Another shocking child death in NYC, more calls for reform

By COLLEEN LONG

Associated Press Writer

June 15, 2008

NEW YORK

On paper, it seemed life for 3-year-old Kyle Smith was looking up.

His mother, a junkie and a prostitute, had left him in the care of a friend, who decided to seek legal custody of the child.

The New York City Administration for Children's Services was sent to the woman's apartment last fall to investigate as part of the custody proceedings. The one-bedroom was clean and tidy, and the boy appeared to be very comfortable there, an agency report said.

But eight months later, Kyle was found beaten to death after suffering what authorities said was vicious abuse at the hands of the mother's friend and her fiance.

The boy's death comes two and a half years after the notorious beating death of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown stunned the city and led to sweeping reforms. Lawmakers and child welfare advocates are again questioning how the system failed an innocent child, and they are pushing for a new set of laws to make changes.

"We have all failed here," said City Councilman Bill de Blasio. "The system of protecting our children is broken across the board."

De Blasio called for passage of a bill stalled in the state Assembly that would allow child welfare workers access to state criminal records when investigating a report of child abuse. If passed, the law would eventually also allow access to federal criminal databases.

The death has also prompted calls for a national registry of child welfare information. The friend, Nymeen Cheatham, voluntarily had her four children and teenage brother removed in 2002 by officials in the Texas town where she lived at the time. Authorities said her children were neglected, hungry and living in filth.

It's unclear when everything unraveled for little Kyle.

Cheatham said she applied for Medicaid so Kyle could be insured, and she and her fiance had enough money to care for him, the agency report said. But then she didn't show up for a February custody hearing and the court didn't hear from her again. The proceedings were dropped.

There were no substantiated reports of abuse. Kyle's grandmother did tell ACS workers that Cheatham admitted she punched the boy in the stomach after he found was peeling paint off the walls, but Cheatham denied it and nothing was proven, the ACS report said. Police were called to the home four times, but the calls were related to visitation disputes between Kyle's father and Cheatham. Officers saw the boy at the apartment, playing with toys and looking happy.

But authorities say it was actually a house of horrors for the boy.

According to court papers, Kyle was sodomized, doused with cold water and forced to do push-ups and march in place as punishment. His numerous injuries included a torn tongue and bruises to his back, buttocks, legs and scrotum.

Cheatham, 30, and her fiance Lamar Martin, 25, were charged with assault, criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a child. A spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney's office said the charges may be upgraded after an investigation.

Lawyers for both Cheatham and Martin did not answer calls for comment.

Among the proposed the reforms that may have helped most in Kyle's case is the access to child welfare records from other states.

Greg Cunningham, a spokesman for the welfare agency in Borger, Texas, said Cheatham's children and little brother were placed into the adoptive system, but could not comment further. There were no instances of physical abuse, though, and Cheatham was not charged with a crime.

A national registry for child welfare information was approved by Congress in 2006, but details on how it would work are still being studied. One challenge is the fact that state laws differ on what constitutes abuse and neglect, and what is documented.

"Every state keeps records differently, and they are reluctant to share data across state lines because of privacy issues," said Linda Shears of the Child Welfare League of America, an advocacy group.

The proposed New York law wouldn't have applied in this case, but lawmakers and child advocates say it's necessary regardless.

"Often, it's the tragedies that spark the reform," de Blasio said.

Stephanie Gendell, spokeswoman for the Citizen's Committee for Children, said the law would help investigators make an informed decision in abuse and neglect cases.

"The law would also help in protecting the caseworkers by giving them information ahead of time," she said. "If they're going to a home where a person has a history of criminal behavior, they need to know to be prepared."

All states require state criminal background checks if someone is seeking custody of a child, and 32 states request federal background checks, according to federal statistics. But it's unclear whether it's common for states to have fast access to criminal records for abuse investigations.

In Florida, where the death of 4-year-old foster child Rilya Wilson also prompted major change in the system, child welfare workers have 24-hour access to the criminal information during abuse investigations. Similar laws exist in Maine and Texas.

Cheatham's neighbors now say they wish they would have called to report abuse. Kyle's father, who could have taken the child at any time because Cheatham did not have legal custody of the boy, never did. It's not clear why, and he has since told reporters he's in mourning. Kyle's mother, living in South Carolina, also said she was devastated.

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What is wrong with those people????

At least they admit that the system is broken.
 
I do agree that they need to have the computer systems for different states linked together. However, linking up a bunch of broken systems doesn't fix the situation.  Obviously, this woman learned from her previous experience with CPS that they are fixated on how clean the home is, and don't have time or brain power to figure out what is really going on in the home. It seems like the real abusers learn how to play the system.

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