Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The New Washington Order

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The New Washington Order

Article excerpt

The accidental tourist. That's the role Kate Boo played one evening in 1998, when a friend driving her home in Washington stopped to do an errand at a group house for the mentally retarded. Kate, a Washington Post reporter, came in with him for five minutes and saw enough to make her sick: foul smells, backed-up toilets, spoiled food, and half- clothed residents sitting around sobbing. Cockroaches were everywhere, and two the size of Mounds bars strolled up her legs as she left.

Six months later, on March 14, 1999, a two-part story by Boo greeted readers, unraveling a horrendous tale of physical abuse, near starvation, multiple forcible rapes and sodomy of vulnerable male patients, and terrible injuries in the homes run by for-profit operators. Boo also uncovered systematic slavery - yes, slavery - by one of those operators at his tony equestrian farm in one of America's wealthiest areas, Montgomery County.

As a member of the investigative team, Boo had been combing the badly managed records of the Family Services, Human Services, and Health Services departments in the District of Columbia. Officials forced her to file requests under the Freedom of Information Act for data on what they assured her would be "a few" fatalities. She bunkered down, and in December produced a shocker on the 116 deaths that had occurred in those group homes over a mere six years.

In early January, another local tragedy took over the front page, putting the name "Brianna" on everyone's lips. Metro staff veteran Sari Horwitz learned of a 23-month-old girl who had been taken away from the loving foster family that had raised her most of her life and returned to her already certified neglectful mother in time for Christmas. Brianna died Jan. 6, and though her mother said she'd fallen down (carpeted) stairs, police found her injuries so severe that they ruled the death a homicide. A picture of a happy baby with cheeks like chocolate pudding smudged with birthday cake icing, taken by her foster parents, put a face on the frightening facts in Horwitz's story, whose editors pushed it forward. Despite being threatened one night by a gunman, Horwitz chronicled surreal missteps by the judge, the social worker, the baby's guardian lawyer, the attorney for the mother, the city attorney, and other officials, who all let things fall through the cracks at Christmas.

The judge immediately imposed a gag order, which Editor David Lindsey noted "seemed to protect the adults involved more than it does the children." But Horwitz and colleague Scott Higham got records and sources anyway, detailing a nightmare existence for Brianna and the young mother's eight children, who had been ordered removed from her care. …

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