District of Columbia social workers had received warning signals that something was seriously wrong in the household where an infant starved to death two weeks ago and should have done more to protect the child, D.C. Commissioner of Social Services Audrey Rowe has concluded.
Some problems at the household were known to the city's protective services agency one month before the infant's death occurred. But the social worker who received the initial complaint of child neglect determined at the time that there was no "clear and immediate danger" to the child, Rowe said, and another worker failed to be aggressive enough in following up on the case.
"I hate to do 20-20 hindsight on my workers, but my personal view is that there were some signals we should have more effectively picked up on," Rowe said in a recent interview. "We should have been more aggressive about getting into that home."
Rowe said that as a result of this case she has placed more experienced social workers at the critical intake point when complaints of child abuse and neglect are initially screened and when it is determined whether the complaint constitutes a matter of life or death for the child and merits immediate action.
Rowe said she has transferred the relatively inexperienced protective services worker who first investigated the case from the night intake shift to the day shift, where he will have fewer responsibilities.
She added that there may be further changes in procedure, pending an investigation.
Rowe said that in this case, she believes the intake worker was justified in making an initial determination of no immediate danger to the child. She added, however, that follow-up efforts were not adequately pursued.
On Jan. 26, police found 9-month-old Keith Roddy dead of starvation and his brother Lynn, 2 1/2, alive but suffering from malnutrition and dehydration in their father's Benning Road NE apartment. The elder child is recovering at Children's Hospital.
The father, Keith Lynn Roddy, 29, who was unemployed and on probation for a drug conviction at the time of the infant's death, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter. He faces a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison if convicted.
Last year, the city tightened its procedures for handling emergency child abuse cases after a 5-year-old boy, identified as a possible abuse victim, was killed by his mother just an hour after a city social worker returned the child and mother to their home. After a two-month investigation, the city was unable to pin down exactly why the child protection system failed in that case.
The Roddy case, Rowe said, reflects the "fine line" city social workers often walk in making judgment calls. Rowe gave this breakdown of events leading up to the child's death:
On Dec. 27, the children's mother, Clara Turner, told a protective services intake worker that Roddy had forced her to leave their Benning Road apartment two weeks before. Turner said Roddy insisted that their two sons stay with him.
Turner told the worker that her two oldest daughters, ages 17 and 16, had recently taken food to the apartment and found that the children's diapers had not been changed and that they had developed rashes. Turner also reported that there was no food in the apartment when her daughters arrived.
Rowe said that the worker determined that there was no "clear and immediate danger" to the children at this point. In such cases where no immediate danger is found, the agency, by law, has 24 hours to investigate the complaint. If there is a determination of immediate danger, however, D.C. law requires protective services to notify the police and investigate the case immediately.
The following day, Rowe said, a different social worker was assigned to investigate the case. She said this worker called Turner for further explanation of the problem and then went out to the Roddy apartment, which is above a barber shop, surrounded by other small businesses with second-story apartments. The worker could not gain access to the locked building.
The worker returned on or about Jan. 5, but again could not get in, Rowe said.
The worker went back a third time around Jan. 12 and encountered the proprietor of the barber shop, who was able to let him inside the building. No one was home in Roddy's apartment and the worker left a note under the door with his name, address and an explanation of the purpose of his visit. The barber shop owner reported that he had not seen the children lately.
The social worker apparently did not take further action on the case, Rowe said.
Rowe now says the worker "should have kept going back and trying other avenues," such as contacting Roddy's probation officer.
Rowe said, however, that she believes the intake worker who took Turner's complaint was justified in making an initial determination that there was no immediate danger to the children. "You see so many cases like that," Rowe said.
She said the agency would have taken immediate action if workers knew that the children were being left unattended.
Clara Turner's version of what happened differs on some points from that given by Rowe. Turner said she did tell the initial intake worker that her daughters had found her two young sons alone in the apartment, in addition to citing problems about the children's diaper rash and lack of food.
She said she told the intake worker she did not believe Roddy was capable of taking care of the children, citing his history of drug use.
Turner's version differs with Rowe's also in that Turner says the second protective services worker assigned to investigate the case contacted her for further information two days, not one day, after she placed the complaint. She said she heard nothing more from the worker.
Turner said she initially tried to get the children out of the apartment on Dec. 10, when she and Roddy argued. She said that police were called but that they told her Roddy had as much right to keep the children as she.
Turner said that besides placing the complaint with protective services, she also went to the corporation counsel's office to make a claim for custody, and a hearing was set for Feb. 4.
Michael Cobb, the deputy corporation counsel who saw Turner, confirmed that this meeting took place but declined further comment.
Turner said she then went to probation officer Thomas Flannery, who had done the presentence report when Roddy came up for sentencing on Dec. 10 on a heroin possession conviction. She said she informed Flannery of her argument with Roddy and the situation with the children.
Flannery said that he saw Turner, but that she never mentioned the situation of the children. He said he told her the Roddy case was basically out of his hands but said he would inform D.C. Superior Court Judge Tim Murphy, who had placed Roddy on probation on the drug conviction, of her complaint.
Murphy declined to comment on the case.
Roddy's version of the events also differs from the others. According to court testimony, he said he asked Turner to take the children back on Jan. 7 but that she refused.
Turner said she was awaiting the Feb. 4 court date so she could "be sure" she could get the children permanently. She also said she was afraid to return to the apartment.
The children were discovered on Jan. 26 after Roddy called his probation officer to say there was something wrong with his children.
Police said Roddy later called them and threatened to commit suicide. They said Roddy told them he had not fed the children for six days.
Turner said Roddy also called a friend of hers that day and said: "Tell Clara I have bad news for her. One of her babies is dead."