Friday, May 1, 2009

Disabled toddler dies while under care of NJ child welfare system

From The Star Ledger in NJ:

A 2-year-old disabled boy who had been supervised by New Jersey's child welfare system has died, allegedly at the hands of his mother's boyfriend, the second such incident in less than a month, state Department of Children and Families officials said April 30.

State officials confirmed this week that the agency had been investigating the family of a Cape May County toddler with cerebral palsy who died last April 22. The disclosure came just days after a federal monitor issued a report crediting the department with making improvements to expand, better train and supervise its child welfare caseworkers.

A spokeswoman for Children and Families Commissioner Kimberly Ricketts called the child's death "a tragedy that we all feel very deeply," but said it should not give the public reason to doubt the department is far better since it has been under the
supervision of a federal court monitor.

"The monitor's report does accurately present the marked improvements and changes in the state's child welfare system, which is very different from what it was just a few years ago," said the spokeswoman, Mary Helen Cervantes.

Cervantes said the department has opened an internal investigation into how the agency handled the case involving Caden Rivera, a 25-month-old boy from Woodbine, Cape May County. The toddler, born with cerebral palsy, died from
blunt force trauma to the abdomen on April 22, just a month after his alleged killer had been accused of physically abusing the boy, according to a report obtained by The Star-Ledger.

The state Division of Youth and Family Services was investigating alleged abuse by Damian Garcia-Rodriguez, 31, of Wildwood, when Caden died last week, according to police and DYFS records. DYFS is overseen by the Department of Children and Families.

Garcia-Rodriguez, the boyfriend of Caden's mother, faces second-degree manslaughter and child endangerment charges and is being held without bail, Cape
May County Chief of Detectives James E. Rybicki said April 30.

Caden's death follows the March 31 death of 9-year-old Jamarr Cruz of Camden, whom DYFS began supervising in December 2007 after Vincent Williams, his
mother's live-in boyfriend, pleaded guilty to using excessive force to discipline the child.

DYFS closed the case in November 2008 after the child's mother and Williams completed family counseling classes and Williams finished an anger management course. Camden County Prosecutor's Office charged Williams, 26, with the boy's death.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Association for Children of New Jersey, said she hoped that in the Cape May County case, investigators would have considered the child's disability and young age when it evaluated whether he was safe.

"These two cases raise concerns about what is the standard the division is using to determine whether cases should be opened and closed," Zalkind said.

Citing state statistics, Zalkind said there has been a 28 percent drop in the number of children DYFS is supervising.

"A drop in caseload can be good, but there should be some examination about how these decisions are made," she said.

According to the DYFS record on the Caden Rivera case, his mother, identified in published reports as Jennifer Bowen, had a long history with DYFS, which found she had been negligent twice with her other children, in 2000 and 2003. Her three other children have been living with relatives since 2000.

Four children have died from abuse and neglect this year, including Caden and Jamarr, Cervantes confirmed. Of the other two, one was the subject of an open DYFS case; the other had no DYFS history. The department could not supply more details on the other two cases last night.