Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Public Scrutiny

California falls short in examining deaths of children


A law designed to allow public scrutiny of fatal abuse and neglect is unevenly enforced and leaves many unaccounted for.,0,6734205.story

By Kim Christensen and Garrett Therolf


November 4, 2009 | 6:45 p.m.

A new law aimed at exposing child deaths to public scrutiny has given Californians their most complete view yet of the toll of abuse and neglect but falls short of legislators’ intent and leaves many fatalities uncounted, according to interviews and The Times’ review of previously confidential records.

Known as Senate Bill 39, the 2008 law was largely intended to highlight systemic flaws in hopes of preventing other children’s deaths. More than a year after it took effect, however, it has shed limited light on how — and how many — children die of abuse and neglect.

“We do not know how many children have died in California,” said William L. Grimm, senior attorney for the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, one of SB 39’s backers. “We did not know five years ago, and we don’t know today.”

The problem, in part, is that counties interpret the law’s requirements differently. Their views vary on what constitutes abuse or neglect and on what information is subject to disclosure. And in at least one county, Los Angeles, deaths appear to have been mistakenly overlooked.

The Times early this year filed public records requests with all 58 counties, and they in turn reported a total of 109 child deaths in 2008 caused by abuse or neglect. Some pending cases were later substantiated, bringing the statewide total to 114, according to records obtained from the state Department of Social Services.

Los Angeles County, by far the largest with more than 10 million residents, reported 32 such deaths, but some other large counties noted far fewer. For instance, Alameda County, the state’s seventh-largest with a population of 1.5 million, reported one — an 18-month-old Hayward boy fatally scalded in a bathtub; his mother’s boyfriend has been charged.

Twenty-eight other counties — nearly half — reported no deaths from abuse or neglect.

One of the law’s sponsors, Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), said it has brought greater transparency to the child-welfare system, but she lamented that there still is a “lack of uniformity” in how the counties have responded. “Counties need to be given a clear and concise directive,” she said. “Until we can say we have done everything possible to save every child from injury or tragic death, we have more work to do.”


Beaten, shaken, shot or simply allowed to starve, scores of California children die each year from abuse and neglect. Until last year, virtually all information about these deaths was kept from public view, ostensibly to protect the privacy of children and their families.

But that secrecy also shielded child welfare officials and their sometimes lethal mistakes from public scrutiny, children’s advocates argued. At their urging, state lawmakers mandated the release of previously sealed records, including those detailing dead children’s prior contacts with child welfare agencies.

The results have shed some light on the problem — showing, for instance, that 14 deaths occurred last year among children whose families had been at one time investigated by Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services.

It is impossible to know how many deaths were not counted that should have been. But in its review The Times found some clear instances of underreporting.

The Los Angeles County children’s services department, for example, said in August that it had recorded four child deaths this year that resulted from abuse or neglect. Internal records obtained by The Times showed there actually had been nine.

Among those the county had not disclosed as abuse and neglect were the deaths of a 10-year-old boy killed in a June traffic accident when he and two siblings were thrown from a van that had no rear seats and that of a 3-month old boy who died in a motel room where his parents left him alone for 12 hours.

When a reporter raised the discrepancy with the department, Director Trish Ploehn acknowledged the additional deaths and pledged to institute “internal controls” to avoid such oversights.

Grimm, of the Oakland-based youth law center, which has collected death records from the 15 largest counties, said the totals fall short of what he would have expected.

“Our own experience making requests in counties across the state so far suggests that we are not getting a complete picture of the children who have died as the result of abuse or neglect,” Grimm said.

Gail Steele, an Alameda County supervisor who has pushed for full disclosure of child deaths, said she thinks many abuse and neglect fatalities are not reported. Her office tracks all children’s deaths in that county and reviews coroner’s files to make its own assessments.

“My thing is you can’t figure out how to prevent deaths or fix things if you don’t know what happened,” she said.

Often the problem is varying interpretations of what constitutes abuse and neglect.

Grimm cited the example of a small child who is killed in an auto accident because the intoxicated parent who was driving had not placed him in a car seat. Although that death would fit most people’s definition of neglect, he said, some child welfare officials might deem it an accident, especially if the coroner did.

“The official cause might be accidental, but if you look more closely at it you say, ‘My god, that’s definitely neglect’ and it should be labeled as a neglect death,” Grimm said.

Bethany Christman, who oversees children’s services in Kern County, said such latitude in interpreting the law could help explain why her county, with a population of about 820,000, reported nine deaths last year while much larger counties reported far fewer.

“If law enforcement or the coroner don’t say anything [about abuse or neglect], some counties won’t either,” she said.

In passing the law in 2007, legislators said they wanted to bring to light not only child deaths but also the details of the young victims’ experiences with child welfare officials.

“Without accurate and complete information about the circumstances leading to the child’s death, public debate is stymied and the reforms, if adopted at all, may do little to prevent further tragedies,” wrote the bill’s sponsors.

Even when a death is disclosed as required, California law allows most records to remain closed if prosecutors or families’ attorneys object to their release. Those that are made public often are so heavily redacted of names and other identifying information that it’s impossible to decipher what happened — or even who died.

Grimm and others complained in a March 13 letter to the California Department of Social Services that recently issued regulations made it hard for counties to determine what should be released or redacted. They also objected to the department’s decision to exclude deaths caused by people who were not in a custodial role, including boyfriends, extended family members and family friends.

“The regulations are a tortured reading to say the least,” said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., who also signed the letter. “The law is pretty explicit that all abuse or neglect deaths must be released.”

Officials with the California Department of Social Services said in an interview that they were revising the guidelines and would consider the letter writers’ criticisms.

Jan Viss, who heads the Child and Family Services Division in Stanislaus County, which reported that five children died from abuse or neglect last year, said the law is plain enough already.

“We are very clear about what we are supposed to report and we take that responsibility very seriously,” she said, adding that her county thoroughly reviewed child deaths even before the law took effect.

“Even one death is a tragedy,” Viss said. “All we can do is strive to do better for these kids in the future.”

Why was this woman allowed to adopt a child after a foster child had already died in her care?





Ex-Bakersfield woman faces murder charge

BY STEVE E. SWENSON, Californian staff writer

A former Bakersfield foster mother once arrested on charges of willful child cruelty in Kern County is now facing murder charges in Sacramento County in a child’s death.

Sabrina Banks, 41, formerly known as Sabrina Stafford, was arrested by Bakersfield police in September 2003 after foster child Angelic Clary, 3 months old, was found dead in her home on Castleford Street.

Despite an extensive investigation, no charges were ever filed against her in Angelic’s death.

Deputy District Attorney Scott Spielman said there was no conclusive medical evidence that the infant’s death was either due to abuse or neglect.

He last reviewed the evidence in March 2004.

The Kern County coroner’s office ruled the infant’s death was either natural or accidental. The infant likely breathed in something, possibly vomit, and choked, the coroner’s office found.

The child’s twin sister, Tiffany, was also found in the foster home near Panama Lane and Wible Road with a 104.8-degree fever.

Paramedics took the surviving sister to Memorial Hospital where doctors found her to be hungry, dehydrated, had low sodium in her blood and barbiturates in her systems.

Barbiturates are depressants, normally used as a sleeping aid.

Tiffany was removed from Stafford’s care.

The mother of the twins, Ruth Rodriguez, filed a lawsuit against Kern County, but it was dismissed in January 2005.

Stafford, as she was known then, lost her foster license shortly after Angelic’s death. She reportedly had ties to Visalia.

The Sacramento County case stems from the May 2, 2008, death of 3-year-old Lavender Banks, the adopted daughter of the woman now known as Sabrina Banks.

Sacramento County coroners determined that Lavender died from asphyxia and several blunt force injuries, the Sacramento Bee reported.

The Elk Grove Police Department reported last month that an investigation showed Banks was responsible for the child’s death, and a murder warrant was issued for her.

Banks was arrested Aug. 5 in Visalia.

Banks made news over the adoption of Lavender because Chinese central authorities had refused to approve the adoption on the grounds that Banks was African American.

Many adoptive parents rallied behind Banks and China authorities reversed their stand and approved the adoption, news reports say.

Before the 2003 death of Angelic in Bakersfield, two complaints were filed with Child Protective Services against Stafford.

The first, in January 2002, alleged Stafford hit one of her children on the back and thighs, leaving marks.

Investigators concluded no license violations were committed, CPS documents said.

The second was in May 2002, alleging Stafford burned a 3-year-old child on the hip with a hot spoon.

Stafford denied anything like that ever happened. Her license was voluntarily withdrawn when she went to Visalia, but it was restored in Kern County in early 2003.


Former Foster Mom Arrested In Connection With Child’s Death

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A former Kern County foster mother who was once suspected in the death of a foster baby has been arrested on suspicion of murdering her adoptive child near Sacramento.

Sabrina Banks, formerly known as Sabrina Stafford was arrested in Visalia for the May 2008 death of her 3-year-old adopted daughter, Lavender Banks.

Elk Grove police said Banks called 911 and said the child wasn’t breathing.

Paramedics were unable to resuscitate her.

Sacramento County’s Coroner said Lavender died from asphyxia by smothering and multiple blunt force injuries.

In 2003, Banks was arrested in southwest Bakersfield after she called 911 to say one of the twin babies she was fostering wasn’t breathing.

The baby, 3-month-old Angelic, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The other twin, Tiffany, was taken to a nearby hospital with a temperature of 104 degrees, and was found to be malnourished and dehydrated, police said.

Banks was arrested and charged with two counts of felony willful child neglect.

Deputy district attorney Scott Spielman said, during that time, the county forensic pediatrician looked at the toxicology findings and the results were inconclusive as to whether Banks was responsible.

All charges were dropped.

Spielman said the DA is now going to forward the case back to the Bakersfield Police Department and contact police in Elk Grove to see if they can assist each other in their cases, and possibly re-file charges in Kern County for Angelic’s death.




Sept. 18, 2003:


CPS Feeling Heat After Baby Dies In Foster Mother’s Care


Stafford Facing Willful Child Neglect

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The death of 3-month-old Angelic Clary has led to the arrest of her foster mother, Sabrina Stafford, KERO reported. All eyes are also on the foster care system in Kern County.

Kern County Child Protective Services has faced criticism before — most recently in a grand jury report that said the system was failing to adequately inspect foster homes.

But CPS is quick to defend the system, saying it is exceeding the state standards by making quarterly visits to foster homes.

CPS Director Beverley Beasley Johnson said when the twins — Angelic and Tiffany — were placed in Stafford’s care a few months ago, the home met CPS requirements.

Stafford, 36, was arrested after police found one of the twins dead and another suffering from a 104.8-degree fever.

According to Bakersfield police detective Mary Degeare, the surviving twin had barbiturates in her system. Degeare said the coroner also found evidence of neglect on the dead baby’s body.

“There were multiple insect bites (on the baby),” Degeare said.

Police said they have found no reason to believe CPS failed Angelic, the dead baby.

Stafford is expected to be arraigned in court Friday on two counts of willful child neglect.

The investigation into Angelic’s death is continuing, KERO reported.

The surviving twin, Tiffany, is in good condition at Memorial Hospital.


Sept. 19, 2003:


Foster Parents Blame Media For Negative Image


Lack Of Foster Families Is Crisis In Kern County

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — A foster mother arrested Tuesday on charges stemming from the death of a baby was released Friday from police custody.

Police said they are awaiting toxicology reports on the child’s death to decide whether Sabrina Stafford should be charged with willful child neglect. Police do not know when the toxicology reports will be finished, KERO reported.

Police found one of Stafford’s foster children dead in her home Sunday morning. Another child was found with a temperature of nearly 105 degrees — she also appeared to be dehydrated.

Other foster parents said it is extremely rare for substandard parents to be allowed to foster children.

Jennifer Coffman has fostered about 16 children in the last four years. She now has three foster children. Coffman is one of the 408 foster families that support 3,000 foster children in Kern County. She said the problem is not the administration of child welfare services, but the foster family crisis.

“I think they are doing what they can with what they (have),” Coffman said.

Bobbie Rufus, a foster mother for 14 years, said there are several reasons for the shortage of foster parents. She said foster parents are not offered childcare, many of the children have behavorial problems and the media puts negative attention on the foster-care system.

“When something happens, there is an outcry in the community. Where’s the community when they need homes?” Rufus said.

There are countless success stories that are never reported, according to KERO.

Henry, a child Rufus raised since he was a baby, had severe emotional problems and was severely malnourished. Today, at the age of 16, Henry is a varsity football play at Liberty High School with a grade-point average of 3.5 and is involved in a host of school activities.

As for Coffman’s children, her home is spotless, and her children appear to be happy, playful and well-adjusted.

Foster parents said they are hoping more people in the community will reach out, so there will be more successes stories, and fewer children who currently don’t have a chance.

Child welfare officials said they have requested legislation that will provide day care for working foster parents.

























Report offers glimpse into tragic case


SERNA: Mother says she’s trying to straighten out life

BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer

Gina Serna’s family was referred to Kern County Child Protective Services at least three times on charges of neglect before her son Guillermo Alvarez died in June, his body battered and his spleen ruptured by physical abuse.

Now Serna says she is struggling to build a stable life for her four remaining children.

And Child Protective Services is struggling to understand Guillermo’s death and gaps in the service he and his four siblings received from their social worker.

Reports released by the Kern County Department of Human Services this week under new requirements of Senate Bill 39 give a glimpse into how CPS handles cases like Serna’s.

Department Director Pat Cheadle said mistakes were made during a January investigation into allegations of neglect reported against Serna.

The social worker assigned to the case confirmed neglect, Cheadle said, and confirmed that Serna had removed the children from the situation.

But Cheadle said the social worker should have visited the family’s new home on Tangerine Street, should have followed procedures for drug-testing Serna and should have labeled the child neglect case against Serna “substantiated” rather than giving it the less serious “inconclusive” label, Cheadle said.

The worker failed to do those three things, she said.

“I have to say that we should have gone out in January and assured that that home was appropriate. Services could have been warranted,” Cheadle said.

Would Guillermo still be alive if the home had been checked? There is no way to know, Cheadle said.

The reports released by CPS this week show only two referrals — because the agency may only release information about referrals tied to Guillermo, not Serna’s other children.

Serna said there was another case, before Guillermo was born, when she couldn’t pay a power bill. Her power was cut and CPS was called.

Her children were taken away once before, in October 2007.

At that time social workers confirmed that Serna was using methamphetamine regularly and leaving her children with friends and family members for extended periods of time without telling people how to contact her. That neglect was enough to remove the five children from their mother’s care.

Allegations that she was a prostitute in 2007 were not verified in reports released this week.

“I never was a prostitute,” Serna said.

But Serna said she was struggling with drugs and couldn’t care for her children.

“Since I wasn’t stable, I left them with a lady,” she said.

The children were eventually released to Serna’s mother. Child Protective Services closed its case and ended contacts with the family — something Cheadle said the agency was required to do by law.

Serna’s mother later returned her children to her.

Serna said that since 2007 she’s stopped taking drugs, gotten a job and tried to get her life on the right track.

Cheadle said her department had no indication there was potential for the situation on Tangerine Street to turn deadly.

Social workers, she said, never found any evidence that Serna’s children were at risk for the kind of violent physical abuse that killed Guillermo.

Exactly what happened in late June is still not clear from the reports released this week.

Kern County Sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors have accused Serna’s then-boyfriend, Joshuae Preston, 28, of killing the child.

Preston was charged with the crime, but charges were dropped on Aug. 21 and he was released.

Deputy District Attorney David Zulfa said last week he expects the charges to be filed again at a later date.

In the meantime, Serna’s four remaining children are still in county custody. She must work to earn the right to care for them again.

“Mom is supposed to protect the children and it would appear, at the time (in June), that the mother had left the children with a caregiver who was not appropriate,” Cheadle said.

Serna said she’s focused on the future.

“I’m still working. I’ve got another house,” she said. “I have food in my house. As soon as I have my have my kids back I’m going back to school.”

She tries not to focus on the public spotlight her son’s death has cast on her private life.

“I messed up in the past. The best thing I can do is move forward,” she said.

17 News Investigation: Documents show prior neglect

A 17 News investigation has obtained disturbing documents from the Kern County Department of Human Services. The documents show that a 2-year-old boy, who was murdered in June, was likely in danger as far back as 2007.

Guillermo Alvarez died June 22nd from blunt force trauma, but the records showing neglect go back to 2007. “In 2007 the case came to our attention because there were some allegations against the mom in terms of her ability to care for the child. And those allegations involved drug use and prostitution.” said Pat Cheadle, the Kern County Department of Human Services Director. CPS investigated and found not only was Gina Serna using meth, she wasn’t sufficiently protecting her kids.

Authorities say because of that, the kids were taken away and given to their maternal grandmother. “When that happens, under regulations, our department steps out of the lives of that family,” said Cheadle. “If there are no more referrals, CPS officials don’t monitor the family. And in this case that meant, sooner or later the children, including Guillermo Alvarez, were back in the care of their mother. Grandmother at some point made a decision that mom was okay.”

More than a year later, CPS received another report that the kids were in danger. CPS workers discovered the home where the kids were living had no power. That’s when a “risk assessment” form was completed, showing the risk for the children as high and recommending a new case be launched. But the family couldn’t be found right away.

The social worker did eventually locate Serna and her children. They came in for an interview and CPS determined the kids weren’t in danger. However officials say the case shouldn’t have stopped there. The family’s current home should have been inspected, but because of error on the part of the social worker, it wasn’t. The referral was also mistakenly logged as unsubstantiated.

“We have many referrals with many families that we substantiate, but the children don’t leave the home,” said Department of Human Services Assistant Director Bethany Christman. If the referral had been marked as substantiated or the social worker had checked the home, CPS officials say the kids wouldn’t have necessarily been taken away, but they would have been monitored more closely. “There would have certainly been an offering of some sort of services. Whether that would have been voluntary services or DR services, there certainly would have been an offer,” said Christman. And maybe, just maybe, 2 year-old Guillermo Alvarez would be alive today.

Serna’s live-in boyfriend at the time of the murder, Joshuae Preston, was arrested for Guillermo’s murder, but was recently released and charges dropped.

Office of the Child Advocate stops publishing reports

By JOHN FROONJIAN Special Projects Writer, 609-272-7273 Posted: Monday, August 3, 2009

Eileen Bennett traveled from Cumberland County to Trenton one late-summer day in 2007 for a difficult meeting. She was to hear what the state might have done to prevent her stepdaughter, Wendy, and two young grandchildren from being murdered by Wendy’s husband.

Bennett expected a whitewash.

“My expectations were low,” Bennett, 55, of Commercial Township, said last week. She doubted one state agency would criticize another.

But she was amazed.

E. Susan Hodgson, who was the state child advocate at the time, laid out missteps by the state Division of Youth and Family Services in unsparing detail. DYFS failed in its case handling, her report said, and failed to protect the family. To Bennett, one line validated everything the family had claimed about the shotgun homicides of her 12-year-old grandson and 7-year-old granddaughter: “Scott M. Jr. and Melanie M.’s tragic deaths were possibly preventable.”

“I was shocked at how brutally honest they were about DYFS’ shortcomings,” Bennett said. “We figured this was a new era for DYFS, that other children would be protected because DYFS would have to redo its practices.”

That era is about to end.

The state has quietly decided to stop publishing child-fatality reports such as the one that held DYFS accountable in the Bennett case and in 34 other child deaths since 2003. The Child Advocate Office did not formally announce the change, but confirmed it in a Star-Ledger report last week.

Under the new program, the advocate’s office will work with an existing state review board to analyze cases in which DYFS-supervised children die or are seriously injured because of abuse or neglect, spokeswoman Nancy Parello said in a telephone interview Tuesday. The advocate, the review board and the state Department of Children and Families, which runs DYFS, will report annually on system-wide problems and recommend changes.

But the advocate’s office now will keep secret what actions DYFS took in specific cases and whether the agency did anything wrong. The public no longer will have access to that information.

Children and Families spokeswoman Kate Bernyk said DYFS still will disclose whether it provided services in child fatality cases and will document the extent of its involvement. But the advocate’s reports had provided much greater detail than the information DYFS is required by law to release. And DYFS does not provide a critical review of itself.

New Jersey established the advocate’s office in 2003 after the murder of 7-year-old Faheem Williams, of Newark, shocked and mobilized the state. The boy’s beaten and mummified body was found in the closet of a relative. A public outcry spurred reforms. The first child advocate, Kevin Ryan, worked to expose agency lapses in a number of tragic cases.

Parello says the office also was created to address a range of issues affecting child safety, including drowning and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She said the office decided to re-evaluate its mission after Hodgson resigned as advocate last year.

“Our job is to identify systemic issues, not to provide the public with the details of every single case,” Parello said.

Activists say they fear the loss of public scrutiny will jeopardize improvements New Jersey has made in child welfare since establishing the advocate’s office and agreeing to have federal officials monitor the system as part of a lawsuit settlement.

“We’re back to square one,” Bennett said. “The bureaucracy wins again.”

State Sen. Diane Allen, R-Burlington, Camden, said the public cannot hold DYFS accountable if it doesn’t know what’s going on. She echoed a sentiment expressed by others: “We don’t solve the problems of child abuse and neglect with less information.”

Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said policy should not be driven by the relatively few extreme cases resulting in death. He said regular reviews of randomly selected DYFS cases would reveal more about how DYFS works than studying “the horror stories” – concentrating on deaths distorts the agency’s practices like a “funhouse mirror.”

But he said providing no information could be worse. The agency must be publicly accountable in tragic cases, Wexler said.

State officials countered that they still will be held accountable. Parello said experts from different fields will evaluate DYFS’ performance as part of the annual report done with the Child Fatality and Near-Fatality Review Board.

“There’s accountability for everyone involved with children,” she said, adding: “We see this as going in a positive direction.”

Advocates say that if DYFS is internally accountable only to government officials, the public is left out.

“We all have to be watchdogs,” Allen said. “Government isn’t perfect. We need to hold the feet of those in charge to the fire.”

Cecelia Zalkind, director of the Association for Children of New Jersey, said that “Basically, they’re saying, ‘Trust us.'” She added: “And past experience shows that’s not good enough.”

For Bennett, who lost her stepdaughter and two grandchildren, the change is a “giant step” backward. “Everything we thought that was good that had come out of this (ordeal), we feel was for naught.”

Bennett, who formerly worked for The Press of Atlantic City as a bureau chief, copy editor and reporter, said she was stunned when she read that the state no longer would publish performance analyses in child-fatality cases. The advocate report on the case involving Bennett’s family – which settled a lawsuit against DYFS for $750,000 – is a prime example of the kind of accountability that will be missed.

DYFS was involved with the family before the murders.

PDF Fatality Report: New Jersey

In mid-2004, another Bennett grandchild, Amanda Bennett, then 16, charged Wendy’s husband, Scott McCarter, with sexually abusing her when she was 13. McCarter was charged in July 2004 with six counts of aggravated sexual assault against Amanda and her best friend.

DYFS got involved. McCarter, who was initially jailed and then living out of the family’s Millville home, was ordered not to have contact with Amanda and Scott and Melanie, until services and treatment were completed. But DYFS ignored complaints that McCarter had violated orders to stay away from Amanda and her younger siblings. Amanda moved out.

Wendy initially supported Amanda. But within months, she wanted to reunite the family. Police told DYFS Wendy pressured Amanda to drop the charges.

But DYFS did not even visit between Aug. 17 and Oct. 6, 2004, the report said. Then, workers discovered McCarter had moved back in, and Amanda had moved out to live with her paternal grandmother. The report found no evidence that two DYFS workers expressed any concern about McCarter violating the case plan. Nor did they act to remove Amanda’s younger siblings from the home. The report noted it is “unlikely” that a sexual abuser would limit abuse to only one child.

DYFS did not insist McCarter move out until Dec. 30, 2004. DYFS workers were supposed to visit the home every two weeks in 2005. But only eight visits occurred. During one, workers discovered McCarter was spending unsupervised time with the children in violation of the case plan.

No visits were recorded in 2006, the report said. McCarter’s sexual assault trial began in mid-May. On May 25, 2006, on a day he was supposed to testify, McCarter, 40, entered the family’s Millville home and shotgunned to death Wendy, 35, and their two children, Scott and Melanie. They died while they slept in their beds. McCarter then turned the weapon on himself.

The child advocate’s report documented case-management problems in detail, including a “fundamental flaw” in the DYFS case plan that allowed an accused sexual molester access to the children during the day, even though Amanda and her friend had said McCarter abused them during daytime hours.

State officials have said one reason for discontinuing its public case reviews is to protect surviving family members. But Zalkind said those families often want to know how the system failed.

Bennett said that it hurts every time their story is retold. But she said she believes the public accountability keeps the system honest and directly helps save other children in dangerous situations.

“Every time our case is mentioned, it’s a new trauma for Amanda and us,” she said. “But you weigh that against improving the system and saving the life of a child.

“We want to see our children in New Jersey safe,” she said.

A recent case that could be affected by the state’s change in practice involves the April 22 murder of a 2-year-old boy in Woodbine, Cape May County. Caden Rivera, who had cerebral palsy, died from blunt-force trauma to his abdomen, authorities said. His mother’s boyfriend, Damien Garcia Rodriguez, 31, of Wildwood was charged with aggravated manslaughter and awaits trial in the Cape May County Jail.

Caden’s estranged father, Juan Rivera-Perez, 30, of Wildwood had claimed in a complaint to DYFS a month before the murder that the child was being abused.

DYFS released a document showing that DYFS acted on the tip and had investigated the mother, Jennifer Bowen, in the past on allegations of abuse, neglect and substance abuse. Three of her children were removed from her care and placed with relatives in April 2000, the document said. DYFS found no evidence of alleged substance abuse in March 2007, when Bowen was pregnant with Caden, it said.

But the document provides no details of DYFS’ activities in the month leading up to Caden’s death, other than that the last contact with the child was made March 25, six days after it received a complaint.

Did DYFS workers follow proper procedures? Did they interview the accused murderer? Did they find evidence of abuse or neglect? These are the kinds of questions the Child Advocate Office had asked – and publicly answered – until now.

Wexler, of the national reform group, advocates a bold approach to public accountability in child welfare.

“What’s really needed is a ‘rebuttable presumption’ of total openness,” Wexler said. “All court hearings should be open. Almost all records should be open – not just in fatality cases, but in every case.”

Seventeen states, including Florida and New York, have opened proceedings and some records to the public. As a result, he said, the public understands more about the system’s workings, and not just fatality cases. Accountability has improved, Wexler said.

“You can’t fix a government system with one designated government watchdog, be it (the child advocate) or a review board,” he said. “We all have to be the watchdogs, so we all have to have the information.”

E-mail John Froonjian:

Child Protective Services: Who’s holding them accountable?

Last Update: 7/01 8:02 pm


Child abuse investigations in Kern County have risen nearly 20 percent within the last year. CPS workers are supposed to protect the children behind those numbers, but are they doing a good job, who’s holding them accountable, and are they open to public scrutiny?

When a child is the victim of abuse or neglect, CPS usually will not comment on the case. Officials say state law doesn’t allow them to tell the public if they’ve been out to the home before or if the child was ever placed in foster care.

You may remember the case of little Angelo Mendoza, Jr. Police say his father bit out one of his eyes and nearly blinded the boy.

“I would hear his dad threatening him and running in the house. And you could hear the screaming and stuff like that,” neighbor Misti Gill said.

When 17News covered the story, neighbors told us they suspected neglect but didn’t think calling CPS would make a difference.

“About a week before that something happened back there and he was yelling and screaming at the kid. And I thought, he’s screaming pretty bad at him,” Briseno said.

Just last week another child abuse case, 2-year-old Guillermo Alvarez died after police say he was beaten by his mother’s boyfriend.

“The few times that I got involved was when I saw the kids playing in the yard…I would tell them to get back in the house,” neighbor Pedro Hernandez said.

Two years ago Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 39. When investigators suspect a child died because of abuse or neglect, the bill allows CPS workers to share basic information like the child’s age, where, and when the child died.

But even with this law in place, CPS usually tells the public and the media it can’t discuss details surrounding its investigation because of privacy laws.

“As many times as people say that we are hiding, at the same we are saying that we are unable to defend ourselves. We are unable to share the work that so many of this county’s social workers do day in and day out,” assistant director of CPS Bethany Christman.

Christman agrees with the state’s privacy laws and says information about the type of abuse some children are forced to endure should not be released to the public. But Christman wishes CPS officials could tell taxpayers what they did to prevent a death or help a child.

“If we have one death a year, two deaths a year, five deaths a year, those are all too many and we should not tolerate that in our community. At the same time, when we go in and extract children and take the work necessary to remove them from families, those are looked at as saves and no one talks about that,” Christman said.

In the month of March, CPS workers say they investigated about 1,600 child abuse tips from the community. So although there is little transparency and they usually can’t discuss the work they do, CPS officials are asking the community to simply trust them. If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, case workers say you may never know it but you could be helping them build a case and you may save a child’s life.

If you suspect a child is being abused, you should report it right away. You can call the Child Abuse Hotline at 631-6011. The hotline is answered 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. But if you feel a child’s life is in immediate danger, you should call 9-1-1.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 157 other followers

%d bloggers like this: