Eleven children in Mecklenburg County have died since 2007 even though their families were under the Department of Social Services supervision or had recent contact with social workers.
When a child dies in North Carolina in a family that had been in contact with DSS within the previous 12 months, the state orders a review team to examine the actions of DSS, police, schools and other agencies.
The panel of child advocates, DSS officials, law enforcement leaders and other professionals inspect case files and make recommendations intended to prevent new deaths.
The Observer obtained reports for 10 child deaths in Mecklenburg County since 2007. The causes of death include physical abuse, asphyxiation and shootings. The state has not released a report on an 11th fatality.
Social workers were often cited for errors in handling cases. Here are some of the findings:
• In one case, reviewers said 1-year-old Ellijah Izak Dacario Burger died from physical abuse after social workers failed to consistently visit his home to observe the family. The panel also said social workers did not interview the parents separately even though there was at least one report of domestic violence.
• In another case, reviewers said 10-month-old Josaiha Harris drowned in a bathtub after social workers and family did not provide sufficient “follow through and accountability” after risks were identified. On two separate occasions, Josaiha suffered burns while he was bathed or left alone in hot water, the report said.
• Three-year-old Shaniya Makayla Smith died from physical abuse after social workers did not “adequately and thoroughly assess the risks and safety to the family.” During an assessment, social workers failed to request a criminal records and police check, “which would have revealed significant history,” the report said.
• Trinity McIllwain, the 5-month-old whose social worker was juggling 40 cases, died of asphyxiation after co-sleeping with someone on a couch. DSS and hospitals instruct parents to place babies on their backs, alone in a crib.
Paul Risk, the Mecklenburg County DSS Youth and Family Services director, acknowledged that the social worker overseeing the infant had performance problems.
Risk said DSS officials have already taken steps to correct mistakes noted in the child fatality reports, including retraining workers. In January, he said he will release a report detailing the agency’s responses to the review findings.
DSS has improved efforts to keep children safe, but occasional tragedies likely will still occur, Risk said.
“They’ve had years of building a pathology or parenting style that endangers a child,” he said.