GOING DOWN WITH
The D.C. bureaucracy takes delight in grinding up reformers with the same kind of ruthless efficiency McDonald’s brings to turning prized steer into Quarter Pounders. The latest victory for the city’s mossbacked bureaucrats came two weeks ago with the demise of federally appointed child welfare receiver Jerry Miller, who completed only half of his three-year term.
This time, though, the entrenched foster care bureaucrats found some powerful allies in the ardent child advocacy lawyers and social planners who kept tabs on Miller’s operation.
During his first year on the job, Miller faced a determined war of resistance from the top-level child welfare supervisors under his command. The lack of enthusiasm shouldn’t have surprised Miller, whose appointment symbolized the management failures of his subordinates.
But in his final nine months, Miller faced more problematic opposition from outside the agency. The New York-based Children’s Rights legal group, which is spearheading the 8-year-old lawsuit to reform the city’s deplorable foster care system, and the D.C.-based nonprofit Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) were Miller allies when he was appointed receiver by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Hogan in September 1995. In the end, however, they had become Miller’s Brutus, wielding the fatal knife that ended his brief, Caesar-like reign.
CSSP bloodied Miller’s receivership last month when it issued a devastating report card on his first 18 months. The report detailing Miller’s management problems made Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. look like Lee Iacocca by comparison.
“I think it was a setup,” says Miller, borrowing a line from Hizzoner.
He may be right.
CSSP prepared its report with a $234,000 grant Miller awarded the nonprofit in December in hopes the group would produce data to justify his continued tenure. The report, however, reached exactly the opposite conclusion. The most damaging finding was that Miller had allowed the backlog of foster care cases to grow fivefold. The growing caseload, the report determined, stemmed from Miller’s failure to hire more social workers and supervisors, as the court order required. And the report slammed Miller for providing conflicting and inaccurate figures on the number of employees under his command, hiring too many outside contractors, and sowing dissension within his agency.
Miller, who is considering writing a book about his very public abasement, contends that CSSP “focused on things not so essential,” and painted a distorted picture of his agency. To resolve the backlog problem, Miller says he recently lifted a hiring freeze initiated in January to ensure that the agency did not run a budget deficit. His workers would have eliminated the backlog by the end of July, he insists.
Nor is the backlog as big as CSSP reports, according to Miller. Several hundred cases classified by CSSP as overdue have already undergone review by the court, the first step in the process, Miller claims. And he says another 2,000 have been closed because the cases were so old that the former foster kids are now approaching middle age and dealing with hair loss rather than abusive family situations.
But Miller’s biggest complaint is that CSSP overlooked his success in moving foster care programs out of the agency’s H Street NE fortress into neighborhoods and in returning 30 of the 120 kids now housed in other states, at a cost of approximately $130,000 per child. He feels sandbagged by the nonprofits’ attack.
“I saw [CSSP] as coming back in to help,” Miller says. “All they did was come in and demand stuff. They were no help at all.”
For his part, Miller admits he was often abrupt and sometimes profane with CSSP officials.
Miller and CSSP officials can’t even agree on whose idea it was for CSSP to evaluate his performance. Prior to Miller’s appointment, CSSP had an annual contract of approximately $250,000 from the D.C. Department of Human Services to serve as the court-appointed monitor for the city’s child welfare programs. The contract was renewed every year in the early ’90s under orders from Hogan and over the objections of D.C. officials.
Shortly after Miller took over, that contract expired and was not renewed. CSSP senior associate Judith Meltzer claims CSSP withdrew as court monitor to give Miller a freer hand in running the agency.
When criticism of his receivership intensified late last year, Miller turned to CSSP for help. But the only help CSSP officials wanted to talk about, according to Miller, was a new contract with the city. “I held them at bay for over a year. I think that clearly bothered them,” says Miller. “I wanted their help in getting information, but it was at their suggestion.”
CSSP officials bristle at Miller’s claims that they pressured him for a new contract. “He called us back in,” CSSP Executive Director Tom Joe emphatically insists.
Tossing a lucrative contract to people who helped you get into office is nothing new in this town. And apparently the control board saw no conflict of interest when it approved the CSSP contract in December 1996. Neither did Hogan, who reinstated CSSP as court monitor last January at CSSP’s request and with Miller’s backing.
That move gave CSSP an arm’s-length separation from the receiver, and they used the distance to start firing.
“We view ourselves as independent monitors,” Meltzer says. “We had absolutely no interest in making Jerry look bad, and in getting rid of him. In fact, we had every interest in helping him to succeed.”
In late February, just as CSSP was amassing the information for its critical report on Miller, Joe called the receiver into his office and asked him to resign. Miller now says he was “taken aback” by the request. Joe characterizes the private meeting as a “friendly, quiet, low-key, colleague-to-colleague” chat.
He says he was trying to save Miller further embarrassment because Children’s Rights director Marsha Lowry was planning to go to court to seek his removal as receiver. Lowry denies these allegations but adds, “I’m a lawyer and I represent the children in this case. I had several confidential conversations with Jerry, with the judge, with plaintiffs, and with defense counsel, so I’m constrained in what I can discuss.”
Lowry did say that Miller was making insufficient progress in meeting the 300-plus conditions spelled out in Hogan’s order. (Miller admits he intentionally ignored some of the order’s requirements because he didn’t consider them relevant to creating a community-based foster care program.)
“What I can tell you is, things have to get better for the kids, and kids don’t have the luxury of waiting,” Lowry pontificates.
But waiting for something to happen is a time-honored pursuit among those involved in trying to reform any one of the District functions in receivership.
“The model for reform in D.C. is a lawsuit that goes on for 25 years. Everyone’s employed; nothing happens,” observes Miller. As proof, he points to the nearly 20-year-old ongoing court battle to move mental patients out of St. Elizabeths Hospital into community residential houses, and a 15-year-old lawsuit involving the District’s detention of juveniles.
D.C. is not unique in trying to reform dysfunctional government agencies through class-action lawsuits and court-issued remedial orders. When Lowry spoke to LL this past Monday, she had just emerged from a deposition in her organization’s 24-year-old lawsuit against New York’s foster care system. That makes Children’s Rights’ 8-year-old D.C. lawsuit look like the preliminary rounds of a heavyweight bout. Children’s Rights has brought similar lawsuits in eight other states, and critics say the organization has a vested interest in dragging them out. After all, Lowry has asked the court for reimbursement of legal fees at the whopping rate of $350 an hour in its D.C. case.
“My organization has spent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket, not a dime of which has been repaid,” Lowry says.
But if the fight is about kids, how come nothing ever gets better for them?
BARRY’S ACTING GAME
Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen is not through settling her score with Eydie Whittington, whom Allen beat for the Ward 8 council seat in November after falling one vote short on her first try. Allen sits on the council’s Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee, which must confirm Whittington’s appointment to the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board.
Allen has not publicly announced her opposition to Whittington’s nomination, but committee chairman Harold Brazil may not bring the nomination up for a vote, because a majority of his committee, including Allen, have privately told him they oppose it.
“Eydie is not going to make it through this process,” predicts a council staffer. “Expect her to withdraw, or the mayor to withdraw her name.”
Early this year, Barry appointed Whittington to a 90-day term on the ABC Board without sending the nomination to the council for approvala move that many councilmembers resent. They object to his interim appointment of Angel Clarens to the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) on the same grounds.
Barry subsequently sent Whittington’s name to the council for confirmation to a full term on the board, but he prefers to keep Clarens as an acting BZA member, apparently for as long as needed. Whittington’s appointment may fall victim to the tug of war between the mayor and the council over Barry’s penchant for “acting” appointments that elude council approval.
Last week, Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson and Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose introduced legislation to block Barry from continuing to make “acting” appointments to serve on board and commissions, and as agency heads, without seeking council confirmation. The Patterson-Ambrose legislation, however, would not dislodge any of the existing actors running various D.C. agencies.
Wayne Casey has been acting at the Department of Human Services since Barry pal Vernon Hawkins was forced out a year ago by the financial control board. Cell Bernardino has been acting director of the Department of Public Works since former director Larry King departed late last year to take charge of the newly created regional Water and Sewer Authority. The other Larry King recently left as personnel director to become deputy city administrator, leaving an actor in his place.
Barry claims he can’t fill these positions because he can’t offer the big salaries necessary for big-time talent. Acting directors, after all, come cheaper than permanent ones because they are paid the salaries of deputy directors. (Patterson speculates that the reluctance to work in the tainted Barry administration may be a bigger obstacle to attracting talent than salaries.)
By keeping agency heads dangling, Barry can also keep a fingerhold on city agencies he once held in an iron grip. Acting agency heads are apt to be more faithful to Hizzoner, in hopes of getting officially elevated to the top job. And Barry can skillfully use his “actors” as hit men when necessary.
Last year, Barry appointed faithful servant Alice Davis to two temporary stints on the now-defunct D.C. Lottery Board. Her mission during the first 90-day appointment was to provide the vote needed to install Barry crony Kenneth Brewer as head of the lottery board. Her mission on the second emergency appointment was to provide the vote needed to fire upstart lottery director Frederick King.
Davis performed admirably on both missions, but the control board stepped in, reinstated King, and fired the lottery board.
Barry has an opinion from interim Corporation Counsel Jo Anne Robinson stating that the mayor has the power to make interim appointments as long as needed while he continues his search for permanent directors and his board appointments. Which means that in the interim he can do exactly as he pleases.CP
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