Nathaniel Craver's death prompts look at safeguards within Pennsylvania, county inspection systems

Date: 2010-03-06
Source: pennlive.com

By LARA BRENCKLE
The Patriot-News

When authorities say a child died at the hands of people who are supposed to love him, the first question everyone asks is why.

How, people ask, did schools, social services, neighbors and family members miss the clues that might have saved a child’s life?

In 7-year-old Nathaniel Craver’s case, these questions are being asked from Harrisburg to Russia, where Michael and Nanette Craver of Carroll Twp. traveled to adopt the boy and his twin sister.

At every instance since the 2003 adoption, the Cravers passed through hurdles intended to protect children, including repeated inspections by the adoption agency and a later investigation by York County Children and Youth.

In spite of those checks, when Nathaniel died Aug. 25, after spending several days on life support, he had more than 80 external injuries, court documents state. More than 20 were to his head. His brain was softened, and the child was emaciated.

Many times, school officials act as a safety net to spot abuse.

But Pennsylvania is one of only two states to not require school attendance until age 8. That’s also the threshold where parents who home-school — as the Cravers opted to do — are reviewed by state evaluators.

Michael Craver, 45, and Nanette Craver, 54, are charged with homicide, conspiracy and child endangerment in Nathaniel’s death. The couple are in the York County Prison, and court records indicate they do not have a lawyer.

The circumstances surrounding Nathaniel’s death will likely have ripples beyond his parents’ criminal trial and could lead to changes in how Pennsylvania safeguards children.

Reviewing safeguards

Nathaniel’s death has outraged the Russian media.

A Russian lawmaker is calling for a temporary suspension of adoptions by U.S. families because this case fits the pattern of more than a dozen others since the 1990s.

The case also has state and county child welfare officials assessing their procedures.

But the record shows the Cravers were subjected to repeated checks to see how they were caring for Nathaniel and his sister, Elizabeth.

The Cravers passed all the requirements for adoption. They include status checks by the adoption agency up to three years after the adoption was finalized, Russian news media have reported. Those checks are required by the Russian government. After three years, no follow-up is required.

State Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg, who represents Carroll Twp., called the case “a tragedy” but said the first step should be evaluating how orphanages that facilitate Russian adoptions are performing that task.

In 2006, after they were finished with the adoption agency checks, the Cravers were investigated by York County Children and Youth Services. The children were briefly removed from their custody.

They were returned and the case was closed because the family met all the terms for reunification, officials said.

Citing the emerging criminal case, Children and Youth officials have refused to release details about what prompted the investigation and what steps were taken before the agency cleared the Cravers from further scrutiny.

Court documents quote family members saying in the months before Nathaniel’s death that the boy’s eyes were swollen to slits, something his parents dismissed as his tendency to pluck at his face. The child seemed terrified of making a mistake and clung to the last person outside the family who saw him alive, family members told investigators.

Neighbors offered contrasting pictures. One portrayed Michael Craver as a family man who rode bikes and hiked with his children. Another expressed concern about the children’s weight and said the family was unfriendly.

Reviews in the Craver case are under way, said Cathy Utz, the director of policy and program development in the state Department of Public Welfare’s Office of Children, Youth and Families.

York County will submit its internal report to the department, detailing either lapses that allowed the death to occur or lessons that can be learned from it, Utz said. The state will respond and then begin its review of all fatal and near-fatal cases across Pennsylvania.

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