on May 29, 2013 - 7:16 PM
, updated May 30, 2013 at 12:05 AM
State investigators found failures and weaknesses in how Erie County Child Protective Services handled the complaints from Abdifatah Mohamud that he was being physically abused in the months before the 10-year-old boy was bludgeoned to death by his stepfather a year ago.
The state Office of Children and Family Services’ report determined that the county failed to “adhere to standards in determining cases eligible” for a modified program that took a less adversarial approach in cases of child abuse.
Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, after being told of the confidential report, said it was clear that the case was mishandled by the local Child Protective Services office.
“Clearly, Abdifatah’s case should not have gone to FAR,” she said, referring to the state Family Assessment Response program embraced by Erie County. “It should have been a Child Protective Services investigation.”
Child-protective workers need to be especially attuned to signs of abuse when dealing with people from different cultures, Peoples-Stokes added. Abdifatah’s mother and stepfather are natives of Somalia.
“As we become more of a community of immigrants, our social workers need to be more culturally and diversity sensitive,” Peoples-Stokes said. “We can’t approach it as if we are delivering services to traditional American families.”
Abdifatah twice called 911 on April 18, 2011, to report that his stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud, repeatedly assaulted him. The boy, known as Abdi, urged police to hurry to his family’s East Side home, saying, “Please come very fast. It’s a matter of life and death.”
After that incident, instead of handling the complaints as a typical child-abuse case, county Child Protective Services caseworkers placed the boy and his family in the less confrontational FAR program.
Child-abuse cases selected for the FAR program involve a more collaborative approach between caseworkers and families, with the goal of keeping children and parents together through counseling and other assistance.
Unlike normal child-abuse investigations, caseworkers for the FAR program do not show up at homes unannounced, so that relationships of trust can be forged. The state’s review of Abdifatah’s case, however, cited a lack of follow-up by the county.
Police who had initially investigated the boy’s 911 complaints were unable to substantiate the allegations he made against his stepfather. So an officer called the state’s child-abuse hotline in Albany to report the child’s complaints.
That led to a county child-protective investigation and a decision to refer the Mohamud family to the alternative program.
Yet several weeks after the 911 complaints, Abdifatah showed up at school with bruises on his face, and a second child-abuse investigation was conducted. Mohamud, in a jailhouse interview after the death of his stepson, told The Buffalo News that the county cleared him of harming Abdifatah and that he blamed the injuries on a bullying incident aboard a school bus.
Officials at Erie County Department of Social Services, which includes Child Protective Services, have refused to comment on either investigation or their outcomes, citing confidentiality laws protecting the privacy of families.
A year later, on April 17, 2012, the stepfather bound and gagged Abdifatah before fatally beating him 70 times on the head and upper body with a rolling pin in the basement of the family’s Guilford Street home.
About two months later, county officials reassigned the workers who had been involved in Abdifatah’s case to other duties, according to a source familiar with Child Protective Services operations.
Robert L. Deisz, director of Erie County Child Protective Services, declined to say whether workers involved in Abdifatah’s case were reassigned, but he said that one of two teams handling cases under the less adversarial FAR program was reassigned in June 2012.
The reason for the reassignment, he said, was to handle a spike in child-abuse reports that required investigations to be completed within 60 days.
The source familiar with Child Protective Services also said that there had been an internal disagreement over whether the Mohamud family’s case should have gone to the FAR program in the first place. Deisz and other Social Services officials refused to comment, but Deisz insisted that workers in the field make the final determination on how a case is handled.
After the boy’s death, state officials examined how the county determined what approach to take in helping the Mohamud family. The state’s report said the county failed to take into consideration the laws governing which cases qualify for the alternative program.
“The allegation of choking/twisting/shaking in the April 18, 2011, report is not part of the Erie County Assessment Response report criteria,” the report states.
The county also failed “to meet with service providers” assigned to assist the family.
The state report also found that the county’s case file of the Mohamud family lacked an explanation on how it determined that the family qualified for the program.
Child-fatality reports can be made public if it is determined that siblings or other surviving children in the home would not be harmed by the release of the information.
State and county officials ruled that Abdifatah’s report should remain private, though details of his death and the murder trial against his stepfather were highly publicized. Last November, the 41-year-old stepfather was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
The News obtained a copy of the “findings” portion of the report, which does not include any details about the Abdifatah’s two younger half brothers.
State lawmakers are trying to enact legislation that would make the findings portion of all fatality reports a matter of public record.
After the horrific details of Abdi’s case were made public last spring, Office of Children and Family Services officials in Albany conducted a review of 110 randomly selected child-abuse cases handled by Erie County and found deficiencies in how the county investigates child abuse:
•Child-protective workers conducted strong investigations in the first few days of receiving a case but failed to keep up the pace, creating “a lack of depth and thoroughness in the investigations” as the case progressed.
• Follow-up interviews that would have provided information about the family and the allegations were not consistently made or documented.
“There was insufficient information collected to assess ongoing risk and to make appropriate determination decisions in a number of cases,” Laura M. Velez, a deputy commissioner at Children and Family Services, stated in a letter on the review’s findings to Erie County Social Services Commissioner Carol M. Dankert-Maurer.
• Concern over a significant number of families who experienced multiple child-abuse investigations. Multiple abuse reports were made against 75 of the 110 families scrutinized by the state in the four years prior to the review. Seventeen of those families had been “re-reported to the system seven or more times in that period.”