It seems like a perfectly appropriate event. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the U.S. Attorney’s office decide to throw a holiday party for D.C. children who have lost family to murder. Who could be more deserving, right? But if you’ve been around the District any length of time, you already know how the story turns out. Anything that could go wrong did, and some kids who had already been victimized in the worst possible way found themselves victimized anew.
On Dec. 19, the two agencies threw what they called a “holiday celebration for some very special children.” The purpose of the event was to fete 2-to-10-year-old children whose close relatives had been murdered in recent years in the District. The entire event was a disaster, according to Julia Dunkins, president of Survivors of Homicide Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group she helped found in August 1993. To begin with, an MPD squad was to chauffeur kids to the party from designated pickup sites throughout the city. The officers failed to show, so Dunkins doled out more than $100 in cab fare to shuttle the kids to the party.
At MPD headquarters, the kids were herded straight into the cold and dingy lineup room, which was undecorated except for a single coil of streamers lying lifelessly on a table. The original Santa was sick and the stand-in spoke little English. There were no planned activities or games for the kids. Only one flavor of ice cream and a skimpy smattering of junk food lay on the dinner table. If one of the kids’ mother hadn’t chipped in with a Christmas tree at the last minute, the kids would have ended up trimming the coat rack.
“If the party had been for adults, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But they were children,” says Dunkins, who lost both her first husband in 1969 and her 24-year-old son in 1993 to senseless gunfire. “These kids are innocent.”
This wasn’t the first time MPD had stiffed kids affiliated with Survivors of Homicide. In 1995, the department sent out press releases touting its plan to deliver gifts on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to child survivors. Police Chief Larry Soulsby even appeared on the local news trumpeting the goodwill of his officers. In the end, the department passed out fancy donated presents, all rightreportedly to the kids of MPD officers.
Soulsby did not return calls for this story. Nor did Cynthia Carroll, MPD’s liaison for the event. Kathryn Turman, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s victim-witness assistance unit, like many of the police officers who attended the party, seemed oblivious to the snubbing. “I don’t think it was insulting in any way,” she says, adding that the children “had a ball.”
Try telling that to the dozen irate parents who telephoned Dunkins after the event. For many of the kids, the gifts passed out would be their only Christmas present; the party’s marquee offering was an assortment of chintzy cars, minus gift-wrapping. Many of the kids, Dunkins says, quickly lost interest in the token toys, and a couple even threw them down in disgust. “I could see the disappointment in their faces.”
U.S. Attorney Eric Holder received an invite to the shindig but didn’t show. Afterward, he heard “in passing” that there were “insufficient presents” at the party, according to his spokesman, Kevin Ohlson.
While Turman acknowledges that the party organizers ran out of food and that “presents became few and far between,” she says that “overall it was a success in terms of the kids coming out.” In fact, she says the party organizers were overwhelmed by kids, as they had only expected about 35, which accounted for the short supply of resources.
But Dunkins says that’s simply not the case, as the U.S. Attorney’s victim-witness assistance unit alone invited 30 kids.
Soulsby apparently thought showing up was enough. On learning about the fiasco in getting the kids to the event, Soulsby promised at the party to pay for their rides home. As the evening wore on, however, Soulsby disappeared, leaving Dunkins to fork out another $100 in cab fare so kids had a way to get home. Julie Wakefield