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Children fall through the cracks in Ward 3

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Barbara Hollingsworth
It was one of the District's most haunting crimes. In January 2008, federal marshals sent to evict Banita Jacks from her Southeast home found the decomposing bodies of her four daughters, ages 5 to 17, months after warnings by a school social worker had gone unheeded. Four days later, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty fired six employees of the city's Child and Family Services Agency, noting that child welfare officials "just didn't do their job."

They're still not.

Case in point: The city has repeatedly been warned about the worsening condition of a 7-year-old girl who suffers from severe chronic neutropenia, an extremely rare failure of the immune system that leaves her highly vulnerable to ordinary infections. But the little girl is not being treated for this life-threatening condition, even though she is one of only 1,300 people worldwide to be listed on the Severe Chronic Neutropenia International Registry.

Because the girl lives in wealthy Ward 3 and her father is a former Georgetown University Hospital neurologist, warnings from at least four people who are legally required to report suspected abuse or neglect have been ignored. Two neutropenia experts who reviewed the child's medical records reported that the most likely causes of her condition are psychotropic "toxins/drugs" widely used to control behavior, but her medical records indicate that no toxicology screening or urinalysis was ever done.

University of Washington professor David Dale and Hanover (Germany) Medical School Professor Karl Welte, co-directors of the neutropenia registry, both say that because neutropenia patients don't exhibit the usual signs of infection such as fever, it could take as little as 18 hours for an undetected infection to cause toxic shock, loss of limbs and even death. "Neutropenia can cause (and will cause, if left untreated) severe and irreparable harm to the child," concurred Dr. Robert Sklaroff, a board-certified hematologist/oncologist, in a court affidavit. But there isn't even so much as a warning in the girl's D.C. Public Schools file.

On April 21, 2009, written complaints were submitted to CFSA by Sklaroff, Dr. Joy Silberg, a consulting psychologist at Baltimore's Sheppard Pratt Health System specializing in childhood trauma, and Eileen King, regional director of Justice for Children, all seeking an independent medical examination of the child.

CFSA social worker Kerstin Rae Magnuson reported that she found "no concerns regarding the immediate safety and well-being" of the little girl. And documents obtained from her mother's attorney under the Freedom of Information Act show that CFSA employees falsely informed Children's National Medical Center in a May 29, 2009, letter that the investigation had been requested by the child's noncustodial mother.

In a June 2009 motion filed by former D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, the city maintained that during "three investigations conducted by CFSA ... no facts could be substantiated that would support a finding of abuse or neglect," dismissing Sklaroff's expert testimony as merely "a differing opinion." Nickles then asked the court to issue a protective order -- not for the child, but to protect CFSA employees and lawyers from having to be deposed under oath.

Interim CFSA Director Roque Gerald told The Examiner that the agency conducted a "thorough investigation" of what he characterized as a "custody case," incongruently adding, "We cannot be involved in a case that has never been open with us."

"All of this information creates a picture of a child who is falling through the cracks," King wrote to Gerald. Indeed, a November 2010 study by D.C. Child Rights Watch found that CFSA was systematically ignoring child neglect and abuse complaints in Ward 3, labeling as "unfounded" 100 percent filed there between 2007 and 2009, compared with 55 percent citywide during the same time period.

Because of her dual German/American citizenship, the German Embassy has been the only governmental body willing to intervene on behalf of this seriously ill child to date. That's an embarrassing indictment of the District of Columbia.

Barbara F. Hollingsworth is The Examiner's local opinion editor.

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