Boy's death prompts look at safeguards

Date: 2010-03-07
Source: pennlive.com

BY LARA BRENCKLE

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.

Rushing to make new laws would do a disservice to families who have successfully adopted and integrated their children into society, he said.

Russian adoption "sounds like an expensive and burdensome process," Perry said. "I don't know if they're properly vetted. And if they are properly vetted, are they prepared for the child's particular situation?"

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.

Debbie Chronister, the acting director of York County Children and Youth Services, said removing a child from a home is the agency's last resort. It is done only after a thorough assessment of the child's well-being, environment and other needs.

After a child is removed, the family is given services to assist in reunification, the goal of many cases it undertakes, Chronister said.

"There is follow-up," Chronister said. "When the safety levels have been met and everything is done to our levels, the case is closed. That's what happened here."

By law, cases must be closed when there are no further unlawful or unsafe actions, activities or scenarios, she said.

Cases of children who die or almost die because of suspected or substantiated abuse are reviewed by a state board.

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.

The fatality review process, in addition to regular quality control standards, has led to improved risk and safety assessment tools for field workers, Utz said. They were implemented in July.

In October, the department will roll out new quality review standards, which include in-person follow-ups with families who have received or are receiving services, Utz said.

"If we remedy those [underlying issues], we will have greater success in alleviating those issues and leaving the child safely in the home," Utz said. A collective failure

Shortly after the twins returned to their parents' care, they were removed from public school. The Cravers said they were being homeschooled.

Pennsylvania is among the states with the most stringent homeschooling requirements. Parents who teach at home must submit health records and portfolios of work to the school district's superintendent, and the children and parents are subject to review by professional evaluators each year.

However, none of those requirements kicks in until age 8.

In Pennsylvania and Washington state, 8 is the minimum age for compulsory school attendance, the highest minimum in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The state homeschooling law also prohibits people convicted of felonies, such as rape, murder and some types of child abuse, from homeschooling. The law says nothing about parents who've been investigated by child services.

Joan Benso, the president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a nonprofit child advocacy group, said it is rarely one thing that leads to the death of a child from abuse.

While the organization has supported lowering the compulsory school attendance age, a remnant of the state's agrarian past, that is a nonissue, she said. Most children start school at 5 or 6 anyway.

In any given year, about 50 children statewide die from abuse, Benso said. In each case, it is rarely one system or one person who fails, she said. It is the collective system, one we are all a part of, she said.

Nathaniel's death sent a chill through the state's homeschooling community.

Susan Richman, the editor of PA Homeschoolers magazine and the mother of four homeschooled children, said that while the Cravers deserve their day in court, there have been situations of horrible abuse reported among families who claim to home-school.

"We just cringe when we hear these cases," said Richman, of Kittanning. "Generally, I do think there should be oversight of homeschoolers. Pennsylvania has good safeguards."

Richman said she was once approached by a parent who was concerned about the treatment of children in a homeschooling family. Richman said she encouraged the woman to report her concerns, and she did.

However, it wasn't until six months later that the abuse of the family's children came to light.

"Generally, home-school families work really hard at being attached to a community," Richman said. "But if you want to be out from anyone's observation, this would be a good way to go. But I don't think you can devise a law that would circumvent something like this from happening."

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