DCF caseworker remained unchanged for months after toddler nearly starved to death

New London — The Department of Children and Families caseworker assigned to protect a toddler who nearly starved to death in a Groton foster home remained unchanged for more than two months after the child was hospitalized, emails and an investigative report show.

A report by the Office of the Child Advocate investigating the care of the child, whom the report refers to as “Baby Dylan,” found that the boy’s near death from starvation and abuse could occur only as a result of “the utter collapse of all safeguards.”

Richard Wexler, the executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said, “the biggest failure in this case was taking the children from their parents in the first place.”

The foster mother, Crystal Magee of Groton, was charged in February with risk of injury to a minor and abuse of persons, both felonies. She appeared in court Thursday.

Dylan’s mother, Kirsten Fauquet, said she begged for help and didn't want him with Magee, her cousin, but said no one would listen.

On Nov. 10, DCF removed Dylan from Magee’s home, and the following day, Fauquet said she visited her children, including her son. He was pale, bony and clammy, with sunken eyes, she said. The caseworker was present for about 10minutes of her two-hour visit, she said.

“There’s something wrong with him,’” she said she told the worker. After the caseworker left, she and her aunt talked about what to do next, and decided to take Dylan to the hospital. Fauquet stayed with her other children for the rest of the visit and her aunt left with Dylan, Fauquet said.

The toddler was transferred to Children’s Medical Center of Connecticut for treatment of critical injuries. He was “significantly emaciated," had broken bones in both arms — injuries that were several weeks old — multiple bruises and evidence of old bleeding into the brain, the report said.

But the report showed the DCF office that covers Norwich and New London kept the same staff assigned to the case until February, more than two months after the child's injuries were discovered.

"The region maintained the same workers and managers on Dylan's case and the same licensing unit personnel continued to engage in what was later discovered to be other poor work activities in the months that followed. During (human resources) interviews, the caseworker questioned why he was assigned to his duties between November and February 2016 if 'he had done things wrong in this case,'" the report said.

Theodore M. Parmalee, a social worker assigned to the case according to DCF documents, did not return phone calls or an email seeking comment. He was suspended for four weeks without pay in connection with the case, a DCF source said.

Elizabeth Duarte, who worked as a supervisor in the DCF licensing unit, which is separate from the treatment unit, said she feels horrible about what happened to the child.

"My heart is broken by what happened," she said. Duarte, who retired after 31 years, said she did not write the emails referenced in the Office of the Child Advocate Report.

Emails in the months after the toddler was hospitalized show he has continued to struggle with health issues.

In December, the boy was too sick to attend supervised visits over the holidays. The child had RSV, a virus that causes infections in the lungs and air passages.

On Dec. 24, Parmalee wrote in an email to Fauquet, who had asked a day earlier about seeing her children, “The visit is from 2-5 today. I will have cab pick you up at 1:40. I cannot reach you on either phone. (Dylan) cannot attend the visit. The other children are recovering; however (Dylan) caught the bronchitis the other children had which also resulted in RSV due to his immune system being compromised right now." Parmalee said he was sorry about this. The email was sent at 12:22 p.m.

Fauquet's lawyer, Lisa Vincent, replied that her client was in a housing meeting. “This visit needs to happen, but the notice was too short to be effective. Please let me know how the situation resolves,” Vincent said.

Emails also show growing desperation and frustration of the parents.

On Dec. 27, Fauquet wrote to Vincent, "why do I have to keep playing dcfs games while they kill my children slowly. I had a apartment and I lost it (because) I had a hard time making ends (meet) when they stole my children."

“Kirsten does not necessarily believe she needs any mental health treatment as she does not feel she needs it, but she does admit added stress and anxiety specific to the children being removed," Parmalee wrote to Vincent on Dec. 29. "The family still does not feel the removal was justified and they are angry; however, they presented their feelings in a much more reserved and respectful manner which I commend them for.”

Fauquet wrote to Parmalee the same day, “ted, i respectfully don’t agree with your assessment i want to see my son. its been a week already. the dept does not make up lost time and (too much time has) been lost already. I need to see my son.”

The child continued to be ill. On Feb. 1, 2016, Parmalee wrote to Vincent that the foster parents had to pick up Dylan at day care on Jan. 28 because he had a fever.

"I was told he was being brought to his pediatrician," he wrote to Vincent. "I called the parents as soon as I was given this information as it was about 90 minutes prior to their scheduled visit. Kirsten was very upset and stated we need to be notifying them of appointments and this ongoing situation is ‘unacceptable.’ I reiterated I had just been given this information and there wasn’t anything more I could do at that time,” the email said.

On Jan. 30, the boy was brought to Middlesex Hospital by his foster parents and then taken to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center as his fever had spiked to 106 degrees, the email said. Tests concluded the boy’s white blood cell count was low and his immune system weak, the email said. The foster mother was going to take some days off to manage and monitor his fever, the email said.

Republican Heather Somers, a candidate for the 18th District state Senate seat, said Friday she is appalled that DCF would keep the same caseworker assigned to a child after such injuries were discovered.

“If a parent took care of a child the way the DCF took care of (Dylan), they would be in jail,” she said. “Broken bones? Malnourished? And the DCF, by legality, is the parent. Is the parent. Because a doctor can’t treat a foster child unless they get permission from DCF. They have failed. And the fact that this caseworker (was) still on the case. Oh my God.”

Somers said DCF Commissioner Joette Katz should resign. The Senate minority leader sent a letter to Gov. Dannel Malloy on Wednesday urging him to fire the commissioner.

But Democrat Tim Bowles, also running for the 18th District seat, said he wouldn’t call on Katz to resign. Bowles worked as an investigator, treatment worker and program manager for the Department of Children and Families for close to 10 years.

He said the pendulum tends to swing from removing children from homes and placing them in the care of nonrelatives and institutional settings, and trying to keep them in the care of relatives. The pendulum may have swung too far toward relatives, Bowles said.

“We need to find a balance between protecting kids and also being able to preserve families as a unit. There has to be an equitable balance in terms of how we approach this,” he said.

Since the release of the investigative report on Tuesday, the case has raised a host of issues related to DCF; among them, how to oversee an organization whose proceedings are mostly private, what constitutes neglect, what recourse parents have when their children are removed, and who is ultimately responsible if something goes terribly wrong.

Wexler, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform executive director, wrote in an email that the behavior of some of the caseworkers and supervisors in the case of Dylan are inexcusable.

But he said Commissioner Katz has made progress in reducing the rate at which children are removed from homes and the number of children living in group homes and institutional settings, which he called the "worst form of care." 

As of Sept. 1, DCF had 4,171 children in its care — 609 fewer than when she became commissioner in 2011, according the agency.

“When the National Transportation Safety Board investigates a plane crash and finds the cause was pilot error, the NTSB generally does not then say that the entire Federal Aviation Administration is failing," Wexler wrote. "And just as air travel is the safest mode of transportation, keeping children in their own homes is the safest answer in child welfare for the overwhelming majority of children. And when foster care is necessary kinship care typically is the safest form of foster care."

But he said DCF's biggest failure is often taking the children in the first place.

“When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates,” Wexler wrote. “He is cut loose from everyone loving and familiar. ... For a young enough child, it’s an experience akin to a kidnapping.”

The typical cases that dominate caseloads of child welfare workers are not horror stories, but more commonly ones in which family poverty has been confused with “neglect,” he said.

Then there are in-between cases, Wexler said. “The case of Dylan and his siblings is a perfect example of the kind of typical case that almost certainly did not need to result in child removal — had the right kinds of help been available,” he wrote.

If the family had had access to intensive in-home help, Wexler wrote, “there is an excellent chance that this whole litany of tragedy could have been avoided: The trauma endured by the children by being separated not only from parents but also from each other, the multiple placements, and the abuse in foster care. It’s quite possible that none of it had to happen.”

d.straszheim@theday.com

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