- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 8, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (UPI) — Children's advocates fault New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey, after the death of a young boy, for not setting a clear vision for the state child welfare agency.

The agency has come under fire after two young boys were found Saturday starving and abused, and a 7-year-old boy was discovered dead.

The state has launched a sweeping investigation of its child welfare agency after Raheem Williams, 7, and his brother, Tyrone Hill, 4, were found malnourished and suffering from abuse in the basement of a home in Newark. A third child, Faheem Williams, Raheem's twin brother was found dead, stuffed in a trunk.

A nationwide manhunt is underway for Sherry Murphy, 41, who had been responsible for taking care of the children while their biological mother, Melinda Williams, was in jail. Murphy and Melinda Williams are cousins. The FBI has joined the search for Murphy.

Micah Rasmussen, McGreevey's spokesman, told United Press International that a supervisor in the case was suspended for signing off on a safety assessment even though the document clearly stated the agency had not seen the children in a year. Rasmussen said the investigation was in its early stages and to "make no mistake" it was "only the beginning" of holding people accountable for what he called "a case of human error."

"Where mistakes were made, people will be fired," Rasmussen said.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Association for Children New Jersey, said she was disappointed with McGreevy, who had been an avid champion for children, supporting legislation in the state for child abuse reporting.

"This was an issue that was near and dear to him," said Zalkind.

Zalkind said McGreevy had protected New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services from budget cuts, but said advocates believed his first year in office would be a time to take a critical look at the agency.

New Jersey Department of Human Services Commissioner Gwendolyn L. Harris said earlier this week that her agency has begun an aggressive investigation into how the case was handled.

"This is a heartbreaking case where one young child died and two others were severely neglected," Harris said. "We have just begun our investigation, and from our preliminary review it appears that there may have been major problems in the handling of the case."

Harris said the family had been known to the department for 10 years.

"We will take whatever measures required to correct or improve our system," Harris said.

This is yet another example of a horrific high-profile child abuse case that rises in the public consciousness and erupts in a groundswell of public outrage before receding into near obscurity. UPI in December examined this phenomenon in a three-part series. An expert called the epidemic of child abuse a public health problem.

The fundamental problems in the New Jersey case are no different from those in the Rilya Wilson case in Florida. Wilson, age 5, was discovered missing from state custody for more than a year and has yet to be located.

Authorities in New Jersey released a summary of the agency's dealings with the family that dates back to 1992. The document details 11 complaints before Faheem was born and related to an older sibling that did not live with the three boys.

The complaints included allegations that the home was dirty with feces on the floor, no food, presence of drug trafficking, burns on the children and a home with no heat. Only one of the 11 complaints — medical neglect for not taking the child to a doctor for a laceration on his hand — was substantiated by the agency.

As in the Wilson case, McGreevy said child welfare workers in New Jersey never made physical contact with the Williams children in 2002 before closing their case files.

"This is a problem that needs more than a Band-Aid right now," Zalkind said. Staffing, keeping caseloads down, and looking at personnel turnover are problems common in the agency, she said.

Zalkind pointed to an independent quality assurance board that had been part of the DYFS that had been charged with reviewing individual child welfare worker practices and ordering management to undertake corrective actions when necessary.

"The quality of their work was outstanding," Zalkind said. She added that the agency's district offices hated the unit.

That unit which Zalkind described as an internal watchdog was disbanded as a cost-cutting measure in the 1990s during former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's administration. Zalkind called the unit revolutionary for its time, but could not say how well it would function today since problems within the home are different compared to a decade ago.

Joseph Delmar, spokesman for DYFS, said the unit was disbanded in the early 1990s and replaced with three citizen review panels composed of advocates, citizens and representatives from government agencies.

Randy Burton, founder of Justice for Children, said he was upset with the governor's Wednesday morning television interview where he explained how his administration was dealing with the crisis.

"I heard the same tired excuses that I've heard for the past 20 years," said Burton, a former Houston prosecutor and ex-head of the city's family crimes division.

Burton said the problem is centered on the desire of state agencies to reunify families despite the risk to children's safety. He also said the failure to treat crimes against children as crimes with an immediate response from law enforcement has placed the lives of children at risk.

"If law enforcement had been involved, they would have responded much quicker and their focus would have been on the complaining witness — the child," Burton said.

Burton said children are victims of terrorism every day, saying that as many as 1,500 youngsters die each year from abuse and neglect. Because those numbers are often under-reported, Burton said, it is likely double those figures — as least as many as those who died on Sept. 1l, 2001, in the terrorist attacks.

"These children are the victims of terrorism every day," Burton said.

Burton said he was also upset with McGreevey's interview on NBC's "Today Show" where he said the child welfare agency had stepped in and removed the William's children from their allegedly abusive mother.

Delmar said neither DYFS nor the courts made formal foster care placement of the Williams children. The family arranged for the children to stay with Murphy, Delmar said.

"That is something we did not have knowledge of," Delmar told UPI.

McGreevy, however, was apologetic about what had happened to the children, saying he went to visit them in the hospital.

"It was a mistake in judgment here and that is why we are having a complete, thorough investigation. Obviously the caseworker should have seen the children with his or her own eyes before they made a decision. Clearly it was a failure of the system," McGreevey told NBC News.

Burton called it ironic that President George W. Bush was in Washington hailing the one-year-anniversary of his education reform plan dubbed "No Child Left Behind."

"It's ironic because on a state/national level, (child abuse) is a non-issue," Burton said.

To view the UPI series on child abuse go to:

upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=20021203-102436-7578r

upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=20021204-015159-8960r

upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=20021205-012113-8099r

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