Fairfax County’s child welfare system has seen abuse and neglect cases surge over the past year, taxing the dozens of volunteers charged with advocating for those children in foster care and court.
As of May, over 188 new kids have been placed in foster care or under a protective court order since July 1, 2022 — nearly double the 98 cases added the previous year, according to Fairfax CASA, a nonprofit that trains and supervises volunteer, court-appointed special advocates for children.
With a waitlist of about 50 children, as of last week, the organization says it urgently needs more volunteers, particularly Black, Hispanic and Spanish-speaking individuals.
“It’s such an important program,” Fairfax CASA Executive Director Darcy Hubbard said. “It really does change the outcome for our most vulnerable kids, and we desperately need people right now.”
Fairfax CASA currently has about 140 volunteers assigned to cases referred by the Fairfax County Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court. They work with attorneys and social workers to help each child get the services they need, increasing their chances of finding a safe, permanent home, according to the nonprofit.
Cases have become more complex
All of the cases are serious, since an advocate doesn’t get involved until after the court has determined a child was abused or neglected. But the issues facing families have grown in complexity this year, limiting most volunteers to one case at a time, Hubbard says.
About 60% of cases now involve domestic violence, compared to the typical rate of 30%, and cases where substance use or mental health issues are factors have also increased. For example, CASA got five cases with babies born with drugs in their bloodstream last year; this year, there have been 32 babies.
According to Hubbard, struggles with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have increased for both parents and kids, particularly adolescents, which tracks with Fairfax County and national reports. Alcohol consumption and fentanyl use have also gone up during the pandemic.
“In addition to the trauma and the stuff that’s going on in their families, I think whatever is going on in the world has piled on to all the kids, and for our kids, it hits them extra hard because they don’t have some of the protective factors that other children have,” such as an adult they can rely on or a sense of security at home, Hubbard said.
She emphasized that mental health and substance use issues don’t justify opening a child welfare case, but the county government and court will intervene if those challenges rise to the level of endangering the kid’s wellbeing.
“Usually, the [Department of Family Services] is well-aware of the family and has been trying to work with them and help them for a long time,” she said. Read More
(Updated at 4:20 p.m.) The current admissions process for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJ) does not discriminate against Asian American students, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled.
A majority of the three-judge panel backed the Fairfax County School Board’s argument in support of admissions policy changes intended to increase diversity at the prestigious magnet school, reversing a lower court’s ruling that sided with the Coalition for TJ.
The advocacy group filed a lawsuit against the school board in March 2021, arguing that the changes adopted in 2020 were intended to reduce the number of Asian students at TJ in violation of the Constitution.
In an opinion published today (Tuesday), Circuit Judge Robert King says the Coalition failed to prove that the school board intended to discriminate against Asian students, who have, in fact, seen “greater success in securing admission to TJ under the policy than students from any other racial or ethnic group.”
“After thorough consideration of the record and the appellate contentions, we are satisfied that the challenged admissions policy does not disparately impact Asian American students and that the Coalition cannot establish that the Board adopted its race-neutral policy with any discriminatory intent,” King wrote.
Since taking effect with the Class of 2025, the admissions changes — which included dropping a required test and application fee and taking into account a student’s economic, special education or English-learner status — have resulted in offers going to a broader range of students in terms of race, geography and income.
The Class of 2025 was the first in a decade to accept students from all middle schools. It also saw an uptick in Black, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students, Fairfax County Public Schools reported. Both that year and last year, Asian students still received a majority of offers.
“The court reached the correct decision, and we firmly believe this admission plan is fair and gives qualified applicants at every middle school a fair chance of a seat at TJ,” John Foster, the school board’s division counsel, said in a statement. “We look forward to offering seats to a new group of remarkable and incredibly well-qualified young scholars in the years to come.”
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton had ruled in February 2022 that Asian students were “disproportionately harmed” by the admissions changes, which he said were implemented in a “remarkably rushed and shoddy” process.
Hilton ordered that FCPS stop using the new policy, but the appeals court agreed to let it stay in place while the lawsuit continued.
While King said that Hilton’s judgment “went fatally awry” in not addressing how racial and ethnic groups other than Asians fared under the new policy, Circuit Judge Allison Rushing argued a dissenting opinion that the changes were “passed with discriminatory intent and disproportionately impact a particular racial group,” even if they appear race-neutral on paper.
“The twelve-member Board plainly stated its intention to craft an admissions policy for TJ that would reform the racial composition of the student body to reflect the racial demographics of the district,” she wrote.
The Coalition for TJ says it wasn’t surprised by the ruling and intends to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We are disappointed by today’s ruling, but we are not discouraged,” Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Erin Wilcox, who has been representing the coalition, siad. “Discrimination against students based on their race is wrong and violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. We look forward to asking the Supreme Court to end this illegal practice once and for all.”
The Supreme Court is already considering a case on affirmative action in college admissions. Some universities have started to review their practices, with the mostly conservative justices expected to defy precedent by declaring race-conscious admissions unlawful.
An 18-year-old man from Alexandria has been charged with reckless driving after allegedly crashing into a pedestrian on Richmond Highway in March, killing her.
Shortly before 9:30 p.m. on March 30, Luis Merino Berrios was driving south on Richmond Highway in a 2007 Mercedes C230 when he lost control near Groveton Street, a change from the originally reported location of Clayborne Avenue.
From the Fairfax County Police Department:
The driver of a 2017 Jeep Wrangler attempted to make a left turn from northbound Richmond Highway onto Groveton Street. Detectives determined Berrios was traveling at an excessive speed. He attempted avoidance maneuvers, lost control of his Mercedes, and struck the Jeep Wrangler. Berrios’s vehicle spun several times before leaving the roadway striking Samantha Jennings-Jones who was walking on the sidewalk.
Jennings-Jones was declared dead at the scene. She was 36.
Berrios was charged today (Thursday) and released on a summons, which means he’s still legally allowed to drive, the FCPD said.
Police said they didn’t have the exact speed Berrios was driving, but it was “excessive” for that section of Richmond Highway, which had a 45 mph speed limit.
Starting on Tuesday (May 23), the speed limit will be dropped to 35 mph in response to years of concerns about the roadway’s safety. Another pedestrian was killed on Route 1 just a week after Jennings-Jones died, and earlier this month, a motorcyclist was killed in the Lorton area.
According to her obituary, Jennings-Jones was working in the White House Office of the National Cyber Directorate when she died. She had a husband and two cats.
“Sam was a firm believer that friends are the family you choose, and she will be missed by the many friends and colleagues whose lives she touched and was such a big part of,” the obituary said.
Photo via Google Maps
An Alexandria man was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Wednesday (May 10) for selling fentanyl to a woman who died from an overdose in Clifton in 2021.
Reza Hashemi, 34, was sentenced for conspiring to distribute over 400 grams of fentanyl in Northern Virginia between July 2020 and June 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release announcing the judgment by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema.
According to court documents, Fairfax County police were called to a home in the Clifton area on May 28, 2021 by a witness who told 911 that a woman had taken an “unknown white substance” and needed naloxone, the drug that can reverse opioid overdoses.
A woman identified as J.F. was found unresponsive in the residence’s basement and pronounced deceased at 11:44 p.m. after failed resusitation efforts, one of the responding police officers said in an affidavit.
The witness told police that they had obtained powder fentanyl from Hashemi at a spot near Reed Avenue in Alexandria City.
Police arrested Hashemi in Tysons on June 2, 2021 after he dropped off fentanyl that the witness had arranged to buy from him, according to the affidavit.
Court records indicate that Hashemi reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in February.
“Mr. Hashemi became addicted to opioids after suffering trauma early in his life. He accepted responsibility early on in this case and continues to do so,” the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Alexandria, which represented Hashemi, said in a statement. “Although we do not agree that the sentence imposed was necessary, Mr. Hashemi accepts the court’s decision and is determined to address his own addiction through the next 15 years and beyond.”
In announcing the sentencing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also linked Hashemi to the Oct. 24, 2020, fatal overdose of a 22-year-old man identified as J.V. in Vienna.
Hashemi distributed drugs, including “pressed counterfeit pills containing fentanyl,” to J.V. from Sept. 18, 2020 to “at least” Oct. 14, 2020, according to a statement of facts filed by prosecutors. After police informed him of J.V.’s death, Hashemi said he didn’t want to talk to law enforcement without a lawyer.
Court documents don’t explain how police determined that the drugs involved in J.V.’s overdose were the ones he got from Hashemi. The U.S. Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to FFXnow’s request for comment by press time.
“The government’s repeated insinuations in connection with [Hashemi’s] invocation of his right to counsel misrepresent the facts and betray an ignorance of every individual’s constitutional rights,” the public defender’s office said.
Photo via Google Maps
The federal government has agreed to pay $5 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by the parents of McLean resident Bijan Ghaisar, who was shot and killed by two U.S. Park Police officers in Fort Hunt more than five years ago.
The settlement will allocate up to 25% of the total — or $1.25 million — to the family’s lawyers with the remaining money going directly to James and Kelly Ghaisar, according to court documents.
Officially approved by U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton after a hearing at the federal courthouse in Alexandria on Friday (April 28), the agreement states that it shouldn’t be interpreted as “an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States.”
In a statement, the Ghaisars said their proceeds from the settlement will go to The Bijan Ghaisar Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to addressing police brutality and helping victims of gun violence — “and other charitable causes.”
Despite agreeing to settle, the family said they “do not believe this is justice” and remain disappointed that federal prosecutors declined multiple times to pursue charges against officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard, who were only identified after the family filed the wrongful death lawsuit in 2018.
“We still believe, however, that accountability for Bijan’s murder is possible, somehow, sometime, and some way,” the family said. “We now shift our focus to fighting in Bijan’s name for other victims, and for all Americans, for accountability and prevention of police brutality.”
Statement from The Ghaisar Family on the settlement of the civil suit against the Federal government for Bijan Ghaisar's murder. #WeAreBijan pic.twitter.com/DaR8Kieffd
— Bijan Ghaisar (@WeAreBijan) April 28, 2023
Rep. Don Beyer, who represents Virginia’s 8th Congressional District, including McLean, called the settlement “the clearest admission to date that Bijan Ghaisar did not deserve to be shot and killed.”
“The officers who shot him showed reckless disregard for Bijan Ghaisar’s humanity,” Beyer said in a statement. “Yet, to this day no one has been held accountable for that act that left an unarmed young man dead, or for the unacceptable government stonewalling that compounded the Ghaisar family’s suffering and enraged the community I represent. This lawsuit is ending, but justice has never been done in this case.”
The DOJ settlement is the clearest admission to date that Bijan Ghaisar did not deserve to be shot and killed.
My thoughts go out to Kelly and James Ghaisar and their family. As their fight for reform and justice continues, I will continue to be their friend and ally. pic.twitter.com/hp9jhspZqh
— Rep. Don Beyer (@RepDonBeyer) April 28, 2023
The Department of the Interior, which includes the Park Police, didn’t return a request for comment by press time. The department’s Office of Inspector General is conducting an administrative investigation to determine whether Park Police policies were followed, according to the Washington Post. Read More
A Manassas resident who fatally shot a man and hit a woman with a leaf blower at the Chantilly Park Shopping Center in 2019 has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and malicious wounding, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano announced Friday (April 28).
Steven Green, 55, faced a trial in March for the murder of 30-year-old Chantilly resident Miguel Angel Leiva Hernandez, but that ended with a hung jury.
With the jury about evenly split, no one on the victims’ side wanted to go through the experience of another trial, according to Laura Birnbaum, a spokesperson for the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
“Having been through it and seeing how the evidence came out and how the jury reacted to it, there just wasn’t any appetite to do that again, so we ended up with this outcome,” Birnbaum said. “…This is guaranteed accountability. It addresses the incident, and all of the victims are happy with it.”
According to the commonwealth’s attorney, Green was cleaning the shopping center’s parking lot on May 24, 2019 when he got into “an altercation” with Myra Osorio Cordero outside a restaurant.
Green used his leaf blowers to send debris towards Osorio Cordero and, after they exchanged words, hit her in the face with one of the leaf blowers. When Leiva Hernandez saw Osorio Cordero bleeding profusely, he followed Green into the parking lot, where a physical struggle ensued and Green shot him once in the chest, killing him.
Osorio Cordero survived the encounter.
CA Descano announced today that Steven Green pleaded guilty to manslaughter and malicious wounding for the 2019 shooting of Miguel Leiva Hernandez. His March trial ended in a hung jury.
Green will be sentenced on September 1st. pic.twitter.com/mTJWsYlHyl
— Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Descano (@FairfaxCountyCA) April 28, 2023
According to a police report at the time, Green remained at the scene in the 14500 block of Lee Jackson Memorial Highway until police arrived. He was charged and tried for murder, malicious wounding and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Green claimed self-defense at the March trial in Fairfax County Circuit Court, according to NBC4.
To secure a guilty plea, prosecutors amended the murder charge to manslaughter and dropped the firearm charge. A sentencing hearing will be held on Sept. 1.
“It’s always a tragedy when a young person dies, and nothing can bring Miguel back to his family and loved ones,” Descano said in a statement on Friday. “As prosecutors, our job is to put on a fair trial, and we respect the original jury’s serious deliberation of the evidence in this case. Today’s agreement guarantees a just outcome for the community.”
Descano’s office also announced Friday that 22-year-old Lorton resident Ronnie Marshall had been sentenced to life in prison for shooting and killing Army colonel and doctor Edward McDaniel Jr. and his wife, Brenda McDaniel, a retired Army colonel and a nurse, at their home in Springfield in 2021.
A developer that filed a plan for a new Reston Regional Library and affordable housing in the Reston Town Center North area is challenging Fairfax County’s handling of its procurement process in court.
The complaint, filed by Reston Civic Core LLC late last year, is being litigated even after developer Foulger-Pratt withdrew its offer of a public-private partnership for the same area — a move that leaves no immediate option for the redevelopment.
Foulger-Pratt offered an unsolicited proposal in October 2021 under the Public-Private Education Facilities and Infrastructure Act to redevelop two properties with up to 350 affordable apartments and a new library on land owned by the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
The county and FCHRA declined to comment, given that the issue is under active litigation.
“As a matter of policy, we don’t comment on matters in litigation,” said Linda Hoffman, a county spokeswoman.
In addition to retaining 30 units at Bowman Towne Court, Norton Scott’s plan called for 324 affordable housing units and a new library on mostly county-owned property next to the Bowman Towne Center property. It also included a public plaza, homeless shelter, performing arts amenities, and above-ground parking for the Hunter Mill District Supervisor’s Office and the police department.
The complaint formally alleges that the county violated Dillon’s rule and urges the county to accept its application for consideration. It also calls on the court to cancel the interim agreement with Foulger-Pratt — which has since been canned.
The county issued a call for competing proposals — as required by law. Norton Scott’s competing plan was rejected.
The county moved to sign an interim agreement with Foulger-Pratt in July, but the agreement was voided in February. Foulger-Pratt cited “significantly higher construction costs and recent interest rate hikes” as the primary reasons for scrapping the proposal.
Norton Scott argues that the because the proposal publicly posted by the county had 74 of 188 pages fully redacted, it barred the developer from developing an understanding of its competition.
“As a result of the heavily-redacted proposal, it was impossible for potential offers to gain a clear understanding of what the county sought when it invited competing proposals of the project,” the complaint says. “The lack of transparency runs counter to the principles of open competition and access to information that are at the foundation of public procurements.”
The developer also alleges that the county did not not formally reject its proposal and instead “determined that the proposal will not be accepted for detailed review,” according to legal documents.
“Under the PPEA, after accepting the proposal or consideration, the county was without authority to reverse course and not accept the proposal for consideration,” the complaint states.
At a later point, the county then stated the proposal was “ineligible for review.”
A task force with various stakeholders is currently examining key issues in Reston Town Center North.
Chelsea Rao, a senior vice president with Norton Scott, said it seems that the development’s team solution is not being considered at all.
“It seems silly that there is a task force looking for a solution that is not considering the option we have proposed,” Rao said.
The case is currently in the discovery phase.
(Updated at 9:35 a.m. on 4/18/2023) A Fairfax County grand jury opted not to indict the police officer accused of shooting and killing Timothy Johnson outside Tysons Corner Center in February.
The Fairfax County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney was scheduled to share an update in the case with a press conference at noon, but the event was canceled after the grand jury’s decision came out. The news was first reported by NBC4 Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said in a statement that he had anticipated the grand jury to come through with an indictment, to the point where he told Johnson’s family this morning that they could expect one.
“I can only imagine their pain and shock when they received the news that the officer — who shot and killed their unarmed son — was not indicted,” Descano said. “Since, by law, no prosecutors were permitted to be present in the room when the investigating officers made their presentation to the grand jury, I can’t say for sure what information was conveyed to the grand jurors. In light of this outcome, I am evaluating all options on the path forward and continue to grieve Timothy’s loss.”
Prosecutors had sought charges for involuntary manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm.
An attorney representing Johnson’s family said the family had no comment for the time being. The Fairfax County Police Department didn’t immediately return a request for comment.
Two police officers shot and killed Johnson, a 37-year-old man from Maryland, after pursuing him by foot across a parking lot at Tysons Corner Center on Feb. 22. He had allegedly tried to shoplift sunglasses from Nordstrom.
Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis fired one of the officers involved in the shooting last month. While the officer’s name wasn’t mentioned, the Washington Post reported that he was Sgt. Wesley Shifflett, a seven-year veteran of the department who was believed to have fired the fatal shots.
The second officer — previously identified as eight-year veteran James Sadler — was kept on modified restricted duty but remains employed by the FCPD.
In the wake of the shooting, Johnson’s parents and the Fairfax County NAACP have questioned the uptick in shootings by county police under Davis’s tenure, particularly in 2022, and the department’s lack of a policy dictating when officers should engage in a foot pursuit, despite one being recommended.
The FCPD announced on March 3 that it had agreed to let the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) study the recent shootings for broad trends, though the study won’t specifically focus on Johnson’s death.
PERF will also provide guidance to the department for a potential foot pursuit policy.
A local Navy reserve officer has been sentenced to prison for having unregistered gun silencers that he bought after participating in the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection.
Hatchet Speed, a 41-year-old Falls Church resident who once worked for a defense contractor in Vienna, was handed a three-year prison sentence by U.S. District Judge Michael S. Nachmanoff, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia announced Thursday (April 13).
According to prosecutors, Speed bought three silencers from a Georgia company in March 2021 while “panic buying” at least a dozen guns in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
From February to May 2021, Speed purchased at least twelve firearms and spent more than $40,000 at stores that sold firearms, firearm accessories, and ammunition. According to court documents, the defendant began stockpiling weapons after participating in the incursion at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, a time when he anticipated civil war and spoke of the need for political violence.
In March 2021, during the midst of his firearm purchases, Speed purchased three silencers from a company in Georgia. While the silencers were marketed as “solvent traps” ostensibly to be used in cleaning the barrel of a firearm, they were actually designed to serve as silencers. The silencers were not registered to Speed in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record, as required by law. By circumventing the registration requirements for silencers, Speed was able to take possession of the silencers within a week of purchasing them.
Speed told an undercover FBI agent in early 2022 that he believed the “solvent traps,” or silencers, “would come in handy” for fulfilling his vision of targeting and killing “the opposition,” meaning Jewish people, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
A federal grand jury in Alexandria indicted Speed on three counts of possessing unregistered silencers — one for each of the devices — on Sept. 14, 2022 and he was convicted on Jan. 20. He faced a maximum potential sentence of 30 years in prison.
Last month, a federal judge in D.C. convicted Speed for felony obstruction and four misdemeanor crimes related to the Capitol insurrection. Spotted in security footage wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, Speed spent just over 40 minutes wandering the Capitol building halls before exiting through a window, an FBI agent said in a statement of facts.
Speed is scheduled to be sentenced in that case on May 8, according to the Washington Post.
According to the FBI agent’s statement, Speed is a petty first-class officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves assigned to the Naval Warfare Space Field Activity at the National Reconnaissance Office in Chantilly.
He previously worked a software developer for a defense contractor in Vienna before resigning “as he delved deeper into fringe ideologies,” the Post reported.
Speed isn’t the only Fairfax County resident to face criminal charges related to the Capitol attack. Springfield resident Joseph Brody was charged in September after allegedly assaulting a police officer with a barricade.
Cheers went up after the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) ruled last year that a natural gas pipeline planned through the residential neighborhood of Pimmit Hills will need to be reviewed and approved by the county.
However, even when proposing that decision on Feb. 2, 2022 after a multi-day public hearing, BZA Vice Chairman James Hart acknowedged that the case over the sixth phase of Washington Gas’ Strip 1 Tysons project was likely headed to court.
That court date will arrive this month. The utility company’s lawsuit seeking to vacate the board’s decision will go before a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge for a trial on April 25 and 26, spurring Pimmit Hills residents to rally together once again in opposition to the pipeline.
“We’re concerned citizens, you know. It’s our neighborhoods, our streets, our children, our playgrounds, our schools,” said Kurt Iselt, one of four residents named as defendants in the lawsuit after they brought the case to the BZA.
The challenged pipeline segment is the last stage of a push by Washington Gas to upgrade its natural gas infrastructure in the Tysons area, replacing a 14-inch-wide line with a 2-feet-wide, high-pressure one.
In the works since 2012, the overall project will span approximately five miles from Tyco Road to a regulator station at the Pimmit Drive and Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) intersection.
Phase six will be routed from Peabody Drive to Cherri Drive and Pimmit Drive to Route 7 — right through the heart of Pimmit Hills. Washington Gas had considered an alternate route along Magarity Road and Route 7 but said construction would take longer and bring more disruptions.
After initially denying it twice, the Virginia Department of Transportation approved a permit for the project in 2019, despite opposition from residents and local and state politicians representing the area.
At the request of Islet and fellow residents Christina Chen Zinner, Sarah Ellis and Lillian Whitesell, a county zoning administrator reviewed the project and decided it qualified as a “light utility facility” exempt from local regulation per the county’s zoning ordinance (page 241), which hadn’t yet been struck down.
The lawsuit by Washington Gas argues that the BZA lacked the authority to partially overturn the zoning administrator’s determination and require the project to obtain a special exception permit and undergo a 2232 review.
“Phase 6 is part of [the] Petitioner’s ‘ordinary distribution system’ that delivers natural gas to its customers and located in a VDOT right-of-way. Accordingly, Phase 6 is exempt from the zoning ordinance,” the petition filed on March 3, 2022 states, asserting that the BZA’s decision violated “decades of precedent” and state law. Read More