The results of a state investigation into more than five years' worth of reports involving a New Cassel mother who drowned her three children last February were released earlier this month.
While it doesn't come out and blame the county for the deaths, the 20-page New York State Office of Children and Family Services' Child Fatality Report, released Feb. 4, details information from a review of reports submitted to the New York Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment and the Nassau County Department of Social Services (NCDSS), including the preventive services record, Nassau County Family Court reports and police reports.
While the investigation, launched automatically by the state following the death of children in the welfare system, found that some reports were initiated in an appropriate timeframe or in a timely manner, it determined that in several instances Nassau's Child Protective Services (CPS) caseworkers failed to fully investigate complaints against Leatrice Brewer. The investigation determined that on eight occasions - from 2003 to 2007 - caseworkers viewed complaints against Brewer as low-risk, despite repeated concerns, including, but not limited to, mental illness, lack of supervision, inadequate guardianship, domestic violence and substance abuse. According to the report, caseworkers, over the course of the aforementioned five-year period, repeatedly "unsubstantiated" allegations and missed vital signs regarding the safety of the three young children.
On Feb. 24, 2008, Brewer drowned her three children - Jewell Ward, 6, Michael Innocent Demesyeux, 5, and Innocent Demesyeux, 18 months - to "protect them from evil spirits" before attempting, twice, to commit suicide. She pled not guilty Feb. 9, 2009 to the murders by reason of insanity and will be incarcerated in an upstate New York maximum security psychiatric center.
As a result of the murders, a part-time caseworker was fired, another was demoted and a night supervisor was demoted to caseworker. In June 2008, Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 803 President Jerry Laricchiuta told Anton Community Newspapers that the union is fighting the demotions on the grounds that those demoted are "top-notch" employees who, because tragedy occurred, are being blamed. The union president said that caseworkers followed and complied with New York State Social Service Law guidelines.
"Our CPS workers followed the policy, which is New York State Social Services Law, to the letter. If there is a problem with CPS, it's with the policy, not with our workers not following it," Laricchiuta stated in a previous article.
Following last year's tragedy, Nassau County's Department of Social Services, the umbrella of which CPS falls under, reviewed current and past cases, and began retraining caseworkers. "[We have] carefully reviewed the New York State Office of Children and Family Services report and find that it echoes the findings of the county's own investigation," said Karen R. Garber, program coordinator for the Nassau County Department of Social Services (NCDSS). "As a result of the county's findings, the department of social services has been proactive in improving service delivery and has done so in a transparent manner."
The department, said Garber, has established a Behavioral Health Unit to assist in identifying and coordinating assessments and services for families who are in crisis due to mental health and/or substance abuse issues; instituted a Children & Family Quality Case Review Team, which will randomly review cases to assess the quality of casework; and added a CPS "Case of the Week" that reviews selected cases with input from multiple county departments.
Additionally, she said Nassau's Department of Social Services caseworkers have been provided wireless computers to access relevant case information while making field visits; offering refresher training and new training for caseworkers, including conducting training jointly with the police department; and convening interagency discussions to improve information-sharing between departments.
According to Garber, Nassau proactively supported the New York State legislation for CPS to obtain criminal records of subjects of a report, which was signed by Governor David Paterson in September 2008, and checks all new CPS intakes through the Nassau County Swift Justice database.
While the Child Fatality Report does credit the proactive steps NCDSS took, immediately following the deaths, it has mandated that the department submit a corrective action plan to address how it will "observe the requirement to maintain accurate and contemporaneous progress notes that clearly document each phase of the investigation process and establish time frames for critical events..." down the road. The county must submit their course of action within 30 days of the Feb. 4 dated report.
"Nassau County Department of Social Services is in the process of preparing a written corrective action plan, which will be submitted to NYS Office of Children and Family Services," said Garber, adding that it will include "items that have already been implemented, such as making timely safety assessments and clearly documenting all casework interventions."