Cole case conjures up questions about child abuse processes in Delaware

Officials want to ensure they don’t ‘miss any red flags’

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DOVER — Each time there is a death or serious injury to a child due to abuse or neglect, questions follow.

Just what went wrong beforehand?

How could it have been prevented?

On April 5, two former Smyrna residents, Kristie L. Haas and Brandon L. Haas, were indicted on child abuse-related charges connected to the death of their 3-year-old daughter, Emma Grace Cole, whose remains were found near a Smyrna softball field in September 2019, according to authorities.

The case drew widespread attention, including that of Delaware Division of Family Sevices Director Trenee Parker, who described the case as “absolutely heartbreaking.”

Also, Ms. Parker said, “Whenever we have a situation like that or (with) any other family we’re involved in, obviously, we’re trying to find ways to improve our practices.

“We want to make sure we don’t miss any red flags.”

And that analysis may involve the Child Protection Accountability Commission’s Child Abuse and Neglect Panel, which reviews cases involving serious or fatal injuries.

“The panel has representation from many different disciplines, including the Division of Family Services, law enforcement and the Department of Justice, and issues findings on cases with the goal of improving and strengthening practices,” Ms. Parker said.

While Office of the Child Advocate Chief Policy Adviser Rosie Morales could not confirm that investigation into the Cole case has occurred, she said it “falls under the criteria of CPAC’s guidelines for conducting reviews.”

The panel is focused on determining whether breakdowns occurred in the system for protecting children, she said.

Delawareans have duty to report suspected abuse

For Beau Biden Foundation Executive Director Patricia Dailey Lewis, the Smyrna case and all similar incidents prompt a rash of questions, especially considering that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 7 children in the U.S. has experienced abuse and/or neglect in the past year (likely an underestimate, the agency noted).

“For me, I want to know, when was the child last seen?” Ms. Dailey Lewis said. “I want to know, were there any calls to the Division of Family Services?
“Because of the mandatory-reporting law (in Delaware), anybody who had observed abuse or had a reasonable suspicion is required by law to report their concerns.”

Also, with child abuse cases, Ms. Dailey Lewis said she wonders, “If someone did call, what was done with it? Was it followed up on?”

Those suspecting possible child abuse or neglect have options available 24/7. They can call (800) 292-9582 or visit iseethesigns.org to submit reports. Reporters can choose to be anonymous.

The BBF is focused on protecting children from abuse and neglect through training on how to spot warning signs, Ms. Dailey Lewis said.

“The aftermath of these cases will show that there are people who will say, ‘I saw this, and it really bothered me,’ which is why, from a prevention perspective, the Beau Biden Foundation has been so committed to educating, educating, educating,” she said.

According to Ms. Dailey Lewis, just 5% of Delawareans have been trained to recognize and report child abuse. She added that the BBF aims to train “a broad swath of people from nurses to doctors to ... youth-serving organizations.”

More information on the BBF is available here.

While Ms. Parker said she could not comment on specific cases, she was able to outline general procedures the agency follows.

“For general information on cases, we work with agencies across child welfare. The Division of Family Services uses a multidisciplinary team approach that includes collaboration with law enforcement, health care, schools and advocacy groups,” she said.

Among the organizations partnered with the Division of Family Services is Prevent Child Abuse Delaware.

Helping families in need and providing avenues that facilitate proper care before tragedy occurs is a must, PCAD Executive Director Karen DeRasmo said.

“When we think about abuse, we sometimes think of the horrific, really terrible cases that occur, but I think what’s more insidious is the kind of abuse that occurs because people just don’t have a lot of options and say to themselves, ‘What am I going to do?’

“So an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old are left to fend for themselves, which is not a good idea. It’s sort of like a choice that you feel like, well, I understand why that happened but isn’t there something we can do to support that family, so that that doesn’t have to happen?”

Educating children about ways to protect themselves is another component of thwarting abuse, said Ms. DeRasmo, pointing to the B.E. S.M.A.R.T. Program, available in eight school districts and seven charter schools statewide.

The program “teaches the skills to help children recognize dangerous situations at home, online and in the community — by identifying feelings and private places; differences between good, bad and secret touches; differences between secrets versus surprises; and the four types of abuse,” she said.

“Take-home materials provide tips for parents to help them talk to their children about sensitive issues, including child abuse,” she added.

More information on PCAD is available here.

And as National Child Abuse Prevention Month continues in April, Ms. DeRasmo sees opportunity to expand public consciousness on the issue. This year’s theme is “Growing a Better Tomorrow for All Children, Together.”

Collaboration necessary to tackle abuse

Those collaborative relationships are critical to addressing child abuse and neglect, Ms. Parker said.

“We take a multidisciplinary approach that we use with a lot of families, so that it’s not one group that’s responsible,” she said.

“We’re coming together as a team, and one of the things that we recognize is that child welfare is really a large function and can’t be taken care of by one agency, so while the police may be able to do some things when it comes ... to criminal justice or (actions) by the Department of Justice, we need to have schools that are with us. We need to have health care professionals and a number of other (agencies and groups) that help.”

Strong relationships with pediatricians are a must to watch over the most vulnerable among children — infants.

“One of the things we’ve learned is a very important measure to pay attention to is missed doctor’s appointments,” Ms. Parker said.

“If the child is not being brought for well visits, we oftentimes will hear from the pediatrician and that triggers us to look into the situation to see what’s going on.”

The inherent stress of bringing a child into the world can tax any parent to the point of often unintended consequences, Ms. Parker said.

“Becoming a parent is probably the toughest job a person will have in their life, so we want to try to provide the support we can to avoid a parent becoming upset (and) maybe doing something in the heat of the moment when they don’t stop to think, ‘Let me walk away. Let me do some things to bring this down,’” she said.

“We’ve also tried to help parents understand it’s OK to take a break if you need it for a little while, while you try to get your thoughts together. That’s totally fine. That’s a good approach to do, just take a break.”

Families already engaged in services can give consent for the DFS to reach out to the pediatrician to do check-ins.

Working in conjunction with the Children’s Advocacy Center, the Nemours CARE Program assists caregivers and children at risk of abuse or with safety concerns.

Other key partners include the BBF and PCAD, which share information and train DFS staff and the community at large.

According to Ms. Parker, “We have reports that come from a number of different individuals. We have emphasized that if you’re not sure, just call and let us get involved.

“Let us reach out to the family. Our role is not always one of being punitive. Our goal is to have healthy families and strong communities. ... Making a call to the hotline doesn’t mean that something bad is going to happen to a family. It might mean we find a way to connect a family to a service that they need and couldn’t get on their own.”

The option to remain anonymous during hotline calls is available because “we don’t want anyone to feel that your desire to help a child is something that will be met with a punitive response by the parents,” Ms. Parker said.

According to the DCYF, information needed to make a report includes:

  •  Demographics.
  • Description of the abuse/neglect or why the child is at risk of abuse/neglect.
  • Any information about the parents or siblings.
  • Any information about the alleged victim’s physical health, mental health or educational issues.
  • Is the alleged victim in need of medical attention for injuries?
  • Any information that could put the child’s or worker’s safety in peril, such as the presence of alcohol, drugs, weapons, a dangerous animal or criminal behavior.

Making the first call or online report is crucial to investigating potential cases of concern, Ms. Parker said.“It is the pathway for families to get connected to our services,” she said. “Our team reviews the information we receive, makes a decision about the type of involvement using evidence-based practice, and workers respond. We conduct assessments in partnership with the family.

“Families are really their own experts; sometimes, they just need help accessing services or what they need to be successful. Our goal is to help families thrive in the communities where they live.”
Health care professionals, law enforcement officers and school staff members are the top three reporters in Delaware.

COVID impact

With the arrival of COVID-19 over a year ago, kids were not in classrooms or attending well visits to pediatricians’ and dental offices, Ms. Parker said. As the state gradually opens up, however, the number of reports have increased, she said.

“Where we are now is that we’re moving back to close to pre-COVID numbers,” Ms. Parker said. “We are still a bit under where we were, but it’s not as significant as it was as you look back at this time last April.”

DFS staff members are statutorily mandated to be handling no more than 11 investigations at a time, while there’s a limit of 18 for those who address treatment of ongoing services, Ms. Parker said.

With strong support from state officials, the DFS has been supplanted with personnel to meet the requirements.

“Prior to the pandemic, we were struggling with very high caseload sizes,” Ms. Parker said. “We have been fortunate that the Office of Management and Budget and Gov. (John) Carney’s office have been very supportive of bringing on additional staff to be able to get to the statutory requirement.
“Cases have decreased somewhat with the low number of calls, but we still do have some pockets of workers who handle certain types of cases that are above that, so we’re continuing to add staff for those situations.”

National Child Abuse Prevention Month is important because it helps “move us away from this idea that only a certain group of people have this responsibility to let others know that children are at risk,” Ms. Parker said.

“It’s everyone’s responsibility. The community has to come together to help with this.”