Abdifatah Mohamud, 10 years old, was murdered last year by his stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud. The boy had previously reported he was being abused, yet he remained in the home. The obvious questions are: How did his case fall through the cracks, and would a different response have saved the child’s life? But that information is being kept secret.
Abdifatah had called 911 a year earlier to report that he was being abused. “Please come fast,” the boy said. “It’s a matter of life and death.” It was one of two calls he made to 911 before he was brutally beaten, struck more than 70 times.
After police responded to the boy’s call in 2011, the case was referred to Erie County Child Protective Services. Abdifatah was not removed from his home and no criminal charges were filed against the stepfather. The case was referred to an alternative program designed to avoid removing children from their homes. The stepfather was thus not subjected to more intensive scrutiny.
The Buffalo News has been trying to see a document known as a “child fatality report” to see where, or if, the system broke down, leaving Abdifatah exposed to a violent abuser. But the state is refusing to divulge the information, citing the “best interests” exception of the state Freedom of Information Law.
That exception allows the state to withhold information if it is deemed that it could cause emotional or psychological harm to the dead child’s siblings. The state also refuses to release a redacted version based on a statute that blocks any release, even in part, once it has been determined that it could harm surviving children.
That policy needs to be changed. The protection of living children is clearly a compelling and legitimate state interest, but so is the public response to the murder of a child who was in the arms of a system meant to protect him. To compound that tragedy through unnecessary secrecy denies accountability and hinders action to prevent future occurrences.
There is no good reason to block publication of a redacted report, one that will appropriately protect the emotional wellbeing of Abdifatah’s siblings. Lawmakers must change the law. To acknowledge that a state program doesn’t work or that individuals failed in their tasks doesn’t subject children to harm and could, in fact, save the lives of other children.
The Freedom of Information Law exists for a good reason. When government acts in secrecy, abuses are more likely to occur because they can be covered up. It’s been said so often that it’s virtually a cliche, but when it comes to how government handles the public’s business, sunshine really is the best disinfectant. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling piece of business than how this 10-year-old boy fell through the cracks of the system and, just as important, how to prevent more from following his tragic path.