In the months before 2-year-old A’dan Blackmon died in a Charlotte hospital with a traumatic brain injury, social workers visited his home twice to investigate possible child abuse.
Mecklenburg County Department of Social Services concluded his home was safe and could not verify the tips it had received that A’dan was being abused, county officials told The Charlotte Observer.
Now, the boyfriend of the child’s mother is charged with murder. Police accuse Christopher Sims, 25, of killing A’dan, who died June 8. Authorities say A’dan died as a result of severe child abuse.
Mecklenburg County DSS is conducting an internal review to see if its policies and procedures were followed. And, a mandatory state child fatality review is pending, which includes the N.C. medical examiner’s office, attorney general, state and local child fatality prevention coordinators and public health and court administration officials.
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Those investigations could take months to complete. But DSS outlined its involvement with the child and that information, along with court and police documents, provides a glimpse into concerns for A’dan’s safety in the final two months of his life.
It’s really easy for the public to assume that the department should have done something different.
Dr. Joanne Caye, social worker
DSS first got involved in the case 52 days before A’dan died, according to the agency’s account. A’dan’s mother took him to Carolinas Medical Center, telling hospital staff her son had fallen off his bed. His injuries, though, prompted doctors to perform a series of tests to evaluate whether he had been abused.
Although those tests returned negative results, social workers followed up to examine the safety of A’dan’s home. Records show Mecklenburg County DSS intervened, asking his mother to let A’dan live with a relative for about a week while changes were made to his bedroom, for better safety. That was April 17.
Sixteen days later, DSS again went to A’dan’s home, in reference to possible abuse. But case workers said they could see only old bruises, which were healing from the last time he was in the hospital.
On A’dan’s second trip to the hospital, on June 7, his injuries were life-threatening and he was unresponsive. This time, police responded, too.
A’dan had been in the care of Sims that day, DSS and police records show. Officers charged him with felony child abuse.
The man accused of killing A’dan took a parenting class eight months prior.
The next day, A’dan died, and Sims was charged with murder.
Sims’ court-appointed attorney did not respond to a request for comment from the Observer. After Sims’ first court appearance earlier this month, his relatives told reporters he’s not guilty.
Sims allowed to babysit
Child welfare officials work amid a complex set of laws and ethics that dictate when a child can be involuntarily taken from their parent or guardian.
In a two-month time span, DSS says, it visited A’dan’s home twice, consulted with medical professionals, interviewed A’dan’s caretakers and relatives, and performed a follow-up welfare check to confirm the child didn’t have additional injuries.
In early May, caseworkers learned Sims was taking care of A’dan when the child’s mother was at work. It’s not clear whether DSS performed a background check on Sims at the time but he has never been convicted of a crime.
Just a few weeks before A’dan died, DSS interviewed Sims, as well as A’dan’s biological father, mother, uncle and his doctor. All said they had no concerns for A’dan’s care or safety in his current living arrangement, according to DSS’ statement to the Observer.
Court records from the same time period show Sims fighting a custody battle in a separate case, with the mother of his biological son, who is four months younger than A’dan. Although both parents reference DSS involvement, Mecklenburg County officials said they could not comment.
Court filings and letters to the judge show Sims and the mother of his child struggling to agree on the terms of joint custody. One court record shows a judge thought both parents’ homes were stable and safe.
Sims took a parenting class in October 2016, court records show. He made repeated requests for emergency custody, claiming someone was possibly abusing his son and he wanted sole custody. His son’s mother has since filed court paperwork asking that, in light of Sims’ arrest, he not be allowed to see him.
Abuse tests not ‘flawless’
In A’dan’s death, Sims is jailed on a $3 million bond. As his criminal court proceedings unfold, so will DSS reviews.
Those reviews take place for all instances of child deaths in North Carolina if there’s been DSS casework within the 12 months preceding a fatality.
Child safety is our number one priority.
Charles Bradley, Mecklenburg DSS
One experienced social worker who spent decades doing casework and field training in North Carolina says it initially appears Mecklenburg County DSS workers followed appropriate procedure in evaluating A’dan’s home life in April and May.
Children who aren’t in abusive situations can suffer injury and even concussions from falling out of bed, said Joanne Caye, who has worked in three states and consults for the Department of Social Services. Even if abuse is suspected, she said, DSS caseworkers and investigators have to follow a strict set of rules and laws in determining next steps.
“It’s really easy for the public to assume that the department should have done something different,” Caye said, noting that DSS also can face criticism for being too aggressive or for removing a child from a home.
“Departments have to weigh what they do ... It’s almost like we’re being asked to predict human behavior.”
Caye said the hospital tests typically performed to evaluate possible child abuse are helpful in social work cases but, “I don’t think any test is flawless.”
DSS records show caseworkers twice consulted with doctors about A’dan’s test results being negative. Usually medical exams, including CT scans, X-rays and blood work, are performed if child abuse is suspected. One thing doctors and social workers look for is unexplained fractures, broken bones or suspicious bruises and injuries in various stages of healing.
Caye also noted Mecklenburg County DSS records demonstrate the caseworker completed required home environment and risk assessments to determine A’dan’s safety.
The death of a child takes an emotional toll on social workers, Caye said, even if they did all they could to protect the child. Mecklenburg DSS says it provides employee assistance to individuals and groups when a child fatality occurs and DSS had been involved.
It’s too soon to say whether Mecklenburg County DSS followed all policies and procedures prescribed by state and federal laws designed to protect children in potentially dangerous homes, said Charles Bradley, director of the DSS Youth and Family Services division. Multiple reviews of department actions and policy may offer learning opportunities and new strategies to protect vulnerable children, he said.
“Child safety is our number one priority,” Bradley said.