The state is refusing to release a “fatality report” that could shed light on how child-protection workers handled the case of a 10-year-old Buffalo boy who was bludgeoned to death by his stepfather April 17, 2012, a year after the boy called 911 to report he was being abused.
“Please come fast,” Abdifatah “Abdi” Mohamud, then 9, pleaded with the 911 operator, according to a transcript of the call from April 18, 2011. “It’s a matter of life-and-death.”
The police responded to that call, one of two calls the boy made to 911, and then referred the case to Erie County Child Protective Services.
But Abdifatah was not removed from the home, and no criminal charges were filed against his stepfather. Instead, the case was referred to an alternative program the state had initiated, aimed at avoiding the removal of children from their homes, according to sources familiar with the boy’s case.
That program spared the stepfather, as well, from facing the possibility of more intensive scrutiny in Erie County Family Court.
Then, almost a year to the day after the boy’s 911 calls, Abdifatah’s mother returned home from her janitorial job to report that her son was missing.
Police officers soon found a grisly scene in the basement of the family’s Guilford Street home: the battered body of the boy, bound and gagged.
He had been beaten with a rolling pin more than 70 times. Brain tissue was exposed, and an autopsy later revealed he had been hit so violently his skull was detached from his spine.
The stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud, then 40, who worked as a private agency security guard at The Buffalo News, admitted to detectives that he had beaten the boy, saying the boy had not done his homework. He was later convicted of second-degree murder and is serving a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
The News has been seeking to find out how Abdifatah’s case fell through the cracks and whether child-protection workers could have done something to prevent the boy’s death. Such information typically is contained in what is called a “child fatality report.”
Those reports have been required by state law since 1996, enacted in the horrific child-abuse murder of a 6-year-old girl in New York City.
The county makes the reports following the death of a child where child abuse was suspected or if the child or the child’s family had some sort of contact with the county’s social workers. The county report is then submitted to the state Office of Children and Family Services, and that state office has the power to release or withhold the report.
The reports detail all involvement by the county with the child and his or her family. They do not disclose any names.
In denying The News’ request for Abdifatah’s report under the Freedom of Information Law, the state used the “best interests” exception. Under the law, the state can withhold information if it is deemed that the release could cause emotional or psychological harm to the dead child’s surviving siblings.
When The News appealed the FOIL rejection last month, the state’s child-protection attorney, Toni G. Koweek, immediately rejected it, citing Social Services state law privacy provisions that protect Abdifatah’s half brothers, who are 6 and 7.
A section of the Social Services law does shield siblings in such cases, according to Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state’s Committee on Open Government. County officials said they were bound by the state’s decision and could not release the report or any part of it, according to Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe.
“Upon receipt of your request, we again sought guidance from OCFS and were advised we are not able to release to you any detail of any fatality report or the specific best interests test for any fatality,” said Peter Anderson, spokesman for County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
“The State Legislature recognized that elements of these reports, such as psychological or medical aspects or evaluations of a child or a child’s family, should be withheld,” Freeman said.
The state is not willing to redact parts of the report that are sensitive to the surviving siblings and release other parts that are not.
Confidentiality is universally regard as an integral part of child-protective services, but in the all-or-nothing decisions on whether to release fatality reports, public scrutiny of how the system responded in handling a particular case can end up denied.
It also raises the question of whether those charged with protecting abused children are shielding themselves. The reports are supposed to include changes in procedure if the system failed.
The News has learned that the 911 calls were not the only time Abdifatah was brought to the attention of Child Protective Services.
Several weeks after those calls, he showed up at school with his face bruised. The school’s principal said the boy refused to say how he suffered the injuries.
Sources close to the case said county child-protection investigators reviewed that incident, as well. While the outcome of that investigation was not made public, whoever handled it determined that the boy should remain in his family’s home.
The stepfather told The News in a jailhouse interview that county child-protection workers investigated the incident and cleared him of harming the boy. Mohamud said his stepson had been beaten up on a school bus.
The county child-abuse office referred Abdifatah’s family to a local outside agency, through a pilot project started by state and known as Family Assessment Response, or FAR.
But an individual familiar with the county’s handling of Abdifatah’s case said that there was internal disagreement at the county office over whether the Mohamud family should be referred to the pilot program, given the allegations that the stepfather had been beating the boy.
Another concern was that the Family Assessment Response cases did not receive the same level of accountability as child-abuse cases handled directly by county employees and the courts. Critics say the Family Assessment Response program puts children at greater risk because their alleged abusers, often living under the same roof, are allowed to be present when Family Assessment Response team members interview the family.
“Contrary to accepted child welfare practices, differential response teams [FAR] conduct all interviews of the children in the presence of the custodians. Imagine the trauma children would suffer sitting around a kitchen table answering questions regarding excessive corporal punishment with the perpetrator there glaring at them,” attorneys at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo stated in a 2011 letter to the Senate Social Services Committee, while raising concerns about proposed changes to state law that created the alternative response to child-abuse cases.
The letter also cited another alarming aspect regarding the types of child-abuse cases being diverted to the Family Assessment Response teams across the state, based on a study that state officials had conducted.
“They include burns, scalding, choking, twisting, shaking, internal injuries, lacerations, bruises, welts, swelling, dislocations, sprains, poisoning, noxious substances, fractures and excessive corporal punishment. Moreover, we have learned that even alleged sexual abuse has been referred to the differential response team in one county,” the letter stated.
Was Abdifatah afraid to speak the truth when his case entered the pilot program in Erie County?
Though county officials declined to comment directly on their handling of Abdifatah’s case, there are indications that they recognized there were problems with the pilot program.
In May, just weeks after the International Preparatory School fifth-grader was killed, they reassessed the pilot program and started referring fewer cases to that program.
“Erie County Department of Social Services concluded that in the absence of final New York State regulations governing FAR operations, we would reinstitute more restrictive acceptance criteria for reports assigned to FAR, targeting primarily education-neglect cases,” said Anderson, spokesman for the county executive.
“It is our assessment that OCFS has an obligation to finalize the regulations after four years in pilot status. When regulations are final, we anticipate using the FAR program model with appropriate families. Our commitment is to do the right things for families, understanding the value of both the traditional investigatory model of CPS and the family engagement and empowerment model of FAR.”
When asked whether any county employees were disciplined for the way the Abdifatah case was handled, Anderson said he could not comment on individual employees.