Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2003 / 13 Shevat, 5763

Tresa McBee

Tresa McBee
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Consumer Reports

Lost in the fissures of a failed system

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Sharpe James is wrong.

Addressing the case of one dead, abused boy and two starving, abused boys, all brothers, the mayor of Newark, N.J., said this wasn't a time for finger-pointing.

Actually, it's an excellent time.

Because nothing, not one thing, excuses the fate of the boys in the basement, one wrapped in a blanket, decaying in a storage container, the other two locked in a nearby room, emaciated, covered with burn scars and lice, left to wallow in feces and urine and vomit with a jar for a toilet. At least one has been sexually abused.

All while New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services knew about Melinda Williams and her children. In the past decade, the agency has received at least 10 complaints about the family, which includes an older son who now lives in a treatment center. (Williams' first child, a girl born when Williams was 15, was put in foster care and later adopted.) One complaint from October 2001 indicated Williams was beating and burning the boys. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that three complaints were substantiated: Williams left her children alone in 1996 and 1999 and failed to get medical attention for the oldest boy after he cut his hand in 1998.

A complaint from late 2001, duly noted by a caseworker, alleged that one boy was sexually abused. It was never fully investigated. DYFS knew the boys were wandering from one relative to another friend and back again, but background checks weren't conducted. In February 2002, reports The New York Times, DYFS closed the family's case file without completely investigating beating and burning allegations -- because the caseworker couldn't find the boys. They hadn't been visited by DYFS in more than a year.

As so goes the story of Faheem, 7, who apparently died of starvation and a blow to the stomach, his twin, Raheem, and their brother, Tyrone Hill, 4. Their case is predictable in its despair and despicable in the bureaucratic inadequacy it reveals: Children live amid serious neglect and danger, and a child welfare agency -- yet again -- fails to execute the very tasks with which it is charged.

Williams and her children read as if out of a case study examining the risks of teenage pregnancy, the perils of fatherlessness -- about 70 percent of children born in Newark don't have a father listed on birth certificates -- the impact of drugs and mental illness, and a state agency riddled with incompetence.

During the 1990s, state child-protection workers visited Williams many times without knowledge of an outstanding warrant for her arrest on endangerment for burning a child with a cigarette while baby-sitting in 1996. Local school officials knew nothing of the boys, even as other state agencies did.

Friends and relatives knew of Williams' drinking problems and her penchant for stashing the boys in basements. And obviously at least some of them reported the abuse -- to no avail.

When Williams was jailed for that 1996 endangerment case, she left the boys with a cousin, go-go dancer Sherry Murphy, who apparently digs drugs -- and embezzling, for which she was arrested.

It was in Murphy's basement that the dead child and his surviving brothers were found after Murphy's boyfriend discovered them. Authorities didn't even know about Faheem until his brothers mentioned they hadn't seen him in a while. The 7-year-old had been dead several months; Murphy and her 16-year-old son -- who's been arrested for aggravated assault of Faheem -- took the dead boy along with them when they moved from Irvington, N.J., to Newark, and tossed the remaining children in the basement, probably to hide their existence. When Williams got out of jail, she says she had no clue where Murphy and the boys were.

And, of course, there's DYFS -- actually an improved DYFS brought about after other high-profile child deaths and so-called reforms. And mostly for naught. As of last Friday, DYFS had no idea where 40 percent of children in suspected abuse cases were. That's 110 children.

Which says nothing about the social workers who cope with too-large caseloads, inadequate resources, choking paperwork, antiquated computers and state agencies that can't manage to communicate or cooperate.

It does, however, say everything about a system that breaks over and over and over. In state after state. It's an old problem with old procedures: Children die horrifically; state agency knows of the danger and doesn't protect; politicians stand behind microphones and grimly state the blah-blah-blah of unacceptable and accountability and can't happen again; reforms are promised amid lots of handwringing; and children keep dying and getting found in claustrophobic closets and grimy basements.

For a country that claims to care so much about kids, we do a contemptible job of protecting the weak and vulnerable and at-risk who are too small to seek help. And sadly, it's a deplorable and criminal blight on our social services system that shows no sign of changing.

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JWR contributor Tresa McBee is a columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Times. Comment by clicking here.

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