US Congress - Capitol Building at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, United States in winter
U.S. Capitol Credit: iStock

Go play in traffic” is no joke at the Capitol City Inn, Washington, D.C.’s shelter for homeless families. Lots of the shelter’s kids do, hustling quarters by washing the windows of stopped cars. They play on railroad tracks, too, where eastern corridor commuters go whizzing past. In March, after two infants died inside the shelter, the city’s human services director suddenly discovered that D.C’s 1,300 homeless kids were “at risk.” But they’re not the only ones. Poor kids everywhere who rely on city services face the dangers of bureaucratic apathy and incompetence. The one thing that isn’t at risk is the job security of municipal employees. No matter how badly they screw up—or who gets hurt—their paychecks are the safest things around.

The caretaker

On January 14, 1988, Johnnie Smith, his wife, and four children burned to death in a fire at the Desire housing project in New Orleans. Just two weeks earlier, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) had forfeited $106,000 of a federal grant to install smoke detectors in the high-rise building. Although the money had been awarded a year earlier and there were smoke detectors gathering dust in a downtown warehouse, HANO had failed to find anyone in or out of the authority qualified to screw them in.

When HANO was questioned about the failure by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, then-director Jesse Smallwood explained, “I don’t want to belabor that we could’ve or should’ve . . . I don’t feel anyone should be blamed.”

And nobody was. Although Mayor Sidney Barthelemy re-funded the installation project with $110,000 from a surplus account, he conducted no investigation of the lost grant or the death of the Smiths. Although HANO officials say the twice-funded installation project is still “in process,” today, more than a year and a half after Desire’s smoke detectors arrived at the agency warehouse, a maintenance worker at Desire says, “We’re still waiting.”

After ten years bouncing around Philadelphia’s foster homes, 14-year-old Lillie Mae Ferebee was reunited in 1981 with her father. Unfortunately, William Ferebee, a diagnosed schizophrenic, had just completed a ten-year prison sentence for rap- ing a child. Making the placement decision for Philadelphia Department of Human Services was a half-trained social worker on her first child welfare case. Her supervisor concurred with the judgment.

Three months after the reunion, Lillie Mae’s grandmother reported that the father had raped and beaten his daughter. So the same caseworker transferred the child to a new guardian—this time a convicted murderer, who also seemed to have a thing for little girls. Sexually harassed by this caretaker and his relatives, Lillie Mae Ferebee was moved to another home.

In court documents quoted by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the social worker defended her decision to place the child with a convicted child rapist. “Well, to be perfectly honest,” she testified, “he said he wasn’t guilty.”

Seven years after that decision, and six months after Lillie Mae Ferebee received a $90,000 settlement from the department in a suit alleging “bungled casework” and “failed city safeguards,” the social worker is still handling child placements. “It’s none of your business,” she told me when asked to comment. An assistant to Joan Reeves, the DHS director, says an internal audit was conducted, but results were not made public. If any malfeasance had been discovered, she assured, a report would have been made to the mayor. But Mayor Wilson Goode’s press secretary said, “The mayor never looked into the matter. And I don’t know if [the Ferebee] story was ever shown to be accurate.” According to reporter Dan Meyers, who wrote the Inquirer story with Henry Goldman, the accuracy of the story was never contested. The buck apparently stopped inside the DHS, which at the time of the investigation was headed by Irene Pernsley. In sworn testimony for another lawsuit, then-director Pernsley admitted that she had no familiarity with the qualifications or duties of the social workers under her supervision. “Hands-on” management, she said, was not her style.

Rolling with Sherwin

In Cleveland last spring, a staff assistant in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Properties decided to have the city’s public swimming pools painted before the season opened—a surprise for her boss, the department director. Three highly paid city painters were called to do the job. And they did it, even though the pools previously had been judged not to need full-fledged painting at all. But they took a shortcut: instead of first cleaning the swimming pools, they rolled the Sherwin-Williams over nine months’ worth of cigarette butts and broken glass. Only one supervisor noticed, and she decided to keep it to herself. By the second day of the swimming season, 14 pools were closed for draining, stripping, repainting, or other repairs; 11 children were nursing cuts from broken glass. It was the third time in six years that glass had been painted into the pools.

Heads will roll, vowed an indignant Mayor George Voinovich, promising specifically to fire the painters, who make $40,000-$50,000 a year as city employees. The blunder, which wasted hundreds of thousands of gallons of water during last summer’s drought, was front-page news in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer for a week, as then-senatorial candidate Voinovich flexed his take-charge management style.

The ensuing investigation found 13 people negligent, including the painters, their supervisors, and the parks department head. The punishment? For the assistant who surprised the boss with some painted pools: one day without pay. For the supervisor who noticed glass before the pools opened: one day without pay, For the painters Voinovich promised to fire: reprimands or suspensions of from one to eight days. “The mayor’s hands were tied,” says Voinovich’s spokesperson, blaming civil service rules. Rolling heads? One painter involved in the fiasco retired this year with a comfortable pension; the others are still painting their way through Cleveland.

Up the staircase

Eight-year-old Angel Jackson and her brother Donald lived on the 15th floor of Chicago’s Henry Homer projects until January 1987, when a fire broke out in their apartment. To save time, some firefighters, with axes and small extinguishers, usually take the elevator to rescue high-rise residents, while others drag heavy hoses up the stairs. But all the elevators in Henry Homer were broken. By the time Chicago firefighters reached the Jacksons’ apartment, the family was dead.

Ten days before the fire, the Chicago Housing Authority had forfeited a $7 million federal grant for remodeling and elevator repair in its projects. In 1987, despite receiving multiple extensions from the feds, the authority’s officials reported that they could find no contractor to make the repairs—a full three years after the grant was first awarded.

Several months later, in the Robert Taylor Homes, one child was killed and one child critically injured in separate elevator accidents, and the safety hazards of the city’s 145,000 public housing units became a major issue in the 1987 mayoral campaign. But even with the hiring of a new housing director and the shake-up of top management, batting clean-up has proved harder than it seemed, The maintenance staff in charge of elevator repair still has 30,000 backlogged complaints, according to the Chicago Tribune, with 10,000 new work orders coming in every month. This summer, the new CHA director accused maintenance staff of tolerating the project’s drug trade and extorting sex from residents for repairs; he called his authority “the most corrupt place I’ve ever seen.” (A month later the Tribune reported that he’d hired late Mayor Washington’s former adviser and housekeeper as his $45,000-a-year security specialist for the crime- and drug-ridden projects.)

As for safe, working elevators, well, one project will be getting them in 1990. But for the project where the Jacksons died, or any of the other Chicago projects, CHA has no immediate plans.

Lisa and Audrey

Six-year-old Lisa Steinberg was beaten to death last year in New York City. Her adoptive father, Joel Steinberg, was a lawyer; her adoptive mother, Hedda Nussbaum, is a former editor of children’s books. By now, everyone’s seen photographs of Nussbaum’s bruises and Lisa’s blank stare. Equally familiar is the story of the city Human Resource Administration’s failure to intervene after receiving reports of the family’s propensity for violence. (As the case’s celebrity grew, Ed Koch, the city’s mayor, added 500 new social workers to the agency’s staff.)

But you have probably never heard of Audrey Jones, who starved to death in the same city, during the same month that Lisa Steinberg died. At one year old, Audrey Jones weighed 11 pounds— cruising weight for a two-and-a-half month-old baby. Months before, the HRA had substantiated six reports that Audrey’s mother had abused her children and removed them from her custody. But when Audrey Jones died, she was back in her mother’s care.

Like the impoverished victims of bureaucracy in other cities, Audrey Jones inspired no headlines, no live mini-cam reports, no heroic response from politicians. Instead, the bureaucratic chorus continues, whether in New York or Cleveland or New Orleans. No one’s to blame, the spokesman said. Procedural problems. Our hands are tied. In none of the cases mentioned above was anyone fired or even transferred for negligence.

For politicians, non-response in cases involving the poor and the powerless has become the best response. As municipally sponsored tragedy becomes commonplace, the family from Desire simply can’t compete for attention with the child from Greenwich Village; bureaucrats know that as well as anyone. So it goes, as it has gone before. And with the two-week shelf-life of any given municipal scandal, the costs of next month’s fire or murder won’t be bureaucratic; more than likely, they’ll just be human.