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Government and People
also correspondence between Councilmembers Patterson and Allen and Mayor Williams
Councilmember Allen, Councilmember Patterson, members of the committees. I'd like to thank you for this opportunity to come before you to discuss the future of our system of support for persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.
Why I'm Here
I'm here today because I support government that operates openly and is accountable to our citizens. I want to clarify some of the issues you have raised and answer your questions. I understand that for most issues, it is extraordinarily rare for a Mayor to testify in a Council hearing. But this isn't most issues. What we are talking about today is one of the most serious breakdowns in our government over the last two decades. It has been said that the measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. In this case, our government failed.
I believe in an open and honest government. When mistakes are made, I believe we should own up to them. When the mistakes cover 20 years of neglect and mismanagement, full disclosure is even more important. Our citizens deserve nothing less.
I'm here today because I was given a mandate to make our government work, particularly for those who need it the most. No one ever assumed it would be easy, and every day we are reminded of just how ingrained some problems are. But we must always keep our eyes on the goal. Today, I'd like to ask each of you to join me in moving this government forward.
The Blame Game
The government I inherited on January 1, 1999 is seriously broken from years of disinvestment, mismanagement, poor oversight and neglect. The breakdown in services to MRDD clients had been 19 years in the making, and it will take great care and effort to build a system of care. As Mayor, I am committed to doing exactly that. As for blame, there is plenty to go around: me, members of my administration, previous administrations, current and previous council members, and those charged with protecting our most vulnerable citizens. Let us move beyond blame and get down to the very hard work that needs to be done.
The Action We Took from the Lessons We Learned
When I became Mayor, my goal was to put good management in place.
I recruited solid leaders, some from within the government, others from outside.
I set expectations for the agency directors and asked them to lay out their plans. I gave them mechanisms to tell me about problems and gave them access to me if these mechanisms were not adequate. I rely on the agency leaders to keep me informed of the real issues and I value open communication with them.
Director Jearline Williams made demonstrated progress on her plan, got outside validation of her progress, and reassured us that DHS was moving forward.
We were aware of problems in MRDDA but we felt reassured because officials at the Department of Human Services presented a plan to address the problems. Unfortunately, we were not aware that some of the systemic problems could lead to threats to the life and safety of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
This Council is well aware of my commitment to accountability and making government work for those who need it the most. In keeping with that commitment, once we learned in December that imminent threats existed, we took quick and aggressive action. We moved to build a service delivery system that puts the safety and well being of persons with mental retardation and developmental disabilities as the first and only priority.
Those responsible for the MRDD system have been held accountable. In fact, I took the unprecedented step of removing the top layer of leadership from an agency when it became clear that they were not keeping the people's trust.
Action for the future
We have made progress in the last three months, but much remains to be done.
Two decades of neglect has taken a toll. Lives have been lost, dreams destroyed and dignity stolen. As I have said, this stops on my watch. And you have my commitment here today that we are going to make the needed investment to build a new system to support developmentally disabled people in our care and their families.
First, I recognize that government has fundamentally failed its obligation to disabled persons and their families. Painful experience has taught us that our MRDD system is not a system. Therefore, I am sending legislation to the Council to expand our authority to outsource or use managed competition for most of the services in this area that government does poorly.
As the legislation moves forward, we will closely consult with all of the appropriate stakeholders, including organized labor, to ensure that they are part of the decision making process.
We will restructure, redefine, and reduce the government's role, focusing our efforts on expanding options for individuals and their families, and providing the proper oversight and enforcement that we need to protect the health and well-being of our people.
Second, we will create new alternatives to group homes -- a menu of options that provide the appropriate support to allow individuals to achieve their fullest potential and to live as independently as possible as valuable and contributing members of our communities. Our dollars should be spent on people and not institutions; on quality services and not bureaucratic apparatus.
Third, we will present legislation that provides strong and effective oversight for every person in our care. An independent monitoring commission, in cooperation with the advocates, will ensure that all complaints are investigated and that oversight is timely and thorough.
Fourth, the D.C. Serious Incident and Fatality Review Committee was sworn in yesterday. The committee was formed by executive order as a result of the aggressive review process undertaken after the revelations about MRDDA.
And finally, as a government, we must begin to do what government should do best: enforce our laws. We must make sure that infractions of a regulation that puts a person's life at risk is investigated and corrected. No excuses. You have my word - here today - that we will enforce the laws that you pass on behalf of our people. And we will provide regular updates to the council on our system reform effort.
Another important function of a hearing like this one is to assess what lessons we can learn from this very painful experience. I could give you a long list, but let me just focus on two critical lessons:
First, we must do a better job assessing risks and being proactive. There are other "meteors" out there that we will uncover, as we confront a government that has been broken for so long. As I have said before, this is like a planet that blew up twenty years ago, and we are still being hit with the remnants.
That's why I've charged all of my agency directors to do a risk assessment to find the "meteors" in their agency, tell us about them, and begin to address them immediately.
The second lesson learned is that as we move forward, coordination and communication are absolutely vital to turning around this government. That's why I put the Deputy Mayor system in place. My Deputy Mayors, along with my senior staff, are responsible for coordinating an aggressive response when serious issues are raised.
I want to close by commending the Council for holding these hearings. I hope that ultimately, they will have helped us to focus on the needed reforms to make our government work. After all, that is the true purpose of oversight.
If all we gain from these hearings is another round of blaming and finger pointing, then we will not have served our citizens well. I hope that we will seize this opportunity to focus the attention of our city - and our entire community - on a problem that urgently needs to be fixed.
There is no reason why we cannot do better by our disabled citizens. Mismanagement can be fixed. Disinvestment can be reversed. And those who profited from their systematic abuse and neglect of disabled persons can and will be held accountable.
I look forward working with the Council, with private sector providers, and with our entire community to create a system that instills hope, enables dreams to be realized, and restores dignity to our most vulnerable people.
Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you. I'd be happy to answer your questions now.
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