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Experts: DCFS could have done more to prevent child's death

FamilyJustice SystemHealthcare ProvidersUniversity of Chicago

Five months after a South Side father was accused of beating and choking his girlfriend while she held their son, the baby was found dead, floating faceup near his 2-year-old brother in a bathtub.

The father told police he left the boys unattended for about 10 minutes while he went for a smoke.

As authorities investigate the Sept. 24 drowning death of Jayshaun Strong, a Tribune review of confidential case records raises questions about whether state and contractual child welfare workers did enough to ensure the boys' safety.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services monitored the family for several months after a hotline call reporting violence in the couple's relationship. The young mother repeatedly was warned that the state could take custody of her children if she and the father continued to resist services.

The telltale signs of trouble included allegations of domestic violence, a sibling's broken leg, uncooperative parents and a father with a long criminal history.

The newspaper also found that a DCFS investigator who was assigned the case the morning after the hotline call didn't do any follow-up work for a month.

A Tribune investigation this year has examined a number of child deaths and showed how holes in the state's child safety net contributed to them, including slow and inadequate responses by front-line workers, violations of policies and management mistakes. DCFS has blamed budget challenges and worker error. State leaders have further slashed the agency's funding.

Considering the litany of troubling facts in Jayshaun's case, experts say workers should have at least petitioned the Cook County child protection court to try to force the parents to cooperate with services or face losing custody of their children.

"This is egregious," said Dr. Jill Glick, who established the child protective services team at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital.

"Domestic violence is a huge red flag," she said. "Family violence is progressive, and while maybe the first incident was minor, it is a signal for abuse and risk. This death could have been prevented."

It wasn't until after Jayshaun died that DCFS took protective custody of his sibling and sought court intervention.

DCFS officials said they are continuing to investigate how the case was handled but have declined to discuss specifics. The agency, meanwhile, has temporarily placed Jayshaun's brother in the care of Denise Mayberry, his maternal grandmother.

Mayberry said she was never contacted during the DCFS investigation, argued that state officials should have done more to intervene.

"I'm just upset because all anyone had to do was come to me and have me take my grand babies for a while until my daughter sorted some things out," Mayberry said.

A call for help

Jayshaun's father, Willie Strong, 30, remains in jail on felony child endangerment charges. Prosecutors said the 8-month-old boy died in Strong's care in their apartment in the city's Parkway Gardens neighborhood.

Jayshaun's mother, Shadarr Veal, had left the two boys alone with him while she attended vocational school, records show. When she came home about 3:30 p.m., she went into the bathroom and found the children in a tub filled with 6 inches of water, prosecutors said.

Jayshaun was floating faceup, his brown eyes open. His 2-year-old brother was not physically injured.

Veal, 24, immediately called 911 and tried to revive the boy, according to records.

Strong told police that he left the boys unattended for about 10 minutes during their bath when he went to smoke a cigarette, according to reports.

Veal, who is not accused of wrongdoing, didn't respond to Tribune interview requests. Strong's relatives also declined to comment.

Records show that five months earlier, on April 16, a DCFS child protection investigator met with Veal after an anonymous hotline call earlier that day.

Veal's split lip and blood-swollen eye were visible, the investigator noted in his report. Veal told DCFS that days earlier Strong threatened, choked and punched her in the face while she held 3-month-old Jayshaun, records state.

Veal said she had ended their four-year relationship that January, according to case notes.

DCFS did not take protective custody of the boys, neither of whom had any visible marks or bruises, because the mother pursued criminal charges against Strong and obtained an emergency order of protection as part of a safety plan for her children.

Veal also promised to keep him away from the kids, records show.

"Third incident of physical abuse with repeated threats to kill," read the emergency protective order, which said injuries included swelling, bruising, hemorrhaging inside her eye, scratches and cuts on her forehead, neck and mouth.

The state determined that the mother's response was sufficient under the agency's risk-assessment guidelines and that protective custody wasn't immediately warranted.

When another DCFS investigator took over the case the next morning, she and her supervisor reviewed the safety plan set up the night before.

The investigator was supposed to reassess the children's safety and perform other mandated tasks. But the newspaper's review of about 250 records in the case showed DCFS didn't contact the family until about a month later.

DCFS spokesman Dave Clarkin said the delayed response did not violate a specific agency procedure.

Back in the picture

It wasn't until mid-May that the investigator met with Veal and learned key elements of the safety plan were no longer in place. The protective order expired May 7 because the mother said she didn't show up for court. And Veal admitted that Strong had resurfaced about May 13, Mother's Day, and that she had allowed him to see their boys.

Veal agreed to not let Strong have further contact with the children until the investigator interviewed him, according to the records.

The first DCFS interview with Strong took place May 30 — six weeks after the hotline call — at the family's apartment. Strong admitted hitting his girlfriend, but the unemployed father denied she was holding their baby at the time, the records state.

The investigator recommended counseling and, for Strong, help with anger issues. The DCFS worker also told him that she found credible evidence that he posed a "substantial risk" to his sons' safety.

The couple agreed they would cooperate when contacted in the ensuing weeks by a Children's Home + Aid case manager paid by DCFS to provide intact family services.

"He shared with me that he loves his kids and will do anything for them," the investigator wrote in her notes, "and he told Shadarr he will never put his hands on her again."

Before the private agency was brought in, the DCFS investigator retrieved a voice message on her phone June 8 from a social worker at Comer Children's Hospital that doctors had treated Jayshaun's older brother for a broken leg.

The 18-month-old's injury was consistent with the mother's explanation that he fell off a jungle gym while they played in a park, the social worker said. Since there was no evidence of abuse, the hospital did not make a hotline complaint to launch an official investigation, according to records.

Five days later, the DCFS investigator followed up with the hospital social worker.

She again was assured that abuse was not suspected. Records show the investigator completed other mandated tasks the next day, including contacting Chicago police about the April 12 domestic battery case and running the parents' criminal history.

Strong had multiple arrests and convictions for mostly misdemeanor offenses, the records state. He also had a felony drug possession conviction from a 2006 arrest, records show.

Voluntary services through Children's Home + Aid were offered to the family in late June, but the couple resisted the agency's efforts to help.

According to records, the private agency's caseworker went to the couple's home at least 14 times in three months to try to link them to services. She was successful in getting one or both of the parents to answer at least eight times, but they never followed through on promises to get counseling.

The boys appeared fine, the case manager wrote in her notes after each visit.

'Horrible tragedy'

The case manager again knocked on the family's door Sept. 20 to give the mother a bus pass to attend domestic violence counseling. No one answered, records show. Jayshaun died four days later.

Clarkin from DCFS said the family "had just agreed to receive support services when this tragedy occurred."

"It's a horrible tragedy," said Melissa Ludington, a vice president at Children Home + Aid. "We were working with the family but did not see increasing risk factors that would have prompted us to take further action. If there was anything suspicious, we would have called (the DCFS hotline). It appears we did everything we could."

Others, including Glick and Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris, said the family's case should have been taken to child protection court for more oversight.

A judge, they said, could have required the parents to comply with treatment or face losing custody. The state's attorney's office would have had to accept the case, but the request was never pursued. Such cases are rarely pursued when children haven't been removed from their homes, court officials said.

"There were definite opportunities missed here," Harris said. "The case could have been screened into court where the caseworker requests an order of protection requiring the parents to do services."

Pathologists await the results of further tests before determining the cause of Jayshaun's death, according to autopsy records. Strong, meanwhile, is due back in court Thursday. He remains held on $100,000 bail.

Mayberry, Jayshaun's grandmother, said her other grandson is doing well.

"Right now I just want justice for my grandson and to get (the older boy) out of the foster care system," Mayberry said. "He's all I have left."

cmgutowski@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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