Aniya Day-Garrett Case Sparks Changes At Cuyahoga County Child Services
Later this month, Sierra Day and Deonte Lewis will be sentenced after a jury convicted them last week on aggravated murder and other charges in the death of four-year-old Aniya Day-Garrett. She died one year ago this week, after what prosecutors say was years of abuse at the hands of her mother and her mother’s boyfriend.
A state investigation into Aniya’s death concluded the Cuyahoga County Division of Children and Family Services failed to properly follow procedures in the case.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services as well as an independent child welfare panel appointed by Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish both found areas that need improvement at DCFS.
David Crampton, associate professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University, was one of six experts on the county panel. They found that mistakes made in Aniya’s case were the result of systemic problems within the division.
“A series of different systems that didn’t work the way they are intended and kind of a combination of those things coming together led to a tragedy,” Crampton said. “And so our work now is difficult. It’s to get those systems back on track.”
In two separate reports, both the panel and state recommended several changes to DCFS. One effort is to improve communication with the non-custodial parent when their child is involved in an investigation.
DCFS Director Cynthia Weiskittel says the department is addressing that issue.
“We have really increased our efforts around including fathers in the work of keeping their children safe,” Weiskittel said. “So, we have started once again in collaboration with the county’s Fatherhood Initiative as well as the Healthy Family collaborative. And really talking to staff about the importance of knowing who the father is and how involved he is with his children.”
The state’s report into Day-Garrett’s death found caseworkers didn’t follow proper procedure during the 13 months when five separate reports of suspected child abuse were filed against her mother.
Among the lapses DCFS workers didn’t include histories of previous injuries in their reports, they downplayed Aniya telling them her mother hurt her, and they didn’t properly categorize her case, which the state said caused delays in investigating Aniya’s situation.
Weiskittel says the lessons learned in the case have resulted in a new intake process.
“We are screening-in young children, alleged victims of abuse, as investigations,” said Weiskittel. “So, we have really prioritized the smaller child, (who has) less of an ability to self-protect. Those are investigated thoroughly and timely.”
Other recommendations DCFS has implemented include bringing on a sheriff’s deputy to assist with investigations, hiring twelve additional case workers, and strengthening the interview and critical thinking skills of the DCFS workers who come in contact with families.
Weiskittel says the Annie E. Casey Foundation will be conducting extensive training with DCFS. She says during a six-week pilot session, staff members were presented with six cases in which they had to walk through how they would handle each situation. Their answers were then compared to an expert in the social work field. Weiskittel says the staff was more likely to choose the expert’s option by the end of the training.
“So it’s just an ongoing attempt to help them think critically about, ‘OK, here’s what you know. What do you need to know next to move forward? And what step would you take next?’” she said.
Case professor David Crampton who worked on the county’s independent panel says it will take some time to see the effect of these changes, but they will also need the community’s help in keeping children safe.
“So there’ll be some educating the community about, if you see something, say something. So we need the communities’ eyes and energy around these issues,” he said.
DCFS has held several community meetings in the last year to address questions about their work. Weiskittel says the community is also doing its part: calls to the county’s hotline to report suspected abuse are up. In January, the hotline received 6,500 calls.
“And so what that says to me is that the work we’ve been doing around education, collaboration and the role of each of us in the community is working,” said Weiskittel. “People are reaching out and they’re paying attention and they’re speaking up when they see something.”
She adds there are now 2600 children in county custody, which is 400 children more than the previous year.