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Emergency Custody Decisions: Part Two

Friday, February 2, 2001 at 8:38 AM

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Last year Cuyahoga County's Department of Children and Family Services had to deal with 18,000 phone calls suggesting that a child is abused or neglected. Of those 18,000, one has provoked consequences that are felt in the agency to this day. It's the case of 4-year-old Sidney Sawyer, who was beaten to death last spring. At the time, the case provoked a massive outcry: the county had been investigating Sidney's family for possible child abuse at the time of her death -- why hadn't the child been taken from the home? Earlier this morning we told you about the tools the county uses to decide whether to take emergency custody. 90.3's April Baer now looks at how the system missed Sidney.

April Baer- The first thing to understand about how families are split up is that the decision is essentially made by committee. A staffing meeting is held between immediate and extended family members, a caseworker and supervisor, led by an independent staff facilitator. This roomful sits down and has it out—reviewing the facts of the case, and talking about whether the child will be at risk over the long term. If not, the Department of Children and Family Services, or DCFS, may move to take permanent custody.

In Sidney Sawyer’s case, things never even got that far. DCFS director Bill Denihan.

Bill Denihan- Really, you should understand a staffing did not occur in this case. A very important point, and that’s one of the issues.

AB- Tallis George Munro is the supervisor of the social worker who investigated the Sawyer case. The decision making process the county uses to help workers make emergency custody decisions is called a safety assessment. It’s a first-contact tool, Munro says, that determines whether a child should be removed before the investigation even begins.

Tallis George Munro- The safety assessment is supposed to be done within a 24-hour period, after making first contact with the parents.

AB- Last March 28th, a worker under Munro’s guidance responded to a call made by Sidney Sawyer’s day care center. Someone had noticed bruises. Within hours, the worker met Sidney, interviewed five day care workers, and Sidney’s mother, Lashon. She then went to the Sawyer home, an apartment in Hough, and conducted further interviews with the family. Then, Munro says the worker filled out the county’s structured decision making form, used its scoring system, and reported back.

TGM- The risk assessment tool did not adequately evaluate abuse to her. Sidney was rated low to moderate for abuse. Not intensive, not high.

AB- Munro says he and the worker suspected the evidence pointed to abuse—photos of bruises on Sidney’s body, bruises her mother was unable to explain. But the mother was very cooperative and showed appropriate concern for her daughter’s injuries. Based on that, and the SDM’s low score for immediate risk, they decided not to go for emergency custody, and investigate further. 29 days later, Sidney Sawyer was taken to the hospital where she died—the victim of a brutal beating. Her mother, Lashon Sawyer, was recently convicted for the death. Tallis George Munro was fired.

Munro says in the course of the Sawyer case, he stuck closely to the rules of the county’s newly developed system for making emergency custody decisions, as he understood them.

TGM- As an investigator’s supervisor I could not say yes, this is physical abuse, based upon a simple photograph. I needed to have a medical opinion. If I didn’t have a medical opinion, I would have needed Sidney’s testimony. I would have needed maybe a third party disclosure, perhaps someone might have said that she saw another adult hit Sidney. But absent a credible disclosure of abuse by either a victim, or a third party or even admission by the alleged perpetrator, the bruise at best was considered “indicated”.

AB- And Munro says he was reluctant to go before a county magistrate with what he had and ask for custody.

DCFS Officials say they fully appreciate that workers and supervisors are making decisions based on subtle points. But they also say that’s exactly why Munro should have called a staffing, to get more people in on the decision-making. Jim McCafferty is the deputy director who helped set up the agency’s decision-making tool that’s used in emergency custody cases.

Jim McCafferty- I can come in with a tool that looks horrendous, the safety issues are terrible. And you would say walking in there’s no way this kid can ever go home. But at the staffing… Mom admits she has a drug problem, says I’ll go right into treatment. Grandma agrees to move into the home, or mom agrees to move with the child into grandma’s home. All of a sudden we don’t have to take custody. Same time, you may come into a staffing with what appears to be not so serious a custody issue that you think you can make something happen. The attitude of the family is such, or there’s some family dynamic that we didn’t know about, and all of a sudden we’ve decided in that staffing that this child can’t go home. And when someone makes a decision on their own that they can abrogate that process, and do their own thing, that becomes very problematic.

AB- McCafferty and other top DCFS officials say Munro had every opportunity to speak up if they felt something was really wrong, and failed to do so. Director Bill Denihan declines to be specific about the exact points in the case where he feels Tallis Geroge Munro was in error. For his part, Munro has campaigned tirelessly since his firing to encourage debate on the SDM system and its accuracy. Many County social workers refuse to comment on a case they say has received too much misplaced attention already. But a number will say, they believe it’s their duty to speak out if their gut reactions don’t match with the scores on the SDM. Denise Dembowski is a young intake worker, driving down I-77 on her rounds, she says she doesn’t feel bound by the documents.

Denise Dembowski- It’s not based solely on those papers—I use my skills, my training, my degree. I went to college to four years to learn about things like this—it’s all of those.

AB- Agency director Bill Denihan says if proper procedure had been followed, Sidney Sawyer might be alive today. It remains to be seen, however, if decision making tools can now protect him from liability. Sidney’s father, who was not living in the home when she died, is considering filing a wrongful death suit that would hold the county, the agency, and Tallis George Munro responsible. Munro claims the county is setting him up to take the fall if that happens. He’s pursuing legal action to clear his name, and will take his case to the state board of employee relations February twenty second. Both sides are now under a gag order and are reluctant to comment further. Whether the system failed Sidney Sawyer, or simply didn’t reach her in time, it appears the department of Children and Family Services will not be free of her memory anytime soon.

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