Friday, February 7, 2020

Did a New York City foster-care panic in 2016 contribute to a child’s death four years later?

            I have often written about how foster-care panics – sharp sudden increases in children needlessly removed from their homes after a child abuse death – make all children less safe.  They do terrible harm to the children needlessly removed, of course, but they also overload the system, making it less likely that authorities will find children in real danger.

            Now, it appears, there is another tragic illustration.  And this case also illustrates something else: Turning everything over the law enforcement is no panacea. Overloaded cops behave like overloaded caseworkers.

The current case

            Teshawn Watkins is under arrest, charged with killing his infant son, Kaseem.  The child’s mother, Cecelia Reyes, reportedly discovered the body.  It already looks like this is going to be one of those cases where the files had more “red flags” than a Soviet May Day parade.

            But New York Times reporter Ashley Southall dug deeper.  Her story suggests that many of the failures, at least initially, were committed by law enforcement, not necessarily the city’s Administration for Children’s Services.  And one of the most important failures may have been a consequence of foster-care panic.

            In December, 2016, Reyes’ mother called the police about bruises on one of the children. The allegations against Watkins were serious enough to prompt ACS to, apparently, keep the investigation in the hands of law enforcement.  The children were placed in foster care, but returned after the police “determined no crime occurred” according to law enforcement sources.  Southall writes:

The law enforcement officials interviewed for this article said the determination was troubling, given that Ms. Reyes’s explanation was inconsistent with doctors’ findings, and because the detective did not interview the children’s parents. …

            Did the police do a superficial investigation, and if so, why?

            Southall’s story suggests an explanation.  This case arose just three months after the child abuse death of Zymere Perkins.  There was a spike in calls to the state child abuse hotline, a spike in investigations, a spike in court-ordered supervision of families, and a spike in the number of children torn from their homes.

            But there was another spike as well: A spike in the number of cases referred to law enforcement.  Writes Southall:

After Zymere’s death in September 2016, child-welfare teams increasingly flagged incoming reports of child abuse as serious cases, triggering a surge in police investigations. Investigators in the Bronx handled 416 new cases between Sept. 26, 2016, and Dec. 21, 2016, a 41 percent increase from the same period in 2015, according to a law enforcement official.

By the time Ms. Reyes’s mother called 911 on Dec. 28, the police were already swamped.

Two years later, Southall reports, an audit revealed that

At the same time, the then-commander of the Police Department’s Special Victims Division, which investigates sex crimes and child abuse, was warning higher-ups that the unit was dangerously understaffed … The commander, Deputy Chief Michael Osgood, had written that the department could not be “the cause of a future Zymere Perkins.”

This time, can we learn the right lessons?

The 2016 incident was the first abuse allegation against Watkins, but Southall reports authorities investigated three additional reports. No details are available.  So we don’t know if those, too, could have been affected by the foster-care panic following the death of Zymere Perkins.

But we already know this much: If ACS, law enforcement, and politicians respond to the death of Kaseem Watkins the same way they responded to the death of Zymere Perkins, and before that Nixzmary Brown, and before that Elisa Izquierdo, then they are only putting the next Kaseem Watkins, and all the other vulnerable children of New York City, in more danger.