New Jersey child-welfare agency comes under fire

Thursday, January 9, 2003

P Three brothers were allegedly abused while under the protection of the agency, and one was killed.

By Wayne Parry

The Associated PressNEWARK, N.J. -- Long before 7-year-old Faheem Williams' body was found stuffed in a plastic storage bin, he and his two brothers were subjected to nearly continuous abuse that included beatings and burnings with cigarettes and hot liquids, investigators say.

When the boys weren't being abused, they were being ignored: Tyrone and Raheem nearly starved to death; Faheem died of starvation and a blow to the stomach.

Much of this happened while the boys were supposedly under the protection of New Jersey's child-welfare agency.

"This is the most horrible story I have ever heard," said Mayor Sharpe James. "There's enough blame here to go around for a lot of people."

The ghastly case is just the latest around the country to highlight the difficulties caseworkers have in protecting some of the nation's most vulnerable children from abuse or even death.

In Florida, the state's child-welfare agency went through a shake-up last year after caseworkers lost track of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson for 15 months before realizing she was missing. In Missouri, a caseworker resigned last week after a 2-year-old boy who had been sent back to a foster home was shaken to death.

In New Jersey, Gov. James E. McGreevey ordered an investigation of the agency and a shake-up of procedures for investigating allegations of abuse. Department Commissioner Gwendolyn Harris said that there may have been "major problems" in the case and that corrective measures would be taken.

New Jersey's Division of Youth and Family Services has 1,400 people to supervise some 47,000 children; the average caseload is 35. National advocates recommend that a caseworker handle no more than 25.

Union officials say the caseworker assigned to the Williamses was juggling 107 cases, but state officials claim the number was far less. They say the unidentified worker was responsible for 53 children in 27 families.

Faheem, his twin brother, Raheem, and 4-year-old Tyrone Hill rarely went outside and never went to school, spending most of their time in a dimly lit room where food was scarce and the TV set was the baby sitter.

When the two surviving children were found Saturday, they were cowering under a bed soaked with urine, feces and vomit in the basement of a Newark rowhouse. They were using a jar for a toilet and their hair was infested with lice. They had not eaten in days.

Authorities did not know Faheem existed until Raheem said at the hospital that he hadn't seen his twin for a long time. They went back the next day and discovered Faheem's mummified remains in the purple storage box. He had been dead for more than a month.

No one has been charged in the death, but authorities are looking for the boys' caretaker: Sherry Murphy, a 41-year-old go-go dancer who took the children after their mother, her cousin, was jailed for child abuse.

The mother, Melinda Williams, 31, was hit by a car while rushing to see her children Saturday and is in critical condition at a New York hospital. Before Faheem's death, she told authorities she could not find Murphy or the children after she got out of jail months ago.

Relatives say Williams struggled to raise the boys but did what she could. They said the children were well-behaved, and an uncle, Christopher McCoy, said: "They were loving little kids."

The welfare agency had received 10 complaints about the family over the past 10 years, including one in October 2001 that Williams was beating and burning her children.

Three of the complaints were substantiated: Williams left the children alone in 1996 and 1999, and she failed to get medical attention for another child, 7-year-old Fuquan, after he cut his hand in 1998. The boy, now 11, is in a treatment center in New York.

Authorities say at least one of the boys also was molested. A friend of Williams was arrested Wednesday and charged with sexual abuse.

Yet the state agency closed the case in February 2002, saying it could not find the boys. That same month, Williams was jailed for child endangerment stemming from a 1996 incident and she entrusted the boys to Murphy, who was dancing in bars under the stage name "Ebony."

Police say Murphy has a crack habit but no criminal record.

When Raheem and Tyrone were rushed to the emergency room, they were weak and undernourished. Tyrone, who showed evidence of scars and burn marks, was put on a liquid diet because he could not handle solid food.

A cat in the apartment was immaculately clean and well-fed.

"The mere fact that he had food means he was better off than those kids," police Lt. Derek Glenn said.

After what they went through, the surviving brothers are clinging to each other more than ever, said the mayor, who has visited them several times in the hospital.

"They tried to place them in separate rooms in the hospital, and every time they did, Tyrone would start to cry," James said. "So they brought an extra bed into Tyrone's room and let them stay together. Through all of this terrible tragedy, they learned to trust just one person in the whole world: each other."

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