney General Peter Nickles and Department of Human Services Director Clarence Carter.
Families Forward came under scrutiny after a resident e-mailed a letter outlining allegations of poor case management and inappropriate contact between staff and female residents. She sent the letter to Fenty on March 15. Just two weeks later came the decision to end the contract. Fenty is right—the city acted decisively.
But Families Forward has been a problem for years. And DHS, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the entity that coordinates homeless services, and other city officials knew of issues with the nonprofit long before that resident's e-mail landed in the mayor's inbox.
As early as 2003, Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says she had started picking up cases related to Families Forward's mismanagement of a its apartment-style shelter on Park Road in Columbia Heights. The problems read like today's at D.C. General: poor case management, poor facility upkeep, and inappropriate staff behavior.
The legal clinic did not keep these problems secret. They logged numerous administrative hearings to settle resident disputes with Families Forward. And sent along a series of memos. On May 10, 2004, two legal clinic staff attorneys sent a letter to Families Forward manager Sandra Vandahurst outlining several troubling issues with the Park Road facility. The letter was also sent to Sue Marshall, the executive director of the Community Partnership, which had oversight over Families Forward.
The staff attorneys listed 13 issues with the facility and Families Forward's management of it. Among them:
*Families Forward had enlisted the Guardian Angels to do security at the Park Road facility. Tenants felt that they were "unprofessional and showed favoritism to some residents." The staff attorneys write that Families Forward had fired certain Guardian Angels after concerns were raised "due to inappropriate" conduct.
*Families Forward's staff frequently aired confidential information about tenants to staff and security personnel—a violation of the law.
*Some residents who were to be evicted received only 24-hour notices—another violation of the law.
*"Residents suffer greatly from rodent infestations, cockroach infestations, bed bugs, and mites in the rugs...Residents have rugs, mattresses, box springs, and bedding that are vermin infested, have holes, are taped together."
*"Residents are concerned about rotting and missing floor boards" as well as faulty plumbing and appliances.
Two years later, Park Road's tenant association, formed with the legal clinic's assistance, fired off a letter outlining more problems. The June 2, 2006, letter was sent to Sue Marshall, then-Mayor Anthony Williams, Councilmember Jim Graham, then-Councilmember Fenty, Families Forward CEO Ruby King-Gregory, and Rick Lyles from DHS.
The list of complaints about Park Road and Families Forward included rat and mice infestation, a broken front entrance door, broken kitchen cabinets, broken stoves, rotten floors, broken air conditions, broken heating units, and "a lack of professional extermination services." Also: Staff padlocked the front door at night.
The tenant association wrote: "Some residents are now turning their electric stoves on at night to keep the rats and mice out of the cooking stove or to prevent them from coming into their living areas. This is a fire hazard and safety risk."
That same day, June 2, 2006, the tenant group sent another memo to the Community Partnership's Cornell Chappelle, DHS' Lyles, King-Gregory and Sue Marshall. Mayor Williams, various D.C. councilmembers, the fire chief, and another DHS staffer were emailed the memo as well. It detailed what had been predicted: a fire inside the Park Road facility.
It happened on May 19, 2006. During the fire, the tenants noted, not every resident exited the building. Families Forward staffers did not conduct a headcount to make sure all residents escaped safely. Even more terrifying for residents: The emergency exit doors had been locked shut.
They wrote: "The security guard was not aware of a fire safety procedure. Many of the smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the building were not and still are not functioning properly or have expired." The source of the fire, the memo notes, was a faulty water heater.
Residents also spoke up at D.C. Council hearings. Darryl Belcher, 45, lived at the Park Road facility from the end of 2006 into 2007. He says he testified at council hearings, and insists that District officials were well aware of the problems. "The will was not there," he says. "The knowledge was. There's not a councilmember that did not recognize or know the situation that took place. But the will was not there to make a change. And that's what's sad."
Belcher characterized Families Forward back in 2007 this way: "It was about making money and warehousing folks. It was not about empowering anyone to do anything. It was be quiet and stay still."
Belcher says that Families Forward's case management was all but nonexistent. Once a month, a case worker would come around, he says, and ask him to fill out a form. The nonprofit failed to provide the most rudimentary tools to residents who were seeking housing and jobs, he says. "They wouldn't give you a bus token," he recalls.
Belcher adds that there were rampant rumors of sexual misconduct on the part of Families Forward staff. "The sexual type of things, it was mainly with the males and there were females involving themselves with clients. When it came to the males, it was, 'I can help you find an apartment if you do this kind of thing.' That did take place. That had been documented."
On July 3, 2008, Anita Brown filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Community Partnership and Families Forward alleging her civil rights were violated during her stay at the Park Road building. In her complaint, she alleged that the nonprofit had discriminated against her because of her disability.
Since at least 2004, Brown lost her ability to stand, walk, and use stairs, the complaint states. Brown uses a wheelchair to get around. Because of her disability, she lost her job as a corrections officer. She and her two sons ended up homeless. After a stay at D.C. General, they eventually ended up at Park Road—they lived there from Sept. 7, 2005, to June 21, 2007. For much of that time, they lived in a fourth-floor apartment unit.
The complaint describes the unit as having "broken bathroom tiles, holes in the hallway and living room floors, broken lights, a refrigerator and freezer in disrepair, and bedbug-infested mattresses." But here's where Brown's case rose above those substandard conditions: Brown could not use her wheelchair in the unit because the hallways and doorways were too narrow. The bathroom and shower also had no grab bars.
The complaint says Families Forward refused to allow Brown access to the building's elevator. She was told she could use only the stairs:
"In order to reach the fourth floor, Ms. Brown had to climb a small flight of stairs from the front entryway and then four steep flights of stairs. Because of her disabilities, it was very difficult and painful for her to go up and down the stairs. Ms. Brown had to lean against the railings to go up and down the stairs but, because the railings were partially or completely detached from the wall at points along the stairway, the railings did not adequately support Ms. Brown. It often took Ms. Brown 45 minutes to an hour to go up and down the stairs."
Brown, according to the court document, fell "several times on the stairs and in the shower." During fire drills, she could not participate. She also missed many of her case management meetings because they were on the first floor. She apparently was not allowed to use the elevator for these appointments. And the staff did not visit her inside her apartment. "Ms. Brown often went for months without meeting with her case manager," the complaint states. Families Forward staff refused to move Brown to a first-floor unit.
According to the court records, Families Forward had received a monitoring report from the District government dated April 4, 2006, which flagged Park Road as being not handicapped accessible. The Community Partnership also received this report. This report appears to have been ignored by both.
Even after retaining a lawyer from the legal clinic, Brown was not immediately moved to a more suitable apartment. On June 15, 2006, court records show, a Families Forward manager sent Brown a letter "acknowledging that it was unsafe" for her to remain in the fourth-floor unit. The manager stated that a first-floor unit would soon be made available.
But within days, Families Forward staff gave that unit to another tenant. Finally, on July 5, the nonprofit gave Brown a first-floor unit. She was still unable to enter or exit the building using her wheelchair. The bathtub had no grab bars and the floor appeared to be rotted out.
On July 5, 2006, Brown's first night in the unit, she fell through a hole in her bedroom floor.
Brown settled with the District for an undisclosed amount prior to filing her case. She eventually settled her case with Families Forward and the Community Partnership. According to court records, Brown received $35,000.
Brown's settlement further stipulated that the city install protocols and record-keeping procedures to address resident complaints, and offer disability-sensitivity training to shelter staff.
It went on to focus on shelter staff behavior towards residents. The settlement stipulated that the Community Partnership must offer "quarterly training programs focusing on general and compassionate communication techniques and skills, conflict resolution, creative problem solving and sensitivity to resident needs." In other words, the settlement had to force the city to train its shelter staff to be nice.
And, finally, the settlement said of Families Forward's Park Road staff: "[The Community Partnership] will offer semi-annual training programs to Shelter Staff employed at the Park Road shelter which focuses on particular challenges associated with that shelter." Each Families Forward staffer would be required to attend these training sessions annually.
The Brown settlement was signed by Families Forward CEO Ruby King-Gregory on Feb. 17, 2009.
Brown's case and the cases of others got the notice of the U.S. Department of Justice. As a result, the District—in coordination with DOJ—agreed to another set of stipulations concerning residents with disabilities.
As we reported earlier this week, the Office of the Inspector General had launched an investigation into Families Forward's management of the family shelter at D.C. General. It was not the first time the OIG investigated the nonprofit's conduct inside that facility.
In the aftermath of the Banita Jacks case, the OIG issued an exhaustive 200-plus page investigative report on various agency failures. Jacks and her family had stayed at the emergency shelter in 2005 and 2006. The OIG found that Families Forward failed to properly handle the Jacks case.
We wrote in mid-March (see link above) that the IG flagged the nonprofit for poor case management. Among the key findings, the IG noted that the Jacks children were never interviewed "nor were their needs ever assessed" and that the Jacks family did not see a case worker for nearly a month after moving in.
It took the Families Forward staff nearly a month to have Banita Jacks fill out the basic intake forms. Even after Jacks' first meeting with a case worker, the IG noted that the worker completed only the first two pages of a nine-page assessment form. Among the topics left blank: "Medical History," "Psychosocial/Family" history, and the case worker's own "subjective observations."
The IG also reported: "Based on interviews with the team and a review of the family's shelter case file, there is no indication that Families Forward made any referrals related to the physical or mental health needs of any family member."
The IG found that Families Forward "failed to conduct a thorough needs assessment." The IG reported:
"A thorough assessment of [the parents] could have provided valuable insight into the family's needs and past challenges they faced, and that could have resulted in their being referred for further evaluation, treatment, or services."
The IG recommended:
*The D.C. Department of Human Services should consider proposing to the mayor a strategy for providing physical, mental health, and developmental screenings to all homeless children.
*The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness as well as Families Forward should "review and amend in writing where necessary, the Hypothermia Shelter's intake, needs assessment, and case management processes to ensure that they are consistent not only with Families Forward's contractual obligations to the District, but also the intent...of the District's Homeless Services Reform Act."
In testimony at Wednesday's hearing, Joi Buford, a Families Forward executive, admitted that she had never even seen the IG's report and recommendations until she read about them in the media.
Marshall, the Community Partnership's longtime executive director, has a different recollection. She told City Desk this morning that, after the IG's report was made public, her staff had multiple meetings with Families Forward to address the recommendations and findings.
On May 2, 2009, a baby girl, who lived at D.C. General with her parents, died. Buford said at the hearing that the parents did not live at the shelter after the death. Families Forward never talked to the parents. In fact, she said the nonprofit learned of the death only when detectives showed up at D.C. General to inspect the dead child's room.
Buford could not say whether Families Forward had any reaction to the child's death—any lengthy meetings, any new training sessions. Her argument was simple: "The child did not die at the facility."
Another newborn, Princess, died at D.C. General on Feb. 9. The city's Child and Family Services Agency has since taken action against the child's mother, according to Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells. The agency has taken her to court and had her other child removed from her care. The agency believes the child died from co-sleeping. In other words, Princess may have been inadvertently smothered.
Former and current staffers have told City Desk that Families Forward management had no response to Princess' death. And no grief counselors were sent in to help the other residents cope with the loss. The Community Partnership's Cornell Chappelle and Sue Marshall insist they ordered the nonprofit to bring in grief counselors. "It was a directive," Chappelle says.
But Chappelle admitted he doesn't know if Families Forward followed the directive.
Both Chappelle and Marshall could not say if more children had died at D.C. General or any other homeless facility.
But the most persistent issues raised by residents were not isolated problems but systemic ones. Residents talked of daily life at D.C. General: peeling paint, a mold-covered stairwell, and overcrowding. The Department of Human Services had checked on the building last June and found no mold, no peeling paint, no water-damaged ceilings. DHS Director Carter still insists incorrectly that the moldy stairwell had been inaccessible to residents—that it was locked.
While residents were struggling with indifferent case workers, they were also allegedly getting propositioned by staff. Although these incidents of inappropriate contact between staff and female residents may have doomed Families Forward, this particular issue was an old one.
Quinzella Jenkins testified at the Wednesday hearing that she lived at D.C. General from November 2005 to April 2006. She said that staff had sex with female residents back then. "They were going in the staircase," she told City Desk. "They were having sex. It was ridiculous."
Patricia Mullahy Fugere, the legal clinic's executive director, says today's news of the contract termination is bittersweet. She says Fenty's decision is "the right and just result." But she adds: "I think it's unfortunate that it took too long. For far too long there had been very clear indicators brought to the powers that be that Families Forward had been failing homeless families in the District."
Fugere faults the city's oversight—and, in particular, the Community Partnership's oversight—over Families Forward. "The Partnership has a contractual responsibility to do oversight and monitoring of its subcontracts....They failed in that regard."
Marshall insisted her Community Partnership did not fail: "In hindsight, you can always see things. I don't really see anything we could have predicted."