Eileen Bennett traveled from Cumberland County to Trenton one late-summer day in 2007 for a difficult meeting. She was to hear what the state might have done to prevent her stepdaughter, Wendy, and two young grandchildren from being murdered by Wendy's husband.
Bennett expected a whitewash.
"My expectations were low," Bennett, 55, of Commercial Township, said last week. She doubted one state agency would criticize another.
But she was amazed.
E. Susan Hodgson, who was the state child advocate at the time, laid out missteps by the state Division of Youth and Family Services in unsparing detail. DYFS failed in its case handling, her report said, and failed to protect the family. To Bennett, one line validated everything the family had claimed about the shotgun homicides of her 12-year-old grandson and 7-year-old granddaughter: "Scott M. Jr. and Melanie M.'s tragic deaths were possibly preventable."
"I was shocked at how brutally honest they were about DYFS' shortcomings," Bennett said. "We figured this was a new era for DYFS, that other children would be protected because DYFS would have to redo its practices."
That era is about to end.
The state has quietly decided to stop publishing child-fatality reports such as the one that held DYFS accountable in the Bennett case and in 34 other child deaths since 2003. The Child Advocate Office did not formally announce the change, but confirmed it in a Star-Ledger report last week.
Under the new program, the advocate's office will work with an existing state review board to analyze cases in which DYFS-supervised children die or are seriously injured because of abuse or neglect, spokeswoman Nancy Parello said in a telephone interview Tuesday. The advocate, the review board and the state Department of Children and Families, which runs DYFS, will report annually on system-wide problems and recommend changes.
But the advocate's office now will keep secret what actions DYFS took in specific cases and whether the agency did anything wrong. The public no longer will have access to that information.
Children and Families spokeswoman Kate Bernyk said DYFS still will disclose whether it provided services in child fatality cases and will document the extent of its involvement. But the advocate's reports had provided much greater detail than the information DYFS is required by law to release. And DYFS does not provide a critical review of itself.
New Jersey established the advocate's office in 2003 after the murder of 7-year-old Faheem Williams, of Newark, shocked and mobilized the state. The boy's beaten and mummified body was found in the closet of a relative. A public outcry spurred reforms. The first child advocate, Kevin Ryan, worked to expose agency lapses in a number of tragic cases.
Parello says the office also was created to address a range of issues affecting child safety, including drowning and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. She said the office decided to re-evaluate its mission after Hodgson resigned as advocate last year.
"Our job is to identify systemic issues, not to provide the public with the details of every single case," Parello said.
Activists say they fear the loss of public scrutiny will jeopardize improvements New Jersey has made in child welfare since establishing the advocate's office and agreeing to have federal officials monitor the system as part of a lawsuit settlement.
"We're back to square one," Bennett said. "The bureaucracy wins again."
State Sen. Diane Allen, R-Burlington, Camden, said the public cannot hold DYFS accountable if it doesn't know what's going on. She echoed a sentiment expressed by others: "We don't solve the problems of child abuse and neglect with less information."
Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said policy should not be driven by the relatively few extreme cases resulting in death. He said regular reviews of randomly selected DYFS cases would reveal more about how DYFS works than studying "the horror stories" - concentrating on deaths distorts the agency's practices like a "funhouse mirror."
But he said providing no information could be worse. The agency must be publicly accountable in tragic cases, Wexler said.
State officials countered that they still will be held accountable. Parello said experts from different fields will evaluate DYFS' performance as part of the annual report done with the Child Fatality and Near-Fatality Review Board.
"There's accountability for everyone involved with children," she said, adding: "We see this as going in a positive direction."
Advocates say that if DYFS is internally accountable only to government officials, the public is left out.
"We all have to be watchdogs," Allen said. "Government isn't perfect. We need to hold the feet of those in charge to the fire."
Cecelia Zalkind, director of the Association for Children of New Jersey, said that "Basically, they're saying, 'Trust us.'" She added: "And past experience shows that's not good enough."
For Bennett, who lost her stepdaughter and two grandchildren, the change is a "giant step" backward. "Everything we thought that was good that had come out of this (ordeal), we feel was for naught."
Bennett, who formerly worked for The Press of Atlantic City as a bureau chief, copy editor and reporter, said she was stunned when she read that the state no longer would publish performance analyses in child-fatality cases. The advocate report on the case involving Bennett's family - which settled a lawsuit against DYFS for $750,000 - is a prime example of the kind of accountability that will be missed.
DYFS was involved with the family before the murders.
In mid-2004, another Bennett grandchild, Amanda Bennett, then 16, charged Wendy's husband, Scott McCarter, with sexually abusing her when she was 13. McCarter was charged in July 2004 with six counts of aggravated sexual assault against Amanda and her best friend.
DYFS got involved. McCarter, who was initially jailed and then living out of the family's Millville home, was ordered not to have contact with Amanda and Scott and Melanie, until services and treatment were completed. But DYFS ignored complaints that McCarter had violated orders to stay away from Amanda and her younger siblings. Amanda moved out.
Wendy initially supported Amanda. But within months, she wanted to reunite the family. Police told DYFS Wendy pressured Amanda to drop the charges.
But DYFS did not even visit between Aug. 17 and Oct. 6, 2004, the report said. Then, workers discovered McCarter had moved back in, and Amanda had moved out to live with her paternal grandmother. The report found no evidence that two DYFS workers expressed any concern about McCarter violating the case plan. Nor did they act to remove Amanda's younger siblings from the home. The report noted it is "unlikely" that a sexual abuser would limit abuse to only one child.
DYFS did not insist McCarter move out until Dec. 30, 2004. DYFS workers were supposed to visit the home every two weeks in 2005. But only eight visits occurred. During one, workers discovered McCarter was spending unsupervised time with the children in violation of the case plan.
No visits were recorded in 2006, the report said. McCarter's sexual assault trial began in mid-May. On May 25, 2006, on a day he was supposed to testify, McCarter, 40, entered the family's Millville home and shotgunned to death Wendy, 35, and their two children, Scott and Melanie. They died while they slept in their beds. McCarter then turned the weapon on himself.
The child advocate's report documented case-management problems in detail, including a "fundamental flaw" in the DYFS case plan that allowed an accused sexual molester access to the children during the day, even though Amanda and her friend had said McCarter abused them during daytime hours.
State officials have said one reason for discontinuing its public case reviews is to protect surviving family members. But Zalkind said those families often want to know how the system failed.
Bennett said that it hurts every time their story is retold. But she said she believes the public accountability keeps the system honest and directly helps save other children in dangerous situations.
"Every time our case is mentioned, it's a new trauma for Amanda and us," she said. "But you weigh that against improving the system and saving the life of a child.
"We want to see our children in New Jersey safe," she said.
A recent case that could be affected by the state's change in practice involves the April 22 murder of a 2-year-old boy in Woodbine, Cape May County. Caden Rivera, who had cerebral palsy, died from blunt-force trauma to his abdomen, authorities said. His mother's boyfriend, Damien Garcia Rodriguez, 31, of Wildwood was charged with aggravated manslaughter and awaits trial in the Cape May County Jail.
Caden's estranged father, Juan Rivera-Perez, 30, of Wildwood had claimed in a complaint to DYFS a month before the murder that the child was being abused.
DYFS released a document showing that DYFS acted on the tip and had investigated the mother, Jennifer Bowen, in the past on allegations of abuse, neglect and substance abuse. Three of her children were removed from her care and placed with relatives in April 2000, the document said. DYFS found no evidence of alleged substance abuse in March 2007, when Bowen was pregnant with Caden, it said.
But the document provides no details of DYFS' activities in the month leading up to Caden's death, other than that the last contact with the child was made March 25, six days after it received a complaint.
Did DYFS workers follow proper procedures? Did they interview the accused murderer? Did they find evidence of abuse or neglect? These are the kinds of questions the Child Advocate Office had asked - and publicly answered - until now.
Wexler, of the national reform group, advocates a bold approach to public accountability in child welfare.
"What's really needed is a 'rebuttable presumption' of total openness," Wexler said. "All court hearings should be open. Almost all records should be open - not just in fatality cases, but in every case."
Seventeen states, including Florida and New York, have opened proceedings and some records to the public. As a result, he said, the public understands more about the system's workings, and not just fatality cases. Accountability has improved, Wexler said.
"You can't fix a government system with one designated government watchdog, be it (the child advocate) or a review board," he said. "We all have to be the watchdogs, so we all have to have the information."
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