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December 06, 2005 | Read comments | Post a comment

No Change in DC Deaths

Six years ago today, Washington Post reporter Katherine Boo, whose investigative piece "Invisible Deaths: The Fatal Neglect of D.C.'s Retarded," had just run the day before, took part in an online chat with Post readers. In March, she'd written the series "Invisible Lives: D.C.'s Troubled System for the Retarded," and it, along with her December story, would win her a Pulitzer Prize.

"When I read your article last spring, I assumed that it meant things would start to change," said one of her readers. "It is heartbreaking and shameful to read 8 months later that almost nothing has happened yet."

Eight months? Try six years. Even a Pulitzer Prize has not forced change.

Last week, the Post's Karlyn Barker reported that 4 deaths had occurred just last year, citing a new quarterly review in a nearly decades-old lawsuit against DC over its "care" of developmentally disabled residents in group homes. "

That was what Boo's series had been about -- 350 "documented cases of abuse and neglect, as well as profiteering, in the city's group homes," and 116 deaths.

Wrote Barker,

The series found that none of the 116 deaths that had occurred in the homes since 1993 had been investigated.

District officials said they have since overhauled the mental retardation agency's services,... In April, the head of mental retardation services and two top aides were replaced in what officials said was a departmental restructuring aimed at speeding efforts to change.

Six years ago, Boo responded to one of her online readers:

Why didn't anything happen? that's a question I ask myself. As for Mayor Williams, he has said he will fully cooperate with the Justice Department probe. He's also said that, as someone misdiagnosed as developmentally disabled in his early years, he's personally committed to fixing the system. We'll see what happens.

I guess six years is long enough to "see."

I keep coming back to one comment from a reader, who wrote, "Sounds like it's all about MONEY for many of these facility owners."

To which Boo responded, "Yes, I think you're talking about a time-honored tradition in programs that serve the poor."

I think about the Sex Slave Group Home in Kansas. It's all the same, I think. It's about money, and people who have so little power that news exposés, even those that win Pulitzer Prizes, don't end up having much effect.

Another reader wrote,

Where is the collective outrage from the "Civil Rights Community" about this National Disgrace? Your paper has aired these startling investigative details since March, and I've not seen nor heard nor read a reaction from civil rights leaders.

"That's a good question," Boo responded, "and I don't know the answer."

Of course, that's a question we've asked at The Rag again and again: why is there so little outrage from traditional rights movements about injustice against disabled people?

And you gotta call neglect that ends in death "injustice." But we don't call it that. As a society, we don't. Why, I don't know. But we don't.

We have movements against the war, but nothing of that sort against the kinds of outrages committed against disabled people -- including, if not outright killing them, certainly doing nothing to stop their deaths.

The answer to why we don't, I always think, has to do with the covert nature of the evil done to disabled people. Because it appears the injuries and deaths are not the result of overt hate, people do not rise up in outrage.

Is that it? I wonder. Whether it happens to you because of hate or because of neglect, though, in the end you're just as dead. Dead is dead. Or are some deaths more important for us to be upset about than others?

I think we know the answer to that, and it's not a nice answer.

Where deaths can be seen to be the result of hate -- as with lynchings -- it can eventually stir people to force change.

But no one hates the poor disabled people in the group homes, right?

Posted by mjohnson on December 6, 2005 10:01 AM


"Even a Pulitzer Prize has not forced change."

Nor have Papal edicts, laws, or any of the other means we indulge in.

As you know, I think that "humanity" does in fact "hate" disabled people. Sometimes it's pejorative folk "wisdom", sometimes the actionable (but rarely acted on) physical stuff.

The bible thumpers contend that this is due to Godlessness while we "secular humanists" (oh all right Atheists!) find that "people of the book" are such frequent sources of said hate. That morality/ethics need some pie-in-sky basis like a berobed Hebrew in the sky to underlie them is absurd. Words don't rape/torture/bedevil the institutionalized and those who suffer rage about it don't need any second-hand deity to justify their urges to end war and stop starving babies.

With all the work on genomes it's still clear that it takes a year to grow one ring on a tree and that getting over the madness of putting people in the joint because we can pass laws that put them there takes generations. And maybe it can't be done at all, and maybe we're going about it all wrong, and maybe it won't work out even if we succeed in freeing our people.

John Hope Franklin still has heart and keeps on keeping on against all evidence pointing to pointlessness and I guess we're doomed to similar grief/disappointment.


Posted by: William Loughborough on December 7, 2005 10:11 AM

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