Dedicate new DYFS rules to Faheem Williams 

Wednesday, September 1, 2004 

By LAWRENCE AARON 

As long as we're celebrating the restructuring of DYFS and the reform of Human Services, someone in Trenton should come up with a way to memorialize Faheem Williams, the 7-year-old boy who died tragically in Newark early last year. 

Last week, Governor McGreevey signed the reform legislation that overhauls the overwhelmed and embattled Division of Youth and Family Services. The measure should be called Faheem's Law.

The plan adds about 1,000 caseworkers, which should relieve the constant concern that services were spread too thin because each caseworker was overloaded with work. Additional support staff positions were also created. 

Whether you call it sweeping reform legislation or a bureaucratic Band-Aid, the plan never would have come into being had it not been for the untimely death of Faheem Williams. McGreevey held a bill-signing ceremony Friday at St. Matthew's AME Church in Orange. 

"For me, personally, there cannot be a legacy greater than fixing a system that was clearly broken and, God willing, to save one child's life," said McGreevey, peeking out from behind the shield of silence he's built up around himself to avoid questions about his private life.   

He was there to talk about how the new law would restructure DYFS and prevent future embarrassments and tragedies like Faheem, whose emaciated and lifeless body was found stuffed in a plastic storage container. In previous years, his family had been visited by DYFS caseworkers, who failed to detect the abuse and rescue him. 

DYFS made haste to adopt corrective measures, but deaths due to abuse and neglect continued mounting. Toward the end of 2003 the agency faced another horrific abuse case in South Jersey - 18-year-old Bruce Jackson and his younger brothers - where caseworkers failed to notice four starving boys at a home they'd visited for several years. 

No amount of money or retooling seems to be enough put a major dent in child protection problems. Faheem Williams died in January 2003, setting in motion a flurry of activity designed to prevent such things from ever happening again, yet by year's end the number of dead kids was 37 - a five-year high.

The cause of death has included drowning, beating, stabbing, fire, or a slashed throat. Other injuries and sex abuse were horrendous, but not deadly. 

So far this year 21 deaths have been reported to DYFS, nine of which were substantiated as abuse or neglect. 

The official cause of Faheem's death was blunt trauma to the stomach, and a cousin was charged with aggravated manslaughter. 

DYFS was blamed for not monitoring the boy's home life, and two caseworkers took the fall. The agency had closed his case file without accounting for the welfare of Faheem, his twin brother Raheem, and other children in the household. Eleven months later, police found his body after being alerted by a friend who had discovered his two brothers in a basement closet filthy, stinking, and starving. If there is any consolation in Faheem's death, it's that it lit the fire under the administration, which was forced to take a hard look at DYFS dysfunctions and make some radical changes.

Faheem Williams should be permanently memorialized and given official credit for making 2003 the watershed year in child protection. 

Faheem's death spurred the government to stop contesting the Children's Rights Inc. suit filed on behalf of New Jersey's children, enter into consent decree, and begin the slow process of building a structure that could truly shelter children from abuse and death. Eventually, in the most perfect of worlds, the DYFS reforms sparked by Faheem's death will prevent the deaths of the state's other vulnerable children. 

The lives of many children are riding on fixing a system that the administration acknowledges hasn't worked in the past decade, and hasn't worked to prevent dozens of deaths since Faheem's. 

Record Columnist Lawrence Aaron can be contacted at aaron@northjersey.com. Send comments to oped@northjersey.com.

N.J. shouldn't hide details of DYFS' role in child deaths
Published: Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How many child deaths constitute a trend?

Under a
new state policy, when a child under state supervision dies, details of the actions of child welfare workers responsible for that family's case will no longer be made public. Instead officials plan to compile periodic reports on any "trends" they spot in the handling, or mishandling, of child abuse and neglect cases that end in fatalities.

In recent years the Office of the Child Advocate has generated individual case-history reports that detailed how the Division of Youth and Family Services performed, what went wrong and what lessons could be drawn from each case.

The new plan will have the Child Advocate and DYFS work with yet another state panel, the Child Fatality and Near-Fatality Review Board, to issue periodic reports on statistics and trends in child-death cases. Details of individual cases will remain confidential.
After all the progress that's been made in reforming DYFS over the past six years, this marks a step backward from public accountability.

It was the death of 7-year-old Faheem Williams in 2003 that drew back the curtain on dysfunction within DYFS. After his body was found stuffed in a closet at his aunt's house, it turned out that the agency had lost track of him and his brothers and closed out their case without knowing what was happening to them.

Not only did Faheem's death and the exposure of DYFS's failings result in a major overhaul of the agency, it prompted a significant increase in calls to the state's child abuse hotline. Now, the state wants to keep the public in the dark. No more details about interventions that did not work. No more information about children who were not removed but should have been. No more reports on families who were not properly supervised.

And so we won't learn more about, for example, the case of 9-year-old Jamarr Cruz, beaten to death in March, allegedly by his mother's boyfriend. Jamarr had been under DYFS supervision since 2007. Agency records show the caseworker failed to visit the Cruz home one last time before closing the case last year.

The state says reporting individual cases is not a good way to tell if the system is working and that its new policy is designed to protect families from harmful publicity. But when a child dies from abuse or neglect, particularly when that child has been under the supervision of DYFS, the public has a right to know just what went wrong and why, and who is accountable.

Each individual case is its own tragedy. Each case should be fully disclosed.

Star Ledger





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