The letters from the state’s Office of Children & Family Services called the allegations of child abuse unfounded.
“No credible evidence was found to believe that the child[ren] has been abused or maltreated,” the letter stated.
But the photographs of 5-year-old Eain Clayton Brooks tell a different story.
Two photos, which relatives of the slain boy provided to The Buffalo News, show large blistered burns on his right cheek.
In another, his right eye is nearly swollen shut.
Eain’s grandmother took the photos as evidence of the boy’s abuse, which she said came at the hands of Matthew Kuzdzal, who was charged two weeks ago with killing the boy.
The grandmother and other relatives say they made repeated complaints over the course of 10 months to the state and the Erie County’s Child Protective Services, and pleaded with caseworkers to get Kuzdzal away from the boy.
That never happened.
That’s why the grieving family members, who are also blaming the county agency, shared several letters that say caseworkers could find no proof to allegations of child abuse.
The letters exonerated both Kuzdzal and Nora Brooks, Eain’s mother. The three shared a home in Buffalo’s Lovejoy neighborhood and then on Albany Street on the city’s West Side.
Robin Hart, the boy’s grandmother and the mother of Nora Brooks, said Kuzdzal manipulated caseworkers and her daughter.
“Matt was a manipulator, and when the caseworkers believed Matt, Nora believed them,” she said.
The News sought comment from Child Protective Services about the family’s allegations, but agency officials will not talk about the case because of prohibitions by state law, said Peter Anderson, spokesman for the county.
But he added, “As the county executive has stated, if mistakes were made, people will be held accountable.”
The state is now investigating how the county Child Protective Services handled Eain’s case, as well as reviewing other open cases in Erie County.
“From what I’ve seen, for Child Protective Services to state that the reports of child abuse are unfounded, it seems to me to be a dereliction of duty on behalf of Child Protective Services. They failed to do their job to protect Eain Brooks,” said State Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who met last week with Hart at her Lovejoy home. “The images of Eain are some of the most horrific things I have ever seen in my life.”
The injuries begin
The injuries to Eain started occurring after his mother and Kuzdzal met last Thanksgiving and soon began living together in an East Lovejoy Street apartment, according to Hart.
On several occasions, Eain visited his grandmother and her husband on Broadway, also in Lovejoy.
During those visits, Hart said she and her husband noticed bruises on Eain and asked the boy how they occurred.
“He told us, ‘Matt says I can’t tell you, or he’ll send me to Father Baker’s,’ ” Hart said, referring to the former Lackawanna orphanage that Father Nelson Baker had established.
On one of the visits, Hart said, she noticed the burns on Eain’s cheek.
When asked about the burns, Kuzdzal, 26, offered an unusual explanation, Hart said.
“He said he was trying to give Eain a swirlie, sticking Eain’s head in the toilet, and Eain hit his cheek on the toilet seat,” the grandmother said. “When Eain was given an ice pack, it leaked, and the fluid burned Eain’s cheek.”
Hart said she called state and local authorities after seeing the injuries and burns. She also took the photographs that showed the burns and one that showed the black eye, but she did not give them to caseworkers, explaining that she thought the caseworkers would see those injuries themselves when they investigated and saw Eain.
She wasn’t the only one who complained to authorities.
Kyle Charette, Eain’s father, said that he also saw Eain’s injuries and that he made several complaints to the state’s child abuse register.
At one point, Charette said he went to the Lovejoy apartment and physically threatened Kuzdzal to leave his son alone.
Following several of those complaints to authorities, Eain’s visits to his grandmother’s home ended in March, when Kuzdzal and Brooks and Eain moved out of the East Lovejoy Street apartment. But they didn’t tell Hart where they were going.
“My daughter has since told me that Matt had convinced her that her family was going to take Eain from her,” Hart said. “We wouldn’t have done that.”
Hart didn’t know where they were until she got a call two Sundays ago to go to Women & Children’s Hospital, where Eain was being treated for serious head injuries.
Letters to Kuzdzal
Kuzdzal, Brooks and Eain had moved to Albany Street on Buffalo’s West Side. Although Hart didn’t know where they were, apparently county caseworkers did.
Neighbors on Albany Street said that after Kuzdzal received notifications that he and Brooks were under investigation by Child Protective Services, he stormed out of his apartment and accused them of reporting him. Neighbors denied calling Child Protective Services.
But at least two Child Protective Services investigations cleared Kuzdzal.
Hart provided two letters from the state dated Aug. 27 and Sept. 6 informing Kuzdzal that he had been cleared of any involvement in child abuse allegations. The state’s Office of Children & Family Services sent the letters after investigations completed by the county caseworkers.
In one of the letters, a state supervisor shared the findings of the county Child Protective Services investigation: “We can now inform you that as a result of the assessment made by the local child protective service, no credible evidence was found to believe that the child[ren] has been abused or maltreated. Therefore, the report has been determined ‘unfounded.’ ”
The second letter was nearly identical and appeared to be a form letter sent to people who had been investigated and cleared.
Hart said her 24-year-old daughter was gullible and placed her faith in child protective caseworkers who believed Kuzdzal. He offered them explanations that Eain’s injuries happened during innocent horseplay.
“They are the specialists. She was never home when Eain was hurt. Matt was alone with Eain every time it happened,” Hart said. “Nora believed Matt when the caseworkers believed Matt.”
The News did not talk to Brooks, who has not been charged in her son’s death. Hart said her daughter is too upset to be interviewed.
Letters to Nora Brooks
At least three letters from the state were sent to Nora Brooks, alerting her that an investigation had been started because a child abuse claim had been filed and she was mentioned.
The first letter was dated Dec. 14, and it came from a local caseworker and his supervisor.
“This is to inform you that you are an other (sic) person named in a report of suspected child abuse or maltreatment received by the New York State Child Abuse and Maltreatment Register on 12/10/2012.
“This means that you have been named in the report but have not been alleged to be responsible for causing injury, abuse or maltreatment to the child[ren]. This report has been transmitted to Erie County Child Protective Service for commencement of an investigation and evaluation of the report as required by the New York State Child Protective Services Act.”
On March 13, Brooks received a letter stating she was “the subject of a report of suspected child abuse or maltreatment” based on a Feb. 11 report to the state and that an investigation was being conducted.
Five days later, another letter arrived.
An official at the state central register of complaints informed Brooks that she was in the clear on at least one of the complaints.
“We can now inform you that as a result of the assessment made by the local child protective service, no credible evidence was found to believe that the child[ren] had been abused or maltreated. Therefore, the report has been determined ‘unfounded.’ ”
On Aug. 1, Brooks received yet another letter that she was the subject of a child abuse investigation because of a complaint filed July 26 with the state.
A subsequent letter from the state to Brooks reported that the complaint was unfounded.
While Kuzdzal and Brooks received letters informing them of different investigations of child abuse and then letters stating no evidence could be found of abuse, the family members who made complaints were not notified.
Another family member who said he made complaints of child abuse was Paul Henry, Hart’s brother.
“Their words were, ‘We’re looking into it,’ ” Henry said. “I never got a letter or any confirmation of what was being done, got done, or what the status was.”
Eain’s death and the death of 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud of Buffalo at his stepfather’s hand last year are two cases of the county’s Child Protective Services’ failing to recognize the dangers some children face, said Pamela L. Neubeck, chief attorney for the attorneys for children’s unit at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo.
Some caseworkers are afraid to make difficult decisions such as removing a child from a home that, in the long run, could ensure the wellbeing of the children, she said.
“Caseworkers need more training and more supervision. You just can’t have independent judgment. You need an internal review,” said Neubeck, whose unit represents children in Child Protective Services cases and juvenile delinquent proceedings. “Clearly, the issue from our perspective is the failure to listen to the voices of children. Caseworkers are discounting the voices of children. Some caseworkers are overly cautious about making difficult decisions.”
Eain’s relatives say they wish caseworkers had made the decision to remove him from his home. Hart, in fact, said she confronted one caseworker, asking him what it would take to have Eain placed in a safe setting.
Henry, Hart’s brother, also spoke about the family’s seeking more accountability at the Child Protective Service.
“Every individual who calls in a child abuse complaint should receive some type of confirmation number so that the person can follow that complaint from start to close,” he said.
Sen. Kennedy offered assurances that steps to fix the system will occur once the state completes its investigation into how the county responded to Eain’s case.
The state’s Office of Children & Family Services said last week that it will review all open child abuse investigations in Erie County and will also review the next 200 cases before the county is allowed to close them.
Kennedy called that a major step in the right direction.
“Because of Eain Brooks’ case and other cases, Erie County can’t be trusted to do the work on their own. So the state has come in and taken over to make sure these children are being protected,” Kennedy said.
For Hart, she says she is certain that she and her family have done right by Eain in releasing the letters. But she also said she wishes she had done something different.
“We did everything by the law,” she said. “But if I could go back now, I would have taken Eain.”