Who's Minding the Kids?

Anatomy of a Baby's Death in New Jersey

Under enormous federal pressure to prove welfare mothers are not getting a free ride, typically leaden welfare agencies have learned to act quickly. "I called them [Four C's] in the last two weeks of October. I had to start school November 1," says Minus. The two-page Four C's checklist, completed by inspector Tamara Smith in October, shows Bowman had covered her wall plugs, installed window guards, and acquired a first aid kit, among other home requirements. There were no fingerprints taken, no background check into a possible DYFS history, nor any look at the state's child abuse registry. The inspection took minutes.

Bowman's family was also mum about her history with child neglect and emotional abuse. Some, like Dihuant, may not have known. But if her family was protective, lax policy allowed state welfare officials to keep themselves and Minus in the dark. Federal and state rules do not require the same background checks for individual baby-sitters as for home-based day care providers or teachers at child care centers. "You would assume that someone would understand the circumstances around their own family members," says DYFS deputy commissioner David Heins. "We tried to [keep a] provision for people who wanted to use a family member [for child care]."

But dozens of the 5000 reported individual care providers are not family members and it has been impossible for mothers to prevent a nightmare like Minus's. Until now it has been illegal to release the child abuse history of an individual—even to a mother hiring a baby-sitter, says DHS spokesman Andy Williams. After Myssiah's death, Williams was still unable to release Bowman's documented child abuse history. It was folks around the neighborhood who began leaking the news after the baby died. "People all of a sudden started asking why we didn't know about Melanie. One neighbor told us she used to leave Myssiah alone in the house," says Fontaine. "I was like, 'Why the hell are you telling us this now?' "

Kyla Minus, whose 19-month-old was killed in New Jersey
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Kyla Minus, whose 19-month-old was killed in New Jersey

In fact, years ago when Bowman's three children were toddlers, they were taken away, her mother, Betty Meyers, confirms. Meyers raised the oldest, and the two younger children, now 11 and 12, are in the process of being adopted. Bowman's drug use led to the past problems, her mother says. Her record holds a number of incidents, including charges of prenatal substance abuse, three neglect incidents, and one of emotional abuse, according to an official close to the matter.

Even if Bowman's past abuses were due to an old drug habit, and if Myssiah's death was an accident as Bowman claims, her recollection of the horrible day that landed her in jail still raises questions. November 16 was a rainy day better spent inside. Minus left Myssiah with Bowman while she went Christmas shopping with her mother. Bowman's stepfather had died that week and she took the baby with her to meet Meyers at the funeral home. "I was going through a thing," Bowman says in a phone interview. "I wasn't able to see him the day he passed because Kyla hadn't come to get Myssiah." At the viewing, recalls Bowman, Myssiah was sitting, "baby talking" and pointing up "as if he was saying, 'I'll be there with you.' " Her mother says that "he was singing this little tune to himself and swinging his legs," and that he had "this afterglow," the kind people get before they die, she explains.

Returning home, Bowman was still feeling down. Myssiah, undiapered, "went to the bathroom on the couch," so she put him in the bath. That's when the doorbell rang. "I asked him not to move or get up from the tub," Bowman recalls. She left the bathroom. "I hollered out my window, 'Who the fuck is at my door?' " Then, Bowman says, she heard a thump from inside. She says by the time she got there she could already see Myssiah didn't look right. "I don't know if he fell asleep in the tub or what." She grabbed him and began shaking him "to get the water out." She put him on her lap and began "patting" his back. Then she found herself outside desperately pleading for help. "If I hadn't answered the doorbell, maybe he would be alive."

Myssiah's death occurred just weeks before what Heins calls a "time of disaster" for DYFS and the entire DHS. Shortly after Myssiah died, the death of seven-year-old Faheem Williams, who had been abused and then killed by family members despite DYFS contact, was all over the papers. The case exposed the agency's overworked caseworkers, neglected children, and layers of bureaucratic mess. State officials called for massive reform. So it took a while for the agency to respond to the Minus case. An initial phone call from the Voice in early January was returned days later by a harried spokesperson unaware of the death. Numerous phone calls and weeks later, officials said they were working on a change in agency policy to ask that potential individual caregivers "volunteer" their child abuse histories.

But in recent weeks, a work group was assigned, in light of Myssiah's death, to completely revamp policy for individual child care approval. By press time Heins confirmed that caregivers—family members and friends included—would be required to undergo DYFS background checks that would be released in full to mothers. "If at that point [the mother] still chooses grandma, we would probably ask her to sign a release," he says. Other changes may arise, because of these recent cases. "We are certainly looking for this kind of thing not to happen again," says Heins.

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