Erie County and the state both made wise responses last week to the tragic beating death of 5-year-old Eain Brooks.
The state’s Office of Children & Family Services is launching a review of all open child abuse investigations and the state is also moving ahead with a legally required fatality investigation into Eain’s death. Meanwhile, the Erie County Legislature has voted to hire six additional Child Protective Services caseworkers and a team coordinator to address burgeoning complaints of child abuse and neglect.
Both are important steps – the county’s to respond immediately to what can only be called a crisis and the state’s to look more deeply into internal, structural issues. The sin is that they didn’t happen sooner.
The county and state were on notice last year when 10-year-old Abdifatah Mohamud was bludgeoned to death by his stepfather, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud. They took some steps in the aftermath of that tragedy, but those steps were plainly insufficient.
When several members of Eain’s family contacted Child Protective Services multiple times about the threat to this boy, and he was still left at risk, nothing fundamental had been fixed.
The state’s investigation needs to be exhaustive, looking not just at open investigations, but those that were closed and even those never undertaken. It is critical to determine what the triage system is at CPS. What are the thresholds for determining whether a child is at risk? What steps are being taken when CPS becomes involved, and what are the factors that determine those steps?
After Abdi was murdered by his stepfather last year, the state looked at 110 randomly selected child abuse cases handled by Erie County and found multiple deficiencies in how the county investigates child abuse. Among its findings were:
• Although child protective workers conducted strong investigations in the first few days of receiving cases, they didn’t maintain that pace, creating “a lack of depth and thoroughness in the investigations.”
• Follow-up interviews with families were not consistently made or documented.
• Of the 110 families reviewed, 75 were the subject of multiple reports of abuse. What is more, 17 of those families had been “re-reported” seven or more times over the previous four years.
The questions are multiple. Are those problems still at play? Is this a problem of the people who are hired as CPS workers? Is it a matter of insufficient training? Are good workers simply overwhelmed with cases that have to be extraordinarily stressful on them? Or is it a combination of factors?
It is good that the county agreed to hire more caseworkers. They need to be brought up to speed as quickly as possible. But that action needs to be seen as an interim step. Once the state’s report is complete, the Legislature and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz should be prepared to make further changes, as warranted.
This is a long-term issue, but it deals with threats that are immediate and ongoing.