New Jersey's child welfare system thought Vincent Williams was a changed man.
After admitting he beat his girlfriend's son with a belt in December 2007, the Camden man was ordered to get help by the Division of Youth and Family Services. Last year, he finished parenting classes -- as well as 17 weeks of family therapy and anger management counseling. Advertisement
DYFS closed its books on the case in November, even after investigating Williams, 26, again two months earlier for using "excessive force" to discipline the fourth-grade boy.
Today Williams sits in a jail cell, accused of beating and kicking 9-year-old Jamarr Cruz to death last month.
And DYFS, which for years had been criticized for mishandling cases with tragic results, is facing new questions over whether it failed to protect another child.
Jamarr's death and the questions it raises come at a pivotal moment for DYFS. This year, New Jersey must prove to a federal court monitor that the $1 billion spent over nearly six years to expand and improve the child welfare and mental health system is benefiting the 23,500 troubled families DYFS supervises.
If any wrongdoing is found, Association for Children of New Jersey executive director Cecilia Zalkind said she won't accept any of the old excuses suggesting the child slipped through the cracks of an overworked, under-funded and poorly managed bureaucracy.
"The excuses of the past are no longer applicable. We made a huge investment," Zalkind said.
That investment helped hire and train hundreds more caseworkers and supervisors to ensure caseloads would be manageable, Zalkind said. Yet according to state records, the state skipped the last monthly visit in the Williams case, in October, before closing the case in November, she noted.
"We don't have the excuse any more of a young caseworker with a caseload of 100," Zalkind said. "Here you had a 9-year-old who can talk. If you have a skilled caseworker, there are ways of getting at information."
Death spurs new doubts about DYFS. Tragedy followed $1B child welfare overhaul
"Many of the reforms that were implemented over the past several years were designed to create the conditions under which DYFS caseworkers could give each child's case the attention it deserves and hopefully prevent situations like this from arising," Lambiase said.
"These types of tragedies cannot always be avoided, but we need to look closely at this case to make sure DYFS did everything they should have to keep Jamarr Cruz safe. Right now, we just don't know enough," she said.
State Child Advocate Ronald Chen said his staff will collaborate with the state Child Fatality and Near-Fatality Review Board on an "expedited review" of the case to determine systemic flaws.
Kimberly Ricketts, commissioner of DYFS' parent agency, the Department of Children and Families, said her staff is probing how the North Camden DYFS office handled the case. Although it's too soon to know what happened, Ricketts said she has high expectations of DYFS.
"It's important to note this is a very different system than it was several years ago, and we remain committed to continuing that progress," Ricketts said.
Last year, Judith Meltzer, a child welfare expert reviewing the reform, praised the state for slashing high caseloads, beefing up training, and recruiting more foster and adoptive families. This year, Meltzer will measure whether the reforms are protecting kids at risk of harm, and strengthening families in crisis.
Meltzer said she will examine Jamarr's case after the state's investigation is done. "I really don't know if they missed something," she said. "It's worth reserving judgment if you can."
A GRANDFATHER'S QUESTIONS
"The school takes care of these kids seven hours a day, and they should have been told," he said.
Death spurs new doubts about DYFS - Page 3 Tragedy followed $1B child welfare overhaul
DYFS spokeswoman Kate Bernyk said she could not yet say if school officials were consulted. Teachers and the school nurses are typically interviewed in abuse cases, she said.
The McGees last saw Jamarr in January, when he came to the family's North Camden home to visit them and their son. McGee recalled the typically reserved but playful boy seemed on edge. Advertisement
"Jamarr was very quiet. He acted like he was scared. I asked what's wrong with you and he wouldn't say," McGee said. "He said, 'I don't want to go back home.' Then he laughed, jumped on my back and we wrestled. ... It stunned us to know all he was going through."
DYFS opened the case after Williams was charged with abuse for beating Jamarr with a belt in December 2007. He pleaded guilty and received probation, and DYFS required parenting classes and therapy designed "for parents identified as at risk for abuse and neglect," said Bernyk.
DYFS never required Williams to leave the home and did not require supervision when he spent time with the child, Bernyk said.
Before the family completed therapy in October, DYFS received another complaint on Sept. 17, accusing Williams of once again using excessive corporal punishment on Jamarr.
DYFS investigated and declared the accusation "unfounded" -- an agency term that can mean two things: there was no evidence the abuse happened, or there was some evidence, but not enough to make a solid case.
Retired DYFS assistant director Jesse Moskowitz said this should prompt the state to stop declaring cases with at least some evidence of abuse as "unfounded." DYFS once had a designation for times when workers found something amiss but not enough to prove harm.
"If there is even the slightest chance that the subsequent unfounded finding in this case led to misunderstanding ... and the tragedy that followed, the law must be changed now," he said.
The caseworker, employed by DYFS since 2004, did not have too big a caseload, Bernyk said.
"The death of Jamarr Cruz is truly a horrific tragedy," Ricketts said. "Any child who dies due to abuse or neglect, we all feel and suffer the loss very deeply."
In a statement he gave to county investigators, Williams said the beating that killed Jamarr was one of 20 he inflicted on the boy this year.
"Defendant stated that he hid the victim from anyone who could possibly help him, including making up excuses so the victim could not see his grandparents," police records show. "Defendant stated he murdered the victim."
He has been charged with murder and faces a life sentence if convicted.
Tom Rosenthal, spokesman for the Office of the Public Defender, which represents Williams, declined comment because the office just got the case.
Susan K. Livio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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