A wait for answers in child’s 2019 death in Weare

Monitor staff
Published: 11/21/2020 4:29:18 PM
Modified: 11/21/2020 4:29:03 PM

The details are grim: A Weare couple, charged with negligent homicide in the death of a 1-year-old due to alleged neglect.

On Oct. 23, a Hillsborough County grand jury sent indictments against Christian Cummings and Mikayla Coburn in the February 2019 death of their daughter. With those indictments came affidavits from the Weare police, including harrowing descriptions of the child’s lack of medical treatment before her death of a suspected urinary tract infection.

Now, as the nearly two-year police investigation and charges in the death move toward a trial, the tragedy has raised familiar questions for the state’s child services agency, the Division for Children, Youth and Families. DCYF had been involved with the family before, and had directed them to leave the residence before the death, according to a Weare police affidavit attached to the charges.

Yet a full accounting of how DCYF handled the case and whether more reforms are necessary may be a while off.

New Hampshire’s newly-created watchdog agency over DCYF, the Office of the Child Advocate, is free to carry out independent investigations into DCYF in cases involving child fatalities and criminal charges. But it is limited in what it can say about them.

That’s because the 2018 law that created the OCA in the first place does not allow it to publicize its findings – even in a confidential way – as long as law enforcement is involved. “Investigation findings shall not be released if there is a pending law enforcement investigation or prosecution,” states RSA 21-V:5, V.

The statute means that it could be years before the state’s DCYF watchdog gets to weigh in publicly on how the agency did handling a 2019 case that ended in tragedy.

“The best mechanism (for investigation) is the office of the child advocate,” said Moira O’Neill, the OCA’s first director, in an interview. “That’s the whole point of us existing. Unfortunately in these cases, I can’t even say to you ‘Don’t worry, everything is fine,’ or ‘Don’t worry, that’s been fixed’ or anything like that because of this restriction.”

Only after the Cummings and Coburn cases conclude in court, after opening and closing statements and jury-directed allegations are aired publicly, can the OCA release findings that could help the public – and lawmakers – understand the agency’s response.

But according to Joe Ribsam, the DCYF director, the restrictions on disclosure do not put a stop to all investigation after a child fatality. Ribsam argued it doesn’t meaningfully detract from the agency’s position either.

“While the child advocate’s office may not be able to publicly disclose pending a criminal investigation, certainly the Office of the Child Advocate can be involved in reviewing, understanding, providing recommendations, ensuring the things are being handled appropriately,” he said. “And those are roles that the (OCA) takes in high profile matters and in tragedies like child fatalities but also in ordinary cases on a regular basis.

For instance, since its creation, the OCA has carried out out “system learning reviews” – in-depth investigations into how cases were handled, which then are used by DCYF to improve. Those SLRs aren’t public but they do inform the DCYF watchdog’s annual reports on the progress of the agency, which are made public.

Meanwhile, DCYF itself is entering into a new review model with the University of Kentucky, Ribsam says. That model is designed to use data to analyze case responses and identify patterns.

There’s a bigger picture that can be lost in a court trial and can only be revealed through deeper system-wide reviews, Ribsam and O’Neill agree.

“What it really comes down is trying to get beyond what are the typical simple explanations to tragic outcomes, which is to look at someone to blame for the bad thing to happen,” he said. “In reality, it’s almost never that simple. It’s almost never as simple as some person was indifferent to doing their job and therefore the child died. It’s almost always a situation where there’s a host of contributing factors and there’s a host of complicating factors.”

Still, without public reporting of those changes, the drive for reform must come from within.

The Weare case contains a slew of allegations of neglect, the police affidavit states. Long before the child’s death, Cummings and Coburn allegedly failed to dress her warmly and left her with dirt under her nails and armpits. She was found with a severe case of lice. And she died of probable urosepsis with dehydration after her parents said she had been throwing up for two days, the affidavit stated.

“We thought it was just the 48-hour bug,” Cummings told police at the scene, according to the affidavit.

The tragedy also unfolded despite previous efforts by DCYF to get involved. “On February 14, at approximately 1:00pm, Lieutenant Hebert of the Weare Police Department was informed by DCYF supervisor Diane Steenbeke that due to prior DCYF action, Christian, Mikayla and (the girl) were not to be in the residence...” the affidavit stated.

O’Neill, who came to New Hampshire to head the OCA after serving in a similar role in Connecticut, said she couldn’t comment on whether the OCA is even investigating the Weare case at all.

And that statutory restriction somewhat hampers the new office, she said, which was created in the wake of a pair of child deaths that spurred an investigation by the Monitor, an outside review by an auditor, the firing of the DCYF director, and a years-long structural and financial overhaul of the agency.

Established in 2018, the OCA was empowered with oversight powers into DCYF, including access to the confidential DCYF case files. The OCA is also notified within 24 hours of a child fatality case, at which point it can begin its own outreach to the agency and its own independent investigation. The statute requires the OCA to exercise discretion and maintain confidentiality when dealing with individual cases.

Those investigatory powers represent a significant step forward for accountability, O’Neill says. Annual reports by the watchdog office have demonstrated how recent staff expansion and program changes have helped improve conditions, while also highlighting ongoing shortcomings.

And the agency and political leaders has responded to the demands, too, Ribsam argues. The increase in funding and staffing by the Legislature have brought down work loads. Four years ago, workers used to have to deal with up to 90 cases at once. Now that number is down to 17.

“If you have assessment workers who are 17 it’s still a hard job,” Ribsam said, alluding to current numbers of cases per worker. “But at 90 it’s an impossible job.”

And the agency’s expansion “voluntary services” will allow caseworkers to get in touch with families well before any abuse or neglect can be formally proven, Ribsam said, potentially heading off crisis and dramatically reducing further case loads.

Yet the inability to release the findings could make it more difficult to produce meaningful feedback when it matters most, O’Neill argued.

“If you can’t investigate and talk to the community about it until years later, it’s not a relevant conversation,” she said. “In that case, there’s a whole new director, there’s all these positions, there’s caseworkers, everything is different.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reac hed at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)



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