By Robert Hugh Farley, M.S.
Consultant to the VIRTUS® Programs
On March 1, 2012 the Chicago Tribune reported on their front page “Toddler’s Death Preventable? DCFS Actions Investigated as Mom Charged with Murder.”
As I read the tragic story of a two year old suburban Chicago boy, who was reportedly in the care of the State of Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) child welfare system and allegedly murdered by his mother, I reflected, “How could this happen in 2012?”
In this multi-part article we will look at child physical abuse and then examine one child’s difficult journey through the child protection system.
History of Physical Child Abuse Investigation
In our country’s infancy, children in the United States were often at the mercy of those individuals who harmed them. Prior to 1874 there were no laws protecting children from physical abuse inflicted by their parents or a caretaker. Most adults believed in the words, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
In 1866, a two-year-old orphan, Mary Ellen Wilson, became a ward of the New York City Department of Public Charities. The Department later placed Mary Ellen under the care of a couple, Mary and Francis Connolly. Shortly thereafter the adoptive mother began physically abusing Mary Ellen. The abuse included daily beatings with a rawhide whip, a stabbing with a scissors, failure to provide the child with sufficient food and forcing the child to sleep on the floor inside a locked, dark closet. In late 1873, the severely battered girl finally attracted the attention of the neighbors who made a complaint to the NYC Department of Public Charities.
A Methodist missionary named Etta Angell Wheeler began investigating the neighbor’s complaints, which Wheeler shockingly confirmed. Aggravated by the lack of child protection laws at the time, Wheeler approached the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), founded in 1865. The case was brought before the court by the SPCA, that viewed the abused child as comparable to the abused horses the Society routinely rescued from brutal stable owners. In effect Mary Ellen was touted in the court pleading as a vulnerable member of the animal kingdom needing the protection of the state. The adoptive mother, Mary Connolly was subsequently found guilty and Mary Ellen was ultimately placed in a healthier home. As a result of this case the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was founded in 1874.
Another noticeable step in addressing child physical abuse occurred in 1962 when Dr. C. Henry Kempe from the University of Colorado co-authored the paper “The Battered Child Syndrome.” As a result of Kempe’s pioneering study, physicians finally recognized physical child abuse as an independent diagnosis. Kempe’s study showed that physical child abuse is most often not a one-time event but instead, repeated occurrences.
By 1967 all fifty states had passed mandated reporting laws for physical abuse and neglect; although it wasn’t until the 1970s that these laws were expanded to include children who had been sexually abused. Also in the 1970s the U.S. Congress passed CAPTA or the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. As a result of CAPTA, Congress mandated that:
• Every state must have a CPS or Child Protective Service Agency (Typically located within a child welfare agency),
• Every state must have statutes that define child maltreatment, and
• Every state must articulate how CPS will take reports and respond to child maltreatment.
Unfortunately, the primary purpose of the CAPTA law was to identify how a state or county Child Protective Service Agency would first intervene and then offer services to an alleged victim and the victim’s family. To that end the primary role of CPS is to stabilize the home environment and preserve family life whenever possible. However, the approach of “preserving family life whenever possible” can sometimes be problematic.
Educating and Strengthening the Child Welfare System
In the 1980s, I was a member of the Cook County Task Force for the Study of Non-Accidental Injuries and Child Deaths. We examined the cases of children murdered by a parent or caretaker, some of whom were in the child welfare system. Consequently this Task Force of experts offered a variety of guidelines that could be put in place to prevent this type of occurrence.
In the 1990s, I was a member of another Child Death Task Force analyzing recent cases of children, in the custody of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), who were murdered by a parent or caretaker. Subsequently this Task Force offered DCFS a variety of strategies that could be put in place to prevent their wards from being murdered.
In early 2011, the newly appointed Deputy Director of Training for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) contacted me. The Deputy Director hoped to refocus all of his Child Protection Service Investigators regarding their investigations of allegations of physical child abuse and neglect. With 77 children dying of physical abuse or neglect a year, he wanted to provide his investigators with the investigative tools to conduct “critical thinking” when responding to and/or assessing a child death, a physical child abuse, or a neglect report. As a result of our conversation during the spring and summer of 2011, I conducted 12 intensive, eight-hour training seminars for every Child Protection Supervisor and CPS Investigator in the State of Illinois on the subject of “Physical and Neglect Child Abuse Injury Reconstruction Techniques.”
What Occurred with Lavandis Hudson?
In light of this insight and training, what occurred within the child welfare system with the two-year-old south suburban Chicago boy named Lavandis Hudson who was allegedly murdered by his mother?
In order to have a clearer understanding of what occurred, one must be aware of the many disciplines, agencies, and entities that are involved following an allegation of physical child abuse or neglect. Most investigations of these allegations are initially conducted by some of the core members of the Multi-Disciplinary Team who are:
• Child Protective Services or CPS
• Law enforcement
• The prosecutor
• The medical community
The role of physicians in these types of child abuse investigations cannot be over-stated. A significant portion of physical child abuse and neglect reports comes from medical providers. Often the medical providers can assist CPS and law enforcement investigators in answering the important question, “Could the injuries have happened as the parent explained it?”
According to the Chicago Tribune, Lavandis Hudson was born premature with crack cocaine pumping through his tiny body. The initial neglect report to the DCFS Hotline came from the hospital. The hospital also suspected fetal alcohol syndrome. Five weeks after Lavandis’s birth DCFS substantiated the neglect report. Lavandis was placed in protective custody citing the mother’s neglect resulting in drugs being found in her baby’s system. DCFS also cited the mother’s long history of substance abuse, violence, and depression.
In addition to the medical providers who were monitoring the child’s medical condition, two other major entities, both acting in the best interest of the child, had also come into play:
• The DCFS child welfare system
• The Cook County Juvenile Court system
It was at this point that DCFS entrusted Lutheran Social Services of Illinois with the placement of Lavandis. Lutheran Social Services did, in fact, place Lavandis into the care of a caring foster family in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Approximately seven months later, according to reports, in keeping with the goal of “preserving family life whenever possible,” a Cook County Juvenile Court Judge signed a “return home” order returning Lavandis to his biological mother who had successfully completed mandated treatment and welfare services.
In part two of this article, to appear shortly, we will examine the timeline leading to the murder of Lavandis Hudson.