Who's Minding the Kids?

Anatomy of a Baby's Death in New Jersey

The death of her 19-month-old baby boy Myssiah (pronounced Messiah) is wound tightly around Kyla Minus, like a rope. Her arms barely swing free from her tiny frame. She takes measured steps. Her face, though sometimes fighting to break into a 20-year-old's dancing expression, at times seems almost paralyzed in pain. She speaks bare-bone sentences in a monotone. It is gray and shadowy in her spotless, well-furnished public housing apartment. She rarely turns on the overhead light since her toddler was allegedly killed by his child care worker, a woman approved and paid by New Jersey's welfare-to-work program. Melanie Bowman, an aunt of Minus's jailed boyfriend, sits in the Union County jail charged with second-degree manslaughter.

Nobody but Bowman knows what happened November 16 in the minutes before she ran out of her Elizabeth, New Jersey, apartment in her underwear with the limp, pale Myssiah flung over her shoulder, screaming "Help me with my baby." She claims a bump on the head during a bathtub accident led to Myssiah's death. Officials, however, are examining the possibility of shaken-baby syndrome.

Either way, the death was far from Bowman's first encounter with child abuse officials—a fact unknown to Minus and unchecked by the welfare agencies that approved her as a care provider. Those agencies are overseen by New Jersey's Department of Human Services (DHS), an umbrella organization that includes the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS)—the same agency that seized Bowman's own children for neglect years ago.

But the Human Services department has a lot on its plate. DYFS is already under attack for overlooking abuse that led to the death of a seven-year-old boy in the winter. Additionally, its Division of Family Development is charged with overseeing the 1996 federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, commonly known as welfare-to-work, which requires mothers of young children, like Kyla, to rapidly find child care so that they can go to work in exchange for benefits. The state has had to compensate for the exploding demand in child care since 1996. Things could get harder for these agencies and welfare recipients now that reauthorization of that program, which would require mothers to work even more hours—40 hours instead of 20—is currently being considered by the Senate. The bill is being worked on this week. Just a couple of weeks ago, the House rammed through the Bush administration's proposal, which passed easily with no debate.

Minus's story began when she met Bowman's nephew Dihuant. At the time she was six weeks pregnant by Angel, her former boyfriend, but didn't know it. She and Dihuant fell for each other hard. While most young men run from single women with kids, Dihuant hung in there when he learned of her pregnancy. Kyla is pretty, "dresses," and is cool, but more than that, she has her head about her. Before she got pregnant, she was working a part-time job at a nursing home, liked to party, and was popular in her tiny community. Some of Dihuant's family couldn't understand the attraction, but his Aunt Melanie hit it off with her. Minus took to Bowman's warmth, and admired her willingness to share her successful struggle to kick a drug habit years back.

After Myssiah was born, the baby became Minus's overwhelming motivation for living. "This was something new—not the kind of love you feel for a guy," she says. Bowman seemed to share Kyla's passion and she began baby-sitting often. In her thirties then, Bowman seemed to offer stability in the daunting world of young motherhood, especially after Dihuant got arrested. "She would call and ask if Myssiah could come over to play with her nieces," Minus says, still not able to believe this woman could have done wrong by her son.

Minus's predominantly African American neighborhood has little of the official optimism on display in this working-class city—known more for its stinking factories by the New Jersey Turnpike—where signs urge, "Shop, Dine, Invest." Minus's community remains close-knit even with police posted in corner stores. The common arrests of teens in the area are quick street news, and Minus and her sister Aaliyah Fontaine usually either know them, or one of their friends. Families are intertwined, and the Bowmans, for one, are a sizable clan spread throughout the neighborhood.

So Minus never questioned trusting Bowman, who had "been real" about the drugs and about being HIV-positive. Minus didn't think there was anything else to hide. "Some people talked about her being sick, but I would never discriminate against someone with a disease. I thought that was one reason why she loved Myssiah so much," says Minus.

When welfare required Minus to put in 20 hours of work or attend school to receive benefits, Bowman seemed like a natural baby-sitter. Minus had a few choices of state-funded care, including a licensed day care center, a registered home-based day care, or placement with a friend or family member who could receive public funding. She recalls taking the last choice to ensure Myssiah's safety while she attended a half-day course daily.

All it took was a phone call and a week-and-a-half wait to get Bowman set up for the job. Kyla was referred by the county welfare agency to Community Coordinated Child Care of Greater Union County, dubbed Four C's. The agency is one of about 21 in the state, one in each county, commissioned by New Jersey's Division of Family Development to refer recipients to child care. Under TANF, states must provide child care to welfare recipients, while they work or go to vocational school.

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?' "

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.

Changes in policy will likely require better education for mothers coming to agencies like Four C's. Williams says the agencies inform mothers that they have a choice and that the "safest" form of care is in regulated centers. But Minus doesn't recall being warned of safety issues during her brief encounter with Four C's. Heins also says that caregivers are encouraged to become registered, because the program includes child safety education and an in-depth background check. But that never happened in the Minus case either. "We are going to be talking with mothers about some of the benefits [of registered day care]," says Heins, who stresses, however, that mothers will not be prevented from using family.

Minus's excruciating grief makes it difficult for her to grapple with the idea that somehow a long-fought welfare-to-work battle in Washington imploded in her backyard. TANF's implementation has for years placed states under intense pressure to meet a rapidly growing need for publicly funded child care that often doesn't exist. In the '90s, when the welfare rolls began shrinking, states like New Jersey that offer transitional child care for newly working families—many of whom make minimum wage—felt even more pressure. State spending on child care in New Jersey grew to $220 million in 2002, up from $133 million in '98. The number of child care centers grew to 3700 from 2100—still not enough.

Some advocates accuse the states of encouraging individual child care to save money. Most states pay significantly less for individual care than for registered day care. New Jersey saves about 40 percent. The average cost per week for a toddler in registered day care is $147, compared to $70 in an individual's home. "Obviously, if you could get someone to choose less expensive care, you could save money," says Stacie Golin, a child welfare specialist at the Institute for Women's Policy Research. Saving money is not the issue, Heins assures. "We are not trying to make this lucrative—we are trying to encourage regulated care without saying you can't use grandma," he says.

But the problem lends itself to an even larger question—one that has barely been posed publicly since the welfare debates of the late '90s died down: Is it appropriate and safe to force mothers of young children into the work world, and compel them to rapidly find child care? That question seems especially poignant now that even stricter laws stand to be passed, says Sherry Leiwant of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund. "There is a chance to change this in the Senate, and that's where our focus will be," says Leiwant, who is not feeling hopeful. Last year, for instance, Senator Hillary Clinton, who had pledged support for low-income mothers, voted for increased work hours, she says. The death of Senator Paul Wellstone, who led the fight against harsher welfare requirements last year, is another blow for advocates.

Six weeks after Myssiah's death, Minus, who had not eaten a full meal since he died, found herself interviewing for a job caring for the elderly. State and federal laws collided in her life in a way that makes her future seem tenuous. When she called the county welfare agency about a week after Myssiah's death, the caseworker gave her condolences and told her that her benefits would end immediately, which meant losing her Medicaid, food stamps, and her job-seeking class.

Bowman sits in jail awaiting a grand jury hearing and then possibly a trial that could end up as a five-to-seven-year term. "I have had a nervous breakdown," she says. "You can't tell me that he is dead. I loved him." Some days Minus wants Bowman to pay. "I see women on the street who fit her description and my heart starts beating fast and I am so scared." Other days she doesn't want the further pain of knowing she is in jail. "The only thing bad I can say about her is that she killed Myssiah," says Minus. "But she also gave him so much. I feel so confused."

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