Thursday, July 10, 2008

UPDATED JULY 13: “Washington” vs. “D.C.”

UPDATE: If the account in this story from The Washington Post is accurate, the family at the center of this latest tragedy is exactly the sort of family that could have been helped by longstanding reforms planned for the Washington, D.C. child welfare system. But the reforms have been delayed for years. And now, thanks to Mayor Fenty's penchant for serial grandstanding, the city's child welfare system has gone from agonizingly slow progress to moving full-speed backwards.


My previous post dealt with the latest child welfare tragedy in Washington, D.C. It recapped the appalling response of Mayor Adrian Fenty to a previous tragedy, the deaths of the children of Banita Jacks – a response that boiled down to shouting "Off with their heads!" The Mayor fired anyone who had come anywhere near the case, without regard to whether they'd actually done anything wrong. Of course that only exacerbated the foster-care panic that followed the tragedy itself. Of course caseloads soared. Of course, when a caseworker has a caseload that has surged to 50 – that's fifty – s/he may not be able to make face to face contact in every case the way s/he should. And of course, that can lead to another tragedy.

That may well be what happened in Washington, D.C. A story in today's Washington Post suggests that, as in the case of Banita Jacks, without benefit of hindsight, this was a case that needed attention, but not necessarily one that should have been placed at the top of a pile of 50 cases. But of course that didn't stop Fenty from playing to the crowd again and, once again, immediately firing the caseworker.

Scapegoating the frontline worker is nothing new, of course. Indeed, it's pretty close to standard operating procedure. What was different in the Jacks case was the extent to which Fenty was praised for it. There's no way to underestimate the joy in parts of the city. One could almost imagine people running through the streets rapturously shouting to each other: "Have you heard? Have you heard? They fired someone! They fired someone!"

Why such rapture? I think it has to do with the unusual demographics of Washington, D.C. Those demographics create continual conflict between what are really two cities; call them "Washington" and "D.C."

Washington is populated by an extraordinary power elite – a concentration of high-powered federal officials, diplomats, lobbyists – and journalists – greater per square mile than any American city. (New York, after all, is a lot bigger.) These are people used to getting what they want, when they want it. D.C. is populated by the working class people who make the city function – or not. D.C. resents Washington's alleged arrogance and sense of entitlement, while Washington hates D.C's alleged laziness and incompetence.

Where do the two cities, and their mutual resentments, meet? Places like the Department of Motor Vehicles – or anyplace else Washington has to go to get some basic document or service from D.C.

I've lived across the Potomac for about 12 years, and the tales of dreadful service by D.C. civil service are legend. Think of the very worst experience you've ever had with "customer service" – the kind where the person who's kept you on hold for 20 minutes knows he's giving you a hard time and then twists the knife by ending the conversation with "have a nice day" – and you get an idea of what it's said to be like. And to top it off, to add to the fury – no one ever gets fired. That's the legend. How much of it is real and how much of it is that sense of entitlement, I don't know. But there is a palpable fury at civil servants in Washington beyond what may exist elsewhere.

So in the Jacks case, Mayor Fenty played to the resentments of Washington brilliantly with his obscene display of grandstanding. It seemed as though every resident of Washington who ever felt mistreated by D.C. was thinking: "It's payback time!" That might explain the sheer viciousness of the Washington Post editorial endorsing the Jacks case firings, an editorial which suggested that everyone at the D.C. child welfare agency was lazy and/or incompetent -- Washington's classic stereotype of D.C.

And the rush of sheer joy at the fact that, at long last "they fired someone!" overwhelmed everything else, including what the mass firings might do to children caught up in the system, almost all of whom, after all, come not from Washington, but from D.C.

Yet now, the Mayor has pulled the same stunt again, apparently counting on Washington to be more interested in another rush of vicarious payback than in the fact that it's vulnerable children who really will be forced to pay. Indeed, according to the Post, Fenty claims he rushes to fire people because, in the Post's words "that is what constituents demand." I think the people of Washington and D.C. are better than that. After all, we all know the proverb that begins "fool me once, shame on you…"