Nassau Child Protective Services Missed Warning Signs Leading Up to New Cassel Murders

Leatrice Brewer, the mother who  drowned her three children at her New Cassel apartment, had a long history with Nassau County’s Child Protective Services (CPS).  The Friday before Brewer murdered the children, the father of the two boys contacted CPS when Brewer was acting strangely and threatening to harm the children.  CPS was dispatched that day and again that night, but they were unable to locate Brewer.  A night supervisor opted to put off a third visit for another day.  It was during this time that the murders occurred.  Brewer drowned all three children—Jewell, six; Michael, five; and Innocent, 18-months—on Sunday.  The CPS employee who failed to schedule a third visit with Brewer has been suspended without pay and is under investigation.

The father of Jewell Ward, one of the three murdered children has filed a $60 million lawsuit against Nassau County, Child Protective Services and the Department of Social Services.  Ricky Ward is being represented by the Long Island law firm <"">Parker Waichman Alonso LLP.  The lawsuit charges that the County “negligently, carelessly and recklessly failed to protect Jewel Ward and are, therefore, responsible for the pain and suffering and wrongful death of his daughter.”  The lawsuit alleges that if the agencies followed policy Jewell and her two brothers would have been removed from Brewer’s home, preventing their deaths.

It is difficult to understand how CPS failed to miss the warning signs that Brewer was a danger to her children, especially considering the agency’s long history with her.  In 1997, Brewer was fined twice for disorderly conduct and police were often called to the home by the children’s fathers who claimed she assaulted them when they tried to see their children.  From 2003 until last week, caseworkers from CPS investigated nine complaints against Brewer alleging she neglected her children, left them unattended, or failed to send them to school.  The fathers sought custody, claiming Brewer was mentally ill and neglectful and may have been abusing drugs; custody was never in jeopardy.  Police, mental health, child protection, and Family Court officials all had case files on the family; however, none was in communication with workers in the other agencies.

In 2003, Michele Sambriski, a mother with mental health problems, drowned her two-year-old daughter.  This, after a CPS investigation concluded the child was not at risk.  In the late 1990s, a case investigator had an average of 60 cases.  Because more caseworkers have been hired, the monthly average is 23, nearly twice the recommended number.  In the last few years, caseworker turnover has ranged from 5 to 12 percent.

Nassau had about 900 children in foster care in the late 1980s; today the figure has dropped, but 500 still remain in the system.

Advocates and social work experts say that child protective agencies need adequate funding, caseload caps, and training and close supervision of staffers on the front lines.

Caseworkers are often recent college graduates with little experience, said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights, a watchdog group in Manhattan.  “Unless they are trained how to assess a troubled mom, you are not going to get the right decision making,” she said. “And kids get hurt.  And kids get killed.”

Experts say context is critical. “If you … do not assess whether there is also alcoholism or addiction, mental illness or domestic violence, then you have not done a full assessment,” said Kathryn Conroy, an assistant dean of Columbia University School of Social Work.

While criminal records are publicly available, Nassau child welfare workers did not routinely check them until last week.  Also, New York State privacy laws often prevent caseworkers from accessing medical and drug treatment histories. “It’s very frustrating because our goal is to help people,” said Mary Curtis, Nassau’s deputy county executive for health and human services.

Each year, children with open cases in the Nassau child welfare system die of causes ranging from abuse to accidents:  Eight in 2004, four in 2005, and five in 2006, the most recent year data was available.

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