Wrongful-death suit filed against DSS, foster parent in Charleston infant’s death

Former DSS Director Lillian Koller

Former DSS Director Lillian Koller

By all accounts, the birth of Aiden Dean Clark was nothing short of miraculous.

His mother, wheelchair-bound from spina bifida, had miscarried three times before Aiden was born July 7, 2011.

The hopeful beginnings of new life in the family came to an abrupt end less than two weeks later after state social workers removed him from his parents' Charleston home.

They had placed Aiden with a foster mother after allegations of abuse surfaced against his father shortly after the baby's birth. Aiden died 15 days later.

Aiden's parents stood by the then-brain dead infant at Medical University Hospital as doctors turned off the machines keeping him alive. His father held Aiden's tiny foot as the baby took his final breaths.

Ellen Babb, an attorney for the family, said this didn't have to happen. A wrongful death lawsuit she filed last week in Charleston County alleges Aiden essentially suffocated after the foster mother left him alone in a sweater box instead of a crib.

The suit is the latest in a string of setbacks for the beleaguered state Department of Social Services, which has been the subject of widespread criticism regarding its practices and child deaths that have occurred on its watch.

Former DSS Director Lillian Koller and the foster mother, Jennie Downard, 71, of North Charleston, are both named as defendants in the suit. Aiden's parents weren't identified in the court documents.

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said she can't say whether the baby died as a result of the foster mother's actions. A lengthy and thorough investigation conducted by her office failed to determine a manner or cause of death, she said.

"Whatever Ellen Babb alleged in her complaint is what she believes to be the case," Wooten said. "It's not necessarily based in fact."

No criminal charges were filed in the case, North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor said.

"As a result of our investigation at the time, there was no evidence presented to show any intentional and harmful acts, nor was there any probable cause to lead to criminal charges in this incident," Pryor said.

DSS spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus would not speak directly to the allegations in the suit, but she defended the decision to remove Aiden from the parents' home.

Read More at: Wrongful-death suit filed against DSS, foster parent in Charleston infant's death

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Report: Mass. not attentive to core issues behind child welfare cases

Little Jeremiah

Little Jeremiah

STATE HOUSE -- While the Department of Children and Families mishandled the case of 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver, a new independent review of the child welfare agency absolved the department of direct responsibility for the boy's death in a report outlining systemic staffing, policy and technology shortcomings.

The Patrick administration planned on Wednesday to release the final report from the Child Welfare League of America, which the state hired to examine the embattled child welfare agency. Gov. Deval Patrick, who is traveling in Israel on a business development trade mission, asked the organization to conduct a review of the department following well-documented lapses in case management that led, in the case of the 5-year-old Oliver, to the department losing track of the boy whose body was found on the side of a highway in Sterling last month.

"While there is significant evidence that some DCF staff did not do their jobs in the Oliver case, there is not evidence that DCF's actions and failures caused Jeremiah's death. DCF and many of the adults in Jeremiah's life failed to protect him," the report's authors wrote.

The findings of the report, a summary of which was provided to the News Service, build on preliminary recommendations offered in March by CWLA including a redistricting of DCF offices to balance social worker caseloads and the need to deploy more technology for use by social workers.

Many of those suggestions are in the process of being implemented, including hiring, though caseloads remain at an all-time high for the past 20 years fueled by increased substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence concerns and increased reporting from the community and "heightened vigilance" at DCF.

The report said Jeremiah's siblings have received "excellent supports and services" since being taken into DCF custody and are being given "everything they need to overcome the trauma of their experiences and the loss of their brother."

Patrick and the Legislature have been pouring new resources into DCF this year to facilitate hiring to lower caseloads, but CWLA suggests that recommended hiring of additional managerial staff, caseworkers, and specialists in substance abuse, mental health and domestic violence counseling will require "additional funding, beyond what has been recommended in the FY15 budget proposals."

The report also recommends increased funding for substance abuse treatment.

"To prevent the deaths of children, like Jeremiah, who come to the attention of DCF because of allegations of abuse and neglect, we must look beyond DCF itself; we must address the core issues that lead children and families to need DCF's intervention and services," the report said. "For many years, Massachusetts has not been attentive enough to these issues."

The Child Welfare League recommends that DCF continue to screen in for full investigation any report alleging abuse or neglect of a child 5-years-old or younger with young parents or parents with a history of drug abuse, domestic violence or mental health issues. The practice was put into place following the disappearance of Oliver.


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Former foster mom charged with murder now in Catoosa County jail

Clara Louise Edwards

Clara Louise Edwards

Former Ringgold foster care mother Clara Louise Edwards was extradited back to Catoosa County Wednesday night, May 29.

Edwards was arrested in Hamilton County, Tenn., on Friday, May 23, on a murder warrant for the New Year’s Day death of 2-year-old Saharah Witherspoon.

Edwards, 59 was charged following a five-month investigation after the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office received autopsy results from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) medical examiner ruling the child’s death a homicide.

She is being held without bond in the Catoosa County jail.

Edwards was arrested in Chattanooga, Tenn., and had been refusing extradition before being brought back May 29.

Read More at: Former foster mom charged with murder now in Catoosa County jail


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Rewriting Rules On Reunification Of Troubled Florida Families

The Legislature’s child welfare overhaul bill, awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, would make it harder for the state to reunify children with dangerous, drug-addled parents.

Over a dozen turbulent years, Kaylee Ann Rice was in and out of state care as her troubled mom parented in a fog of drugs and violence. Courtney Coughlin’s rap sheet stretches 19 pages, peppered with weapons, battery and drug charges. She had been to jail twice, attempted suicide twice and wascommitted once.

Yet Kaylee, who first came to the attention of state child welfare authorities as an infant, was always returned to her mother.

The cycle ended when Kaylee was killed. Three days after her 12th birthday, she died after her mother hurtled through a red light at 90 miles per hour while fleeing police. She was trying to cash a stolen check. The girl was not wearing a seat-belt.

When Florida lawmakers overhauled the state’s child protection laws this session, they also took aim at the state Department of Children & Families’ sometimes ill-fated decisions to return vulnerable youngsters to drug-abusing and dangerous parents.

The child welfare bill, still awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature, gives Community Based Care groups — private organizations contracted by DCF to provide child welfare social services — a chance to raise objections if they think reunification will leave a child in danger.

“We wanted to have a role in the conversation about reunification,’’ said Kurt Kelly, who heads the Florida Coalition for Children, which represents the state’s CBCs. “Because we are providing the services, we are often the closest to the families and can contribute to the decision about whether a child can be safely reunified.’’

Over the past five years, more than two dozen children have died after either they or an older sibling were reunited with volatile, lawless or drug-using parents. The parents were shown mercy. The children weren’t.

In the most recent case, a Sanford toddler, Tariji Gordon, was killed three months after she was returned to her troubled mother, who had been stripped of custody after smothering Tariji’s twin brother. The first death was originally ruled accidental, but it appears to be under investigation again.

“The decision to reunify is similar to the decision to remove; it’s the most important decision we make in the life of a case. Sometimes we make the decision to reunify parents because they have completed the list of tasks that was given to them,’’ said DCF interim Secretary Mike Carroll. “But there is not a whole lot of analysis to determine whether the tasks resulted in a change in behavior, or mitigated the safety concerns that led us to remove the child in the first place.”

He added: “We have to get better, particularly when the case is high risk.”

The story of DCF reunifications is not as much in the numbers as the quality of some of the investigations and the decision-making that preceded them. Even when the agency takes a child away from the family — a rare occurrence — it will often return the child to his or her abuser after a parenting class or the signing of a promissory pledge.

State Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, who co-wrote the overhaul bill, said she didn’t realize the state had an issue with risky reunifications until recently, following Tariji’s death. Representatives of Central Florida private foster care agencies visited her, and expressed deep concerns about DCF’s reluctance to give them a seat at the table when decisions were made on whether to return children to their parents.

“They were telling me how many cases they had where they would recommend that a child not be reunified, yet the data and documentation was never heard in court. They would submit it to DCF, and they would not be able to make it available” to a judge, said the Republican, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. “I was horrified by what was going on.”

Tariji’s death

That conflict came into sharp focus with the death of Tariji. The 2-year-old and her surviving siblings were returned to their mother, Rachel Fryer, after two years of living in a foster home. Early on, a court-appointed guardian ad-litem in the case expressed concern about Fryer’s ability to provide for her family. Tariji was dead within three months of moving back with Fryer, who is now in jail, charged in her daughter’s death.

Fryer is accused of killing the girl, then stuffing her body in a suitcase and burying her in a shallow grave in Putnam County, 50 miles from her Sanford home. Fryer denies the allegation, saying she found Tariji unresponsive and tried to save her with CPR and asthma medication.

Less than three years earlier, Fryer suffocated Tariji’s twin, Tavont’ae, as mother and son slept together on a couch. After the 2-month-old’s death, DCF asked a judge to permanently sever Fryer’s parental rights to her four surviving children — she had surrendered her rights to two other older children in an earlier, drug-related case. After the infant’s death was ruled an accident, Tariji and the three siblings were returned to their mother in November, 2013. She died in February.

In January, the guardian — tasked with advocating for the best interest of the child — requested a hearing on Tariji and her siblings’ reunification, citing “pressing concerns.” It was never scheduled.

In a court hearing weeks before, on Dec. 9, the guardian told a judge she believed the children were content and showed Fryer affection, but she was concerned about the mother. “The children are happy to be home with their mother. There are some concerns about the mother’s stability. Her income, I believe, is based on student loans...she has been having difficulty paying rent and having funds for food in less than a month that the kids have been home,’’ the advocate said.

At the same hearing, a DCF lawyer said there were no issues related to the reunification or the children’s safety. The judge signed off on DCF’s plan to reunite Fryer, 32, permanently with her four children, but said she wanted the case to be closely monitored. A final review of the case was to be set for this month.

Read More at: miamiherald.com

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Poloncarz admits bumpy ride in Child Protective Services

AR-140529467[1]Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz Friday acknowledged that serious problems remain in Child Protective Services, with 33 disciplinary actions taken against workers over the past year, including five firings and nine suspensions.

But he said a call by two county legislators for Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer to resign is simply an effort to “scapegoat” her for problems that the county is working to fix.

Poloncarz also revealed that a CPS worker had been scheduled to visit 8-year-old Jacob Noe in his North Buffalo home on the same day he was stabbed to death, allegedly by his mother.

Poloncarz was responding to a demand made earlier in the day by two county lawmakers calling for Dankert-Maurer to resign following the latest revelation that a CPS worker was in the midst of investigating the welfare of a child who later wound up dead.

Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo and Legislator Lynne M. Dixon on Friday morning called for Dankert-Maurer’s resignation following a Buffalo News article pointing out how a CPS investigation into Jacob’s living conditions and concern over his mother’s mental health languished after a caseworker assigned to the case had been suspended earlier in an unrelated matter.

Lorigo and Dixon insisted Dankert-Maurer should resign not only because of Jacob’s death but because of how other cases were handled by CPS in which children later died at the hands of their parents of caregivers.

“As many people have, I’ve grown frustrated learning about these deaths through the media,” Lorigo said.

“The Department of Social Services is $800 million of our $1.4 billion budget, and if Commissioner Dankert-Maurer is unable to do her job, which she has shown she is unable to do so, I think it’s time for a change,” he added.

Poloncarz on Friday confirmed that the CPS worker in the case was suspended without pay after failing to meet department standards in a large number of cases prior to Jacob’s death.

He said the suspended worker’s cases were reassigned to other workers for immediate follow-up. Children assigned to the suspended worker’s caseload were visited on the first day that worker was suspended, he added, noting that on the second day of the original caseworker’s suspension, a new CPS caseworker was scheduled to visit Jacob and his mother.

“Tragically, the child was murdered by his mother in the early morning hours of the day the visit was scheduled,” Poloncarz said.

“The loss of any child’s life is a tragedy, especially one taken in a violent manner. Our focus remains on preventing similar tragedies from occurring in the future,” he said.

Jacob’s mother, Jessica L. Murphy, has been charged with second-degree murder. A relative said she suffers from bipolar disorder. Police initially said there had been no CPS investigation into Murphy, 29, who remains in the Erie County Holding Center.

David R. Addelman, Murphy’s assigned attorney, said he is paying close attention to the latest developments regarding CPS.

“This adds another layer to what is already a complicated and tragic case,” Addleman said Friday.

Meanwhile, Poloncarz on Friday said his administration is conducting a thorough review to determine if additional changes are necessary at CPS.

“Making a scapegoat of any single individual will not improve the department, nor will it better protect children from harm,” the county executive added.

Earlier Friday, Lorigo insisted it was time to replace Dankert-Maurer because of CPS workers’ apparent failure to protect children under its purview in four high-profile cases over the past three years. Lorigo said he hand-delivered a letter to Poloncarz calling for Dankert-Maurer’s resignation.

Read More at: Poloncarz admits bumpy ride in Child Protective Services


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