Children's Stories

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Tuesday, September 11, 2001

The Washington Post documented the cases of 11 babies who died after they were born exposed to drugs and sent to live with troubled parents without city help from 1993 through 2000. The following accounts of four of those cases are based on interviews and records from the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, the D.C. Child Fatality Review Committee, D.C. Superior Court, the medical examiner's office and the police department:

Kristen Cheeks

Oct. 16, 1997-Dec. 8, 1997

Blunt force trauma

Although her mother denied using drugs, Kristen was born addicted to cocaine, with trouble breathing. Three complaints about Kristen's mother had been called in to the child protection agency that year. Social workers did not open a case until the third complaint was made, a month before Kristen was born. A caller said the woman was using food stamps to buy crack and neglecting her 4-year-old child.

A social worker closed the case shortly before Kristen was born. Howard University Hospital workers sent Kristen home with an apnea monitor -- but without alerting the agency that a new child was born to the single mother, fatality committee records show.

On Dec. 8, Kristen's mother left the baby with a friend who was the subject of a neglect complaint involving her own children. Kristen was later found dead inside the friend's Columbia Heights apartment. The infant had suffered severe blows to the head, scratches, bruises and a burn on her body.

The mother's friend later told police that Kristen had been crying and she threw her down on a sofa bed, where the baby hit her head on a metal bar, police records show. The friend was charged with murder, but the charges were later dismissed. Separately, she pleaded guilty to assaulting two of her own children.

"Policies, procedures and practices were not adequate in addressing the needs of this family," an internal agency review found.

Tynecia Smith

June 20, 1998-July 15, 1998

Sudden infant death syndrome

Three times, callers notified the city that the two Smith children were being mistreated. And three times, the child protection agency did not find evidence to open a case, leaving the children to fend for themselves.

The callers, who included relatives and a law enforcement officer, reported neglect. The complaints were in October 1992, April 1996 and February 1998. Because social workers said they did not find enough evidence to support the complaints, they never monitored the family and were unaware of Tynecia's birth in June 1998. At 25 days old, the baby was found dead on a couch, where she was sleeping with her mother and a sibling.

The fatality committee concluded that "after three reports with similar allegations, Child and Family Services should be required to open the case," and "some type of services should have been provided."

Robert Walker Jr.

May 10, 1998-Sept. 5, 1998

Undetermined

Robert was born and died without any intervention by the District's child protection agency -- even though the agency was aware that his mother had been having trouble caring for the five children in her family for several years.

In 1991, the agency received a call complaining that the woman was spending public assistance money on crack, not providing food or clothing for her children and leaving them with unwilling caretakers. The case was eventually closed because the social worker could not find the mother, who lived under five aliases. In 1993, after another complaint, the agency removed three of the children and placed them with a relative. Two other children were later placed in foster care.

Robert was born in May 1998 at D.C. General Hospital. The year before, his mother had been reported to Child and Family Services for giving birth to a cocaine-exposed baby who needed surgery. But the agency closed that case before Robert's birth.

Robert also was born exposed to cocaine, and his mother told nurses she used drugs and alcohol during her pregnancy. It is unclear whether anyone from the hospital contacted Child and Family Services. But the agency did not open a case to monitor Robert.

"They should have taken that baby away," said Robert's uncle, Aaron Pledger.

Four months later, Robert was found dead in his parents' bed in an unkempt home, where police found drug paraphernalia and spoiled milk but no formula or diapers. Committee documents state that Robert's mother drank large quantities of alcohol and smoked crack in the days before his death, and the committee wrote that Robert's death was "suspicious." The cause of his death remains undetermined.

Bernard Little

Nov. 29, 1999-April 18, 2000

Sudden infant death syndrome

Bernard Little's mother was a 19-year-old with a history of mental health problems who had been placed in the custody of the child protection agency when she was 11. She had lived in five group homes and residential treatment centers.

When Bernard was born, he had lung problems and tested HIV positive. His mother was still being monitored by the agency while she lived at her mother's home. She and the baby soon moved out and into a city shelter.

Emmanuel Baah, the social worker for Bernard's mother, said in an interview that he went on a three-month leave shortly after Bernard was born. The agency did not assign another social worker to the case, he said. Baah's supervisor, Willie Calhoun, said he believed Bernard's mother received some services from the shelter.

Bernard's mother was referred for help to a "collaborative" -- a neighborhood organization funded by the District to provide services to families. After Bernard died of SIDS, the fatality committee found that the referral to the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative "did not result in any positive work with the mother." The committee also found fault with the agency, stating that the "planning and follow-up" for Bernard after he was discharged from the hospital were "inadequate."

Thomas W. Gore, executive director of the collaborative, said, "We have changed our case management practices to make sure families are seen twice a month."

Six months after Bernard died, his mother gave birth to twins. One of them, Lenora Little, died in November 2000 -- 10 days after she was born.


© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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