By Robert Hugh Farley, M.S.
Consultant to the VIRTUS® Programs
On March 1, 2012 the Chicago Tribune reported on their front page “Toddler’s Death Preventable? DCFS Actions Investigated as Mom Charged with Murder.”
In Part One of this Two-Part article we looked at the history of physical child abuse investigation. We then discussed the operational approach of Child Protective Services (CPS) across the United States, which is to stabilize the home environment and preserve family life whenever possible. We also began examining the circumstances within the child protection system that occurred with a two-year-old suburban Chicago boy named Lavandis Hudson who was allegedly murdered by his mother Marles Blackman.
What Occurred with Lavandis Hudson?
According to the Chicago Tribune, Lavandis Hudson was born premature with crack cocaine pumping through his tiny body. The initial neglect report to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) “Hotline” came from the hospital. Five weeks after Lavandis’ birth, DCFS substantiated the neglect report. Lavandis was placed in protective custody citing the mother’s neglect as a result of drugs being found in her baby’s system. DCFS also cited the mother’s long history of alleged substance abuse, violence, and depression.
DCFS, with the Cook County Juvenile Court’s approval, then entrusted Lutheran Social Services of Illinois with the placement of Lavandis. As a result, the baby was placed into the care of a foster family in the western suburbs of Chicago.
Approximately seven months later, in keeping with the goal of “preserving family life whenever possible,” a Cook County Juvenile Court Judge signed a “return home” order returning Lavandis to his biological mother, a single parent, who had successfully completed mandated treatment and welfare services.
Approximately six months later and with the agreement of the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, the Juvenile Court case with Lavandis was officially closed. At this point all DCFS monitoring of the mother and child stopped.
Three months later, Marles Blackman brought Lavandis into a hospital claiming he had fallen off the bed. Suspicious about the multiple injuries on the child’s body, the doctor made a report to the DCFS “Hotline.” A DCFS Investigator initiated a “safety plan” temporarily placing Lavandis with a relative of the mother’s live-in boyfriend. Two days later DCFS determined that Lavandis was not at serious risk and he was returned to his mother.
Fourteen days after the safety plan was terminated, Marles Blackman brought Lavandis to yet another hospital claiming he had broken his arm. The arm was not broken, but according to records the staff questioned the mother about suspicious marks on his body and a bite mark on the abdomen. The mother attributed the suspicious marks to dry skin and Lavandis scratching himself. Lavandis’ sister was blamed for the bite mark.
Six days later Marles Blackman telephoned 911 and related that she was preparing dinner, heard a thump and had found Lavandis unresponsive. Lavandis was airlifted to a hospital where tests showed he was brain dead. The two-year-old child was taken off life support and died the next day.
The Cook County autopsy for Lavandis identified a serious brain injury which was the result of blunt force trauma, possible strangulation, several cuts, bruises and possible bite marks on the face, torso, buttocks, back and extremities. Several other injuries were healing indicating a pattern of prior abuse. The pathologist also noted defense wounds on the child’s hands and arms.
The mother, Marles Blackman has been charged with murder and is being held in the Cook County Jail in lieu of a one million dollar bond.
As we examine this case one should ask, what went wrong within the Illinois and Cook County child protection system that resulted in the death of this child?
Often in a case where a child has been murdered by a parent or caretaker, law enforcement detectives are able to determine whether the physical abuse periodically increased culminating in a homicide.
That certainly seems evident in the case of Lavandis. In the short timeline of reports, one observes that on June 28, 2011, subsequent to a suspected child physical abuse complaint from a hospital, a DCFS Investigator initiated a “safety plan” temporarily placing Lavandis with a relative of the mother’s live-in boyfriend. Two days later DCFS determined that Lavandis was not at serious risk and he was returned back to his mother. On July 14, 2011, Lavandis was taken to yet another hospital. On July 20, 2011, Lavandis was found unresponsive in his home and the next day he was taken off life support.
As we look at this short timeline, questions exist regarding the decision of a child protection system to temporarily place Lavandis with “a relative of the mother’s live-in boyfriend” rather than a licensed foster parent as “a relative of the mother’s live-in boyfriend” is certainly not a family member. In addition, in light of the history of prior abuse, one also questions how DCFS determined in just two days that Lavandis was not at serious risk. Further, why was Lavandis returned back to his mother without requiring the mother to first attend intensive, family-based services such as parenting classes that, upon reunification, would extend beyond the time the child returned home?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Information Gateway states, “When children must be removed from their birth families for their protection, the first goal is to achieve reunification as safely as possible.” Reuniting a child with the biological parent is a lofty aspiration but in some cases is unrealistic. Some biological parents, for a variety of reasons such as mental disabilities, are not capable of reunifying with their child or even utilizing the parenting services that they are offered.
Across the United States, Child Protective Services has increasingly relied on family reunification rather than foster care or adoption. Unfortunately, college and even graduate school social work will seldom prepare a student for the realities of the child protection profession. The CPS Investigators who investigate child physical abuse and neglect often have a heavy caseload, are frequently inexperienced, and in some situations, inadequately trained in investigative techniques. Additionally, as an investigation progresses, the CPS investigator must always balance the goal of family-reunification while at the same time protecting the victim from further abuse. Ultimately, in some situations a CPS Investigator completes a risk assessment checklist form and then makes a judgment call.
The likelihood of physically abusive behavior reoccurring should be the primary basis for the decision of whether the child should return home. Because physical abuse occurs within the home and the victim is often too young to notify anyone, the question of whether the physical abuse will continue is difficult to establish with any certainty. Even if Lavandis were able to articulate further abuse, there was no one in the home for him to tell. For these reasons and because of the possible serious consequences to the child, any disposition of a physical abuse case should be a combined decision. Soliciting expert opinions from psychologists or psychiatrists can often be helpful in determining the potential for a parent inflicting further child physical abuse. From the reports this had not been done in the case with Lavandis Hudson.