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A trifecta of failures puts kids at risk

Public child welfare agencies, professionals and parents are to blame

By: Jill Riepenhoff, Megan Luther, and Lee Zurik

Originally Published: April 29, 2019

(InvestigateTV) – Semora Murrell was alarmed by the Facebook messages about her nephew.

“She would send him to the bathroom and make him sit for hours,” one message said.

Multiple people sent accounts to Murrell, Zayden’s aunt, that her 3-year-old nephew was being abused in his Minnesota foster home.

“She didn’t want to keep Zayden ‘cause she [couldn’t] handle him,” another person wrote.

But the concerned adults wrote the messages after the toddler was beaten so fiercely that the blows lacerated his organs. On June 7, 2017, he was found dead.

Many who knew 3-year-old Zayden Lawson saw or heard something that led them to believe he was in danger. They kept silent until it was too late. (Source: Jason Steussy for InvestigateTV)

Several adults knew tiny Zayden, a 3-year-old weighing 26 pounds, was being abused. None spoke out until he had been buried.

Nearly every person and every system that was supposed to protect Zayden failed him.

Marketa Garner Walters talks about the lack of public investment into children at risk of abuse or neglect. “The state of our children is serious,” said Walters, who is the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. “We aren’t giving them our best. Is that a failure? In my book it is.” Photo: Jon Turnipseed/InvestigateTV

An InvestigateTV examination found bureaucrats, social workers and parents failed to save the lives of children at risk. Mandatory reporters – doctors, teachers and other professionals required by law to report suspected abuse – also fell short.

An estimated 1,700 children died nationwide due to abuse and neglect, according to 2017 federal data. An untold number of them could have been saved.

“It’s a basic human dignity that we afford our kids to at least protect them from harm,” said Marketa Garner Walters, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

By some estimates, as many as half of the children who died because of abuse and neglect had a family history with a child protective services agency. These agencies had received reports of abuse and neglect in these families and knew children were at risk. But the increasing demands for CPS services, staff turnover and underfunding have stretched them too thin, child advocates said.

Many children rely on others to be their advocates – doctors, teachers, daycare providers, police. But they, too, have failed. Some are unaware they are required by law to report suspected child abuse.

Parents and guardians bear responsibility as well. They leave children in the care of abusive boyfriends or girlfriends. They leave them in hot cars or unsupervised around guns or pools. Or worse, they beat their own child to death.

Zayden’s aunt knows about this trifecta of failures.

Semora Murrell has but a few cherished possessions to remember her nephew, Zayden. She keeps his memory alive on her Justice for Zayden Facebook page, where she updates followers about the criminal cases against those who abused her nephew. Photo: Jason Steussy for InvestigateTV

She blames Minnesota’s Child Protection Services “first and foremost.”

She blames his caretakers.

And she blames her own family.

“We fell short for him in his life,” she said.

Zayden was a ward of the state, a responsibility of social services. He had physical scars. He was losing weight.

Citing privacy, Minnesota CPS declined to comment.

But Murrell believes CPS should have known the danger he was in.

“Just one look and he would’ve been saved.”

CPS dismisses hotline calls without a visit

A 4-year-old Milwaukee boy suffered an unimaginable death – his mother set him on fire.

As a baby, CPS received three hotline calls about the family, a state report about his death shows. The report did not specify the nature of those allegations or explain why caseworkers never visited his home. In CPS parlance, the calls about his family were “screened out,” meaning the agency decided there wasn’t enough information to prompt a visit.

Child maltreatment experts know the importance of these hotline calls. They are “the best predictor of a later child abuse or neglect fatality,” according to the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, a panel created by Congress to make recommendations on how to prevent maltreatment fatalities.

In its 2016 report, the child abuse commission called for states to ban screening out calls involving children under 3.

“Screening out leaves children unseen who may be at high risk for later fatality,” the commission wrote.

Indiana is believed to be the only state that now visits the home of every child 3 and younger after receiving a hotline call.

Nationally, more than 40% of calls to CPS hotlines are screened out.

Banning screened-out calls about young children is “low-hanging fruit” that all states should adopt, said Amy Harfeld, national policy director for the Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law.

But even that requires more resources, Louisiana’s Walters said.

Her state needs 20 more people to staff its child abuse hotline, the call center that fields allegations of abuse or neglect.

These hotlines, used by every state, are the front door to child protection services. But sometimes the callers make vague allegations or can’t identify a victim.

With a critical shortage of hotline workers, call takers must triage cases, Walters said.

“Hopefully we get to the worst of the worst cases,” she said. “The ones that get pushed back are the neglect cases where the children aren’t in imminent danger.”

Low pay, high turnover for children’s first line of defense

Tara Wallace works in her office filled with games and toys. As a therapist and social worker, she helps children and families in the foster care system in Kansas. Photo: Doug Brown/WIBW for InvestigateTV

Most child welfare workers face heavy caseloads, life and death decisions with little training and low pay.

Tara Wallace sees firsthand the impact on children. She’s a social worker in private practice who works with children and families in the Kansas foster care system.

One of her patients has gone through nine caseworkers in two years. The turnover forces children to retell their stories and feel abandoned by previous caseworkers.

“And every single time the child has to tell their story, they are being re-traumatized,” Wallace said. “We are perpetuating a cycle of trauma.”

In fact, statistics suggest that half of the staff at any given CPS agency turns over every year, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

“Child protection agencies are tremendously overtaxed. They are very overworked and don’t have a lot of extra manpower,” he said.

Between 2013 and 2017, at least 14 states reported to the federal government that size of their CPS workforce had declined. A dozen other states failed to fully report this information so it’s unclear if they gained or lost staff.

But in those that did lose staff, some of the losses were extreme. Connecticut and Idaho reported they had cut their staffs in half from 2013 levels.

For caseworkers in those two states, that loss resulted in almost a tripling of caseloads for staff members, federal data shows.

That means that caseworkers can’t visit with children in their care as often. They can’t meet with teachers to see how a child is doing at school or checking with doctors to ensure appointments are kept. They miss or overlook signs of abuse.

“This is a tough job. It’s emotionally hard. There’s physical rigor,” Walters said. “The work is so complex. You’re asking young, inexperienced workers to come in and make life and death decisions.”

The increasing workload leaves children in need waiting even longer for help.

In Missouri in 2013, caseworkers on average responded to an allegation within 25 hours. By 2017, the average wait time had grown to nearly 3 days.

In Delaware, children who waited nearly a week on average in 2013 were waiting more than 12 days five years later.

Arizona reported that its average response time in 2017 was 32 hours. The delay turned deadly for a 3-month-old.

On March 30, 2017, CPS received an allegation that a father was neglecting the infant and his siblings, state records show. Two days later, the baby was found dead. His father had put him to bed face down, which can cause suffocation. CPS later determined that the father was neglectful in this case.

In 2017, Arizona’s staff of 559 was half the size it was four years earlier, federal data shows.

“This nation has decided that we can cut and cut and cut and still take care of our children,” Walters said. “This is the workforce that is the most misunderstood in all of state government.”

CPS caseworkers hold high-stress jobs with low pay. Nationally, their median hourly wage in 2018 was $22.24, according the the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Legal secretaries, event planners and casino pit bosses earned more.

Walters said that in Louisiana, caseworkers with a master’s degree earn $35,000 a year. They almost could earn as much stocking shelves.

Federal funding for child welfare agencies was lower in 2016 than a decade ago, according to the most recent report by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization.

A variety of federal, state and local sources fund child welfare agencies. Money varies on several factors including the number of families a state serves to the number of programs an agency qualifies for.

In the majority of states, the biggest portion of funding for agencies comes from state and local sources, but some child welfare agencies rely heavily on federal money.

“It is quite kind of striking just how much each state varies from one another,” said Child Trends research scientist Kristina Rosinsky.

Nearly 80% of Louisiana’s funding is from the federal government compared to just 17% of Delaware’s.

Looking out for children is a legal requirement for some

Teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers and social workers are the most frequent reporters of allegations of child abuse or neglect. They serve as key safety nets for children. This chart shows which makes the most reports by age group. Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2017 Child Maltreatment Report

An Indiana doctor and nursing staff in 2017 examined a 1-month-old who was severely malnourished. They encouraged the mother to feed the baby more often but didn’t call CPS, according to news reports. Three days later, the baby died.

Babies and toddlers have few interactions with the community. They rely on their pediatricians, police officers and daycare workers to keep them safe. They are professionals who are legally required in many states to report suspected abuse or neglect.

For children between 1 and 4, medical professionals and police – called in because of parents’ domestic violence, drug abuse or other crimes – are the most important safety net.

About 80% of children who died from abuse or neglect were 3 or younger.

“It really does take an entire team. Historically, we put it on the shoulders of child protective services,” said Karla Tye, executive director of Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi.

But confusion about state laws and the fear of getting involved has discouraged some mandatory reporters from calling CPS.

“A lot of individuals don’t realize they are mandatory reporters,” Tye said. “We have seen a huge gap on what professionals are being taught at the college level.”

The failure to report can have consequences.

In 2015, Florida officials arrested three Tallahassee teachers on a felony charge for not reporting suspected child abuse to the Florida Department of Children and Family Services.

A 12-year-old girl told the teachers she was being sexually abused. The teachers met with the girl’s family to draw up a safety plan to prevent future abuse. But the plan kept the girl in the same house with her abuser, who continued to sexually assault her, according to prosecutors. The teachers did not report the abuse to the state, according to InvestigateTV affiliate WCTV.

Tallahassee teachers Kathleen McGlynn, left, Sharon McQueen, middle, and Sunshine Jacobs, right, each were placed on probation for failing to report in 2015 a child sex abuse case to the Florida Department of Children and Family Services. McGlynn and McQueen pleaded no contest. Jacobs was found guilty after a trial. Photos: WCTV and Leon County Sheriff’s Office

Two of the teachers, Kathleen McGlynn and Sharon McQueen, pleaded no contest to failing to report child abuse and were placed on probation for three years. Sunshine Jacobs was found guilty and sentenced to two years probation.

At Jacobs’ trial, Leon County Prosecutor Lorena Bueno said there were no winners in the case; “99.9% of teachers are never going to make a mistake like this because people who get into the teaching business are people who love and care about children,” Bueno said in 2015. “This is a very rare incident that happened. So I just hope everyone remains vigilant and aware of their duties.”

While teachers are mandatory reporters in every state, there’s no national standard for who is a mandatory reporter, how they should be trained or how they should be protected legally if they report an allegation.

In 2016, the child abuse commission wrote that federal laws need to address mandatory reporters and require training.

But that hasn’t happened. Congress currently is reviewing the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, a broad-based 45-year-old law that addresses how states and the federal government address maltreatment.

A nationwide survey of mandatory reporters in 2015 found that nearly two-thirds of them believed the child abuse reporting process needed improvement, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Zayden’s babysitter Laronna Bourne’s pleaded guilty in April to one count of malicious punishment of a child in Minnesota. She is scheduled for sentencing in August. Photo: Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office

Nearly half also said they hesitated to report because of previous poor experiences with CPS. Half worried that reporting would not help the child and might damage their relationship with the family.

In 2017, medical professionals accounted for the largest percentage of maltreatment reports involving infants and babies. But doctors and nurses sometimes balk at calling CPS for fear that parents won’t return for the child’s next appointment.

Bad parental decisions can leave children at risk

An Ohio toddler lived just two months after his mother’s boyfriend was released from prison.

Andre Moore had a long history of domestic violence and assault against the boy’s mother, Samone Boykins, and other women. Yet in the fall of 2017, the mother allowed him to move in with her and her son and two daughters.

The siblings later told police that everyone in that house – including their mother – had witnessed Moore being mean and aggressive toward the boy.

Andre Moore and Samone Boykins faced charges after Boykins’ son died in November 2017. Moore was sentenced earlier this year to 20 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors dismissed a charge of child endangering against Boykins. Photos: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and WOIO

But the mother still trusted Moore and left him alone with her 2-year-old.

On Nov. 17, Moore put the boy into a bathtub, with a water temperature of 115 degrees, according to police reports.

When police arrived after receiving Moore’s 911 call about an unresponsive child, they found the boy in the living room with his skin peeling off.

He died three days later. In January, Moore pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 20 years in prison – just 14 months after he was released from his last stint behind bars.

The case prompted Lorain County Children’s Services to launch an awareness campaign, “Choose Your Partner Carefully.”
Child advocates say that young children can be especially at risk around a parents’ girlfriends or boyfriends. They don’t have a biological attachment to the child and typical baby behavior – crying, soiled diapers or tantrums – can be overwhelming.

In 2017, Moore was one of six significant others charged in connection with a child abuse death in Ohio. A total of 34 children were homicide victims who died because of abuse and neglect that year, death records show.

Nationally, parents’ paramours were involved in more than one out of every 10 child maltreatment fatalities.

“People always say children fall through the cracks. I don’t believe that,” Walters said. “They fall through our hands. It’s on us as a community.”

A boyfriend also abused Zayden, the Minnesota toddler.

Charles Homich and Zayden’s foster mother Zeporia Fortenberry were charged in the boy’s death. Homich, Fortenberry’s live-in boyfriend, pleaded guilty in April to second-degree murder and is awaiting sentencing. Fortenberry is scheduled to go on trial later this year. Photos: Dakota County Sheriff’s Office

At the time of his death, he weighed just 26 pounds and wore clothes meant for a 2-year-old – a size still too big for him.

Zayden’s biological mother suffered from mental illness leaving her unable to care for the toddler and his younger brother. The state placed the boys with foster mother Zeporia Fortenberry, a relative who had two children of her own.

Fortenberry worked nights and left her boyfriend Charles Homich to care for the four children.

It’s unknown if CPS workers checked on Zayden. In Minnesota, like many other states, that information is not public, protected by strong legislation passed by state lawmakers.

When Zayden, who was potty training, would soil his diapers, Homich beat him – and his foster mother knew.

In a text message exchange between the two in April, Fortenberry reminded Homich that Zayden was a foster child. “Tear the bottom of his feet up. . . if anything,” she texted.

Zayden’s foster mother sent the boy to a babysitter to keep him away from her abusive boyfriend, court records show. But Laronna Bourne beat him, too. She pleaded guilty to one count of malicious punishment of a child.

Three days before his death, Homich texted that Zayden soiled his diaper again.

Fortenberry responded, “I’m so sick of him did u whoop his a**? I just don’t know what else to do with that kid”

Homich texted, “Beat the s*** out of them feet”

Fortenberry wrote, “Good…lil f****r”

The night Zayden was fatally beaten, Fortenberry left the children with Homich and went to work.

In April, Homich pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and will be sentenced this summer. Fortenberry’s trial is scheduled for later this year.

Murrell has kept a few of Zayden’s belongings — his gray sweatpants with a stain from when they went out for ice cream and his blanket decorated with baseballs and footballs.

They still smell like him.

“It’s all we have left of him. That’s it.”

Semora Murrell sniffs Zayden’s blanket. It still smells of him even though almost two years have passed since he was beaten to death. Photo: Jason Steussy for InvestigateTV

Graphics and illustrations by Jamie Grey.

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