A teen's final months
Schools reported suspected abuse of Brittany Legler at least 9 times
A school nurse saw the bruises and made the first call for help.
More than a year before 15-year-old Brittany Legler died after a beating at the hands of her adoptive mother, the nurse at Millcreek's J.S. Wilson Middle School telephoned the Erie County Office of Children and Youth.
The nurse, Denise Johnston, was concerned about bruising to Legler, who was mentally disabled and attended special-education classes. Johnston contacted OCY in April 2003. The Millcreek Township School District that day submitted a required report of suspected child abuse to OCY.
The report, as far as the school district knew, went nowhere.
"There was no response as to the disposition of the case following this report," according to records compiled as part of the criminal investigation into Legler's death.
"Children's Services did phone back regarding Brittany, but no further notice (occurred) beyond acknowledgement that referral was received."
The nurse's report was the first in a pattern.
In the 13 months leading up to Legler's death last May 9, teachers, aides and other Millcreek School District employees contacted OCY or a child-abuse hotline a confirmed nine times about suspected abuse, according to interviews and investigative records obtained by the Erie Times-News.
Bruises, frequent absenteeism, a chronically split lip, a cut to the back of the head, heavy makeup meant to cover black-and-blue marks to the face: These were among the concerns that prompted the school officials to contact OCY.
The school employees contacted OCY about Legler a confirmed seven times before the agency opened an investigation in February 2004, 10 months after Johnston made the first call.
OCY is still conducting its internal investigation of the Legler case, and a full picture of what happened may never emerge because most details of such probes remain confidential under law. The records obtained by the Erie Times-News provide the most comprehensive account to date of the circumstances leading to Legler's death.
According to the investigative records and interviews:
Johnston was the first Millcreek school employee known to contact OCY. She made her call on April 29, 2003.
Other school employees, including another nurse, a school psychologist and a special-education teacher, contacted OCY or the child-abuse hotline a total of four times in 2004, while Legler attended McDowell Intermediate High School. The school employees made those contacts on Jan. 5; in late January or early February; on Feb. 9; and on Feb. 23.
A woman who was a special-education aide at McDowell Intermediate said in an interview that she recalled making at least four telephone calls to OCY: one in the fall of 2003, one in early January 2004, one in late January 2004 and one in April 2004.
The woman, who has since left the school district, said she recalled contacting OCY after vacation breaks, when, she said, Legler's injuries were most pronounced. The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity over concerns about releasing confidential information.
"It was frustrating," the woman said of OCY. "You think these are the people you can count on. It was not like she came to school once with a bruise. It was like a daily thing. Everyone who came into contact with Brittany, it was apparent what was going on."
Iarussi, 36, pleaded no contest in October to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child. She was sentenced in December to seven to 14 years in a state prison.
The District Attorney's Office declined to pursue a homicide charge against Iarussi because of evidence that a genetic heart defect might have contributed to Legler's death. Legler collapsed and died after Iarussi beat her with a hairbrush and forced her to wrestle with Iarussi's housemate, according to court records.
Legler was covered with 212 cuts and bruises when she died, according to the coroner's report. She also suffered a cauliflower ear, a scarred lip and a previously broken rib.
"This child was beaten and was pummeled to a point that is just not only unfathomable, but inexcusable under any circumstance," Erie County Judge Ernest J. DiSantis Jr. said.
OCY says it cannot comment
Years before the Millcreek school employees made their first calls to OCY about suspected abuse, the child-protection agency was familiar with Brittany Legler. OCY placed her in foster care in 1999 and later sought to arrange an adoption by Iarussi, a longtime friend of Legler's biological mother, Rosa Pollard.
Legler, the oldest of Pollard's five children, was borderline mentally retarded. Iarussi, a divorced mother with a child of her own, was herself mentally disabled.
The adoption was final Aug. 22, 2001.
"At the time this child went through the system, you were the person of choice to care for this child," DiSantis told Iarussi at sentencing. "However, something happened after the adoption. Something went terribly wrong."
OCY's lawyer, Michael Cauley, declined comment on the Legler case, citing OCY confidentiality rules. OCY began its internal investigation into the case about two months ago, after the criminal case ended, and is expected to complete a confidential report sometime this month.
"I can't tell you one way or another what we have done or haven't done," Cauley said. "We are not permitted to."
The Erie Times-News is not using the names of the OCY workers cited in the investigative records because the newspaper has been unable to determine what their role was in the Legler case. The investigative records are unclear about whether the OCY personnel were frontline workers or supervisors who determined the course of the case.
'We did the best we could'
As professionals who work with children, the Millcreek School District employees who interacted with Legler were required by law to report their suspicions of abuse.
OCY opened its investigation after school employees contacted the agency a confirmed seven times.
On Feb. 10, 2004, an OCY caseworker contacted a school psychologist, Karen Staab, and told her "there was formal investigation being opened into the situation," according to the records. "No other information was sought and no disposition was ever received. It is assumed the case remained open and was being investigated."
The investigative records refer to four main school employees who were involved in Legler's case and contacted OCY: Johnston; Staab; Nancy Carlson, another nurse; and Karen Halmi, a special-education teacher. Johnston, Halmi and Carlson either declined comment or referred questions to the school district. Staab could not be reached.
The school district's solicitor, Tim Sennett, said he would like to comment in detail, but could not out of concern for confidentiality rules. Sennett said the district employees followed child-protection laws by reporting their suspicions to OCY and notifying their school district supervisors about their concerns.
"We did what we were supposed to do," Sennett said. "We did the best we could. There wasn't anything else that we could do."
Bruises and absences
Legler, a skinny adolescent who enjoyed riding her bike and watching videos, was enrolled in the Millcreek School District's "life skills" program, which has no grades or grade levels and is for children with IQs of 70 or less.
Legler, born March 15, 1989, was 14 years old when she attended the life skills classes at J.S. Wilson Middle School. She came to school bruised, according to the investigative records.
On April 29, 2003, the school nurse, Denise Johnston, contacted OCY over the marks. After the initial confirmation of the call, OCY offered no response to the school, according to the investigative records.
Legler graduated from middle school in late spring, 2003. That fall she enrolled at McDowell Intermediate.
Problems developed quickly, particularly with absenteeism. Legler before her death would end up missing a total of 38 days of school in the 2003-04 school year. The trend started early.
Classes started Aug. 26. Legler was tardy on Sept. 2, 8 and 15, and she had excused absences for Sept. 18 and then Oct. 9.
A week later, on Oct. 15, Iarussi sent Legler to school with a note: "In regards to Brittany, the only time I would like her to go to the nurse is if she is complaining of wanting to vomit or has a very high temp. Brittany likes to go to the nurse for attention.
"P.S. I as her mother know her and would greatly appreciate respect for my wishes."
The school district employees kept chronicling Legler's injuries, including bruises and a split lip.
OCY gets involved
The school employees continued to contact OCY - including after the agency opened its investigation on Feb. 10, 2004.
On Feb. 23, 2004, a Monday, Legler came to school wearing heavy makeup and hairspray. A school-related employee was concerned the heavy makeup was meant to mask bruises to Legler's face, said Millcreek police Cpl. William Detisch, one of the detectives on the case.
Detisch said the person called ChildLine, a state child-abuse hotline that provides information to the local child-protective agencies.
Sometime later, OCY is believed to have spoken with Iarussi over the allegations. According to the investigative records, Iarussi on April 21 met with staff members at McDowell Intermediate and complained about questions over her treatment of Legler. She said OCY had told her "there was no reason to be concerned."
Sometime after Easter, which was April 11, 2004, the special-education aide at McDowell Intermediate contacted OCY a fourth time about suspected abuse to Legler, the woman said. She said Legler's eyes were bloodshot and her lip was swollen and infected.
"She was so thin," the woman said. "She looked absolutely awful, like she had been in a car wreck."
A month later, Brittany Legler was dead.
Repeated injuries and other signs of personal problems marked the final 13 months of Brittany Legler's life.
Throughout that time period, Millcreek Township School District employees kept track of Legler's injuries and reported their concerns to the Erie County Office of Children and Youth.
Here is a timeline from those 13 months, according to interviews and investigative records obtained by the Erie Times-News.
April 29, 2003 - Brittany Legler is 14 years old and a student at J.S. Wilson Middle School. A nurse at J.S. Wilson, Denise Johnston, contacts OCY about bruising to Legler. The school submits a Report of Suspected Child Abuse, or a CY47, as required.
OCY contacts the school district to confirm receipt of the CY47. OCY does not contact the district further about that report.
Aug. 26 - First day of classes for the 2003-04 school year. Legler, who has a mental disability, is enrolled in life skills classes at McDowell Intermediate High School.
Thursday, Sept. 18 - Excused absence.
Thursday, Oct. 9 - Excused absence.
Wednesday, Oct. 15 - Lisa Iarussi, Legler's adoptive mother, sends a note to special-education teacher Karen Halmi. The note reads: "In regards to Brittany, the only time I would like her to go to the nurse is if she is complaining of wanting to vomit or has a very high temp. Brittany likes to go to the nurse for attention. P.S. I as her mother know her and would greatly appreciate respect for my wishes."
Monday, Oct. 20 - Excused absence. Doctor's appointment.
Tuesday, Oct. 21 - Excused absence.
Wednesday, Oct. 22 - Excused absence.
Thursday, Oct. 23 - Excused absence.
Friday, Oct. 24 - Excused absence.
Thursday, Nov. 6 - Excused absence.
Monday, Nov. 24 - Excused absence.
Sometime in the fall - A special-education aide at McDowell Intermediate High School contacts OCY about injuries to Legler, the aide said in an interview. The woman, who has since left the school district, said she could not remember exactly when she made the call, the first of four.
The investigative records state: "There are indications that several calls to OCY (at least four) were placed by" the aide.
Tuesday, Dec. 2 - Excused absence.
Wednesday, Dec. 3 - Excused absence.
Thursday, Dec. 4 - Excused absence.
Friday, Dec. 5 - Excused absence.
Thursday, Dec. 11 - Excused absence.
Wednesday, Dec. 17 - Excused absence.
Thursday, Dec. 18 - Unexcused absence.
Friday, Dec. 19 - Unexcused absence.
Monday, Dec. 22 - Unexcused absence.
Legler so far has been absent 18 out of 82 school days, or 22 percent of the time. Halmi, the special-education teacher, tells Iarussi on Dec. 22 that the school will require doctor's excuses for future absences.
Tuesday, Dec. 23 - Unexcused absence.
Monday, Jan. 5, 2004 - First day back at school after Christmas break.
Legler has a bruise under her left eye, and the eye appears to have a hemorrhage in one area. She also has a small cut on the back of her head.
Both her eyes are red and Halmi said Legler "looked very thin," according to the investigative records.
The school district contacts Iarussi to determine the cause of the cut to the head. Iarussi says Legler fell while playing.
The nurse at McDowell Intermediate, Nancy Carlson, requests that Iarussi come in and seek medical care for Legler, which Iarussi does. Iarussi takes Legler to Hamot Medical Center, where she is prescribed Keflex, an antibiotic, due to an apparent chronic lip infection.
Also on Jan. 5 - Someone at the school district contacts OCY about Legler's injuries. The investigative records are unclear about who made that call, though the records show Carlson was aware of it.
Sometime after the Christmas break - The woman who was the special-education aide at McDowell Intermediate calls OCY about Legler, the woman said. She said she was concerned about bruising to Legler.
"I was so upset," said the woman, who said she called OCY anonymously, which the law allows. "I was concerned about Brittany because of her lip and eyes. Each time I talked to them, I told them they had to send someone out there."
Tuesday, Jan. 6 - Iarussi meets with Carlson. Iarussi claims a "nurse had hit Brit" and that another student "had punched her on the back," according to the investigative records.
Also on Jan. 6 - Carlson tells Halmi that OCY had called about someone reporting abuse of Legler. Carlson calls Iarussi and lets her know of OCY's call. Carlson also calls the Millcreek police about OCY's call.
Carlson receives a call from a representative of OCY, "who requested information regarding report received of possible abuse," according to the investigative records. OCY is told of the injuries to Legler and Iarussi's seeking of medical care. OCY requests medical records.
Carlson then receives a telephone call from Iarussi, who says she considers the abuse complaints to OCY to be harassment. Iarussi asks that Carlson speak to Officer Tim Fallon of the Millcreek police.
Carlson receives a phone call from Fallon, who says he spoke to OCY and Iarussi. Fallon, in an interview with the Erie Times-News, said Iarussi claimed OCY was harassing her. Fallon said he filed no charges, and was never asked to investigate allegations of abuse against Iarussi.
Also on Jan. 6 - Iarussi signs a release form to allow the school district to release Legler's medical information to OCY and Fallon.
Wednesday, Jan. 7 - Carlson faxes Legler's medical information to OCY. The records are for Legler's Jan. 5 treatment at Hamot for the infected lip. Carlson writes on the fax: "This is the information you requested on 1/6 re Brittany Legler. Please contact me if further information needed."
Thursday, Jan. 8 - Legler was to attend a swimming class on Thursdays. According to the investigative records: "During changing for pool, Mrs. Halmi noticed some bruises and marks on Brittany. She reported these to the nurse and recorded them. Mrs. Carlson indicated that during pool each week, Mrs. Halmi would observe Brittany and record any bruises."
Tuesday, Jan. 13 - School employees discuss frequency of bruising to Legler. Carlson talks to Iarussi, who says Legler "has a blood disorder/anemia and this was responsible for the bruising," according to the investigative records. Carlson requests documentation for the condition, and Iarussi agrees to the release of medical records.
Those records show no evidence of a blood disorder.
Thursday, Jan. 15 - Pool day. Legler has an unexcused absence.
Late January - The special-education aide calls OCY about Legler, the woman said in an interview. She said Legler was bruised.
"There were so many times she came to school looking like she had been in a fight," the woman said.
Thursday, Jan. 22 - Legler attends school, but does not go to pool.
Monday, Jan. 26 - Legler is dismissed from school for a doctor's appointment.
Friday, Jan. 30 - Legler's lip infection is completely cleared up, according to the investigative records.
Monday, Feb. 2 - Iarussi sends in a note: "To whom it may concern: Brittany has a cold sore on her upper lip and lips are chapped again. I sent her with chapped stick. Please make sure she uses it." The note says Iarussi also is treating the lip with medicated cream.
Wednesday, Feb. 4 - Legler's lip looks worse. Carlson checks it.
Thursday, Feb. 5 - Legler attends school, but refuses to go to pool class. She provides no reason.
Friday, Feb. 6 - Iarussi sends a letter in which she alleges a student threw a pencil at Legler's eye. Iarussi is upset that the school did not tell her.
"Every time Brittany gets a little mark on her the school is constantly calling me and questioning me," Iarussi writes. "Well now I want to know what's happening in my daughter's class. When I sent her to school Thursday morning that was not in her eye. I know accidents can happen but this wasn't an accident and we at home here do not want to be accused and Brittany isn't making it up cause the proof is in her eye."
Carlson notes that Legler's right eye appears to have a broken blood vessel.
Monday, Feb. 9 - Legler has her eye checked at nurse's office.
Also on Feb. 9 - Halmi, the special-education teacher, tells Karen Staab, a school psychologist, that Halmi had recently "contacted OCY, but that there had been no follow-up," according to the investigative records. Halmi asks what she should do next. Staab says she will call OCY.
Staab contacts OCY. An OCY worker tells Staab that the worker "had received a call from Halmi and discussed the situation with her supervisor, but no action had been taken," according to the investigative records.
Tuesday, Feb. 10 - The same OCY worker contacts Staab and says "there was a formal investigation being opened into the situation," according to the investigative records. "No other information was sought and no disposition was ever received. It is assumed that the case remained open and was being investigated."
Thursday, Feb. 12 - Pool day. Legler has an unexcused absence.
Tuesday, Feb. 17 - Excused absence for medical care.
Wednesday, Feb 18 - Excused absence, medical care.
Thursday, Feb. 19 - Pool day. Excused absence, medical care.
Friday, Feb. 20 - Unexcused absence.
Monday, Feb. 23 - Legler shows up at school wearing heavy makeup and hair spray, according to investigative records.
A school-related employee telephones ChildLine, a child-abuse hotline, about suspicions that Legler is wearing the heavy makeup to mask bruises, said Millcreek police Cpl. William Detisch, one of the detectives on the Legler case. ChildLine is required to notify OCY of reports of abuse.
Thursday, Feb. 26 - Pool day. Legler has an unexcused absence.
Monday, March 1 - Unexcused absence.
Tuesday, March 2 - Unexcused absence.
Wednesday, March 3 - Unexcused absence.
Thursday, March 4 - Pool day. Unexcused absence.
Friday, March 5 - Unexcused absence.
Thursday, March 11 - Pool day. Legler attends school, but does not go to pool.
Monday, March 15 - Legler turns 15 years old.
Monday, April 5 - Start of Easter break.
Sunday, April 11 - Easter. Sometime after Easter break, the special-education aide telephones OCY about Legler a fourth time, the woman said.
Tuesday, April 13 - Classes resume after Easter break. Legler has an excused absence for medical care.
Wednesday, April 14 - Excused absence.
Thursday, April 15 - Excused absence.
Friday, April 16 - Excused absence.
Wednesday, April 21 --Iarussi, in a meeting at the school, indicates OCY has been in contact with her.
According to the investigative records: "Iarussi very upset about teachers/staff questioning her daughter regarding treatment at home. Iarussi indicated that OCY ... had indicated that there was no reason to be concerned. Iarussi also indicated that OCY had received another call from someone recently and she presumed it to be someone at the school."
Saturday, April 24 - Legler severely cuts her lip, according to the investigative records.
Sunday, April 25 - Iarussi takes Legler to the emergency room at Saint Vincent Health Center, where her lip is stitched. Iarussi tells the medical staff Legler fell off her bicycle, according to the medical records.
Monday, April 26 - Legler has an excused absence for medical care.
Carlson meets with Iarussi, Legler and Linda Fisher, Iarussi's housemate at the time. Iarussi tells Carlson Legler fell off her bike.
Sunday, May 9 - Brittany Legler dies at the hospital an hour after paramedics are called to Iarussi's house. Legler's body is covered with more than 200 bruises, according to the coroner's report.
May 19 - Millcreek police arrest Iarussi. She is accused of beating Legler with a hairbrush before her death. Police say Legler collapsed and died after the beating.
July 8 - Millcreek police arrest Fisher, Iarussi's housemate, on charges that she also beat Legler, though less severely than Iarussi did. Fisher cooperates with investigators.
Oct. 7 - Iarussi pleads no contest to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child.
Nov. 3 - Fisher pleads guilty to endangering the welfare of a child.
Dec. 30 - Iarussi is sentenced to seven to 14 years in a state prison.
Jan. 28, 2005 - Fisher is sentenced to eight to 23 months in Erie County Prison followed by 13 months of probation.
Agency, state conduct their own reviews
Nearly a year after Brittany Legler's death, the Erie County Office of Children and Youth is still under scrutiny for its handling of the case.
The agency is conducting a mandatory internal review into the death, with a report expected sometime this month. The state Department of Public Welfare will then conduct its own study.
State confidentiality laws prohibit public release of the reports except in certain circumstances. Those reports are to be kept confidential unless DPW determines OCY must undergo "corrective action," a DPW spokeswoman has said. Then some of the information would be made public, she said.
Erie County Council will wait on the OCY and DPW reports before deciding whether to launch its own investigation into the Legler case and other problems at OCY. That probe would be public.
Council also is considering paying about $100,000 to the nonprofit Child Welfare League of America, based in Washington, D.C. The league would evaluate OCY's general policies and procedures.
Erie County Executive Rick Schenker, whose administration oversees OCY, has defended the agency, though the administration has not opposed council's plans to hire the Child Welfare League of America.
Erie County Councilman Fiore Leone has pushed for investigations into OCY since Legler's death. He said he wants to know how OCY responded to the repeated reports from Millcreek Township School District officials that Legler was being abused.
"This to me should never have happened,"Leone said. "What kind of investigation was being done after OCY got these calls?"
ED PALATTELLA, can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.
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