MASSENA — A 10-year-old disabled girl died in Massena, at home, despite being part of an open investigation by the St. Lawrence County Department of Social Services.
The family of the deceased girl was being investigated by Child Protective Services for educational neglect at the time of her death.
According to a child fatality report from the state Office of Children and Family Services, the girl had not been in school since March of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to go to remote learning. The OCFS report was issued on June 29 of this year.
The girl, who had cerebral palsy and was fed though a feeding tube, lived in a household with six other children and her mother.
At school she was provided with physical therapy, occupational therapy, personal hygiene care, and often had her body position changed to prevent sores from developing.
According to the OCFS report, attempts by the school to establish distance and virtual learning had been unsuccessful. A report of educational neglect was filed with DSS on Dec. 1, 2020.
At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the Massena Central School District offered a choice for parents to have their children attend remotely or in person, or sometimes in a hybrid fashion, Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said.
Many remote students weren’t engaging, he said. Some would log on but not turn on their cameras. Others didn’t come online at all.
“In those cases we would contact the parents to see if we could improve that engagement and then we would also have home visits to those families where students were not connecting on a regular basis,” he said.
Mr. Brady said he could not comment on any particular student’s education, but said the process was not optimal.
“That is one of the reasons, that this school year, we did not provide remote learning as an option,” he said.
Remote learning is only provided for students who are under quarantine or have a legitimate medical issue.
A decision to involve DSS in a case where a student is not coming to school is made by a group of people, Mr. Brady said.
“It’s normally made between a counselor, a principal and along with the input from a teacher,” Mr. Brady said.
The decision is made when the school feels like the family has become a barrier to the child’s learning, he said.
A DSS worker visited the home upon receipt of the educational neglect complaint, but due to possible COVID-19 exposure, the children were only observed from the door and no concerns were noted, according to the OCFS report.
From the door, the home was observed to be cluttered.
“(It was) however, free of health and safety concerns,” the report reads.
A follow-up visit was conducted virtually prior to the death. There were no interviews conducted of people who may have been in contact with the family and no in-person interviews were performed.
A school worker visited the home on Dec. 22, 2020, to deliver Christmas presents to the family. The worker noted that the girl appeared thin but was assured by the mother that it was because of a change in the girl’s feeding schedule.
The house that Emergency Medical Services personnel and law enforcement officers found when they were called about the child’s death was different from the DSS description, according to the OCFS report.
EMS reported the home had a foul odor and there was dog feces on the floor when they arrived. The couch where the girl’s body was found was saturated in feces and bodily fluids. The girl’s body and feeding tube were unkempt and dirty, and she had ulcers on her body. Her fingernails and toenails were long.
An autopsy revealed that the girl was dehydrated and died of malnutrition. Her death was ruled a homicide by the coroner.
“We are aware of it (the girl’s death), it is under investigation but at this point we have not filed charges,” St. Lawrence County District Attorney Gary M. Pasqua said Tuesday.
Mr. Pasqua would not comment on whether charges were anticipated.
He also would not comment on details of the investigation, including its length of more than nine months. Neither could Mr. Pasqua say why news of the girl’s death was just coming to light.
“We have been aware of the girl’s death since it happened,” Mr. Pasqua said. “We wouldn’t go public and comment on an investigation, so nothing would have come from my office.”
The girl’s surviving siblings were removed from the home and placed in foster care by DSS.
Attempts to reach the Department of Social Services were unsuccessful.
There have been 22 investigations involving the family dating back to 2010. Of the 22 investigations, 10 were found to be true. The children had been placed in foster care twice during that time.
Among other issues, adults in the household were found to be neglectful in following through with medical concerns, using physical discipline, keeping an unkempt house and using drugs and alcohol in the presence of children.
The girl’s maternal grandfather was the last to see the child alive. According to the report, before leaving in the morning, he saw her on the couch, where she was sleeping. The mother told DSS she slept in and when she checked on the girl, she was not breathing. She said she called 911 and performed CPR until EMS and law enforcement arrived.
The mother also told DSS that the girl’s feeding tube, which is supposed to run continuously during the night had been shut off by one of her siblings around midnight and that she (the mother) had turned it back on at 3 a.m.
The girl last saw a pediatrician in March of 2020 to observe pressure sores that were healing, according to the report.
A follow-up appointment was conducted via telemedicine, in which the mother informed the pediatrician that the sores had healed, but the doctor did not observe the sores.
EMS and the autopsy reported there were severe puss-filled ulcers on her buttocks.
Getting kids to be in school, in person, is important, Mr. Brady said, It’s not just about academics. The pandemic brought about isolation in which kids did not engage with their peers and with other adults in their life, Mr. Brady said.
“It’s about learning other skills such as team work and resilience and self worth and connecting students to various activities that will provide them with engagement with other people,” Mr. Brady said. “It’s critical. It’s important.”