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NYC Administration for Children's Services: The City's child welfare agency, dedicated to protecting children and strengthening families

Press release

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November 17, 2005

ACS Press Office

Statement by New York City Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner John B. Mattingly Regarding Sierra Roberts

Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner John B. Mattingly today said that the Agency has launched an investigation into the death of Sierra Roberts, a 7-year-old girl who was moved from foster care four years ago to live with her birth father, and who died on October 25th, 2005.

Commissioner Mattingly promised a further, detailed accounting of the facts of the case as soon as the internal investigation is completed.

These are the facts known to Children’s Services as of today:

Sierra Roberts first became known to Children’s Services after she was born in January, 1998. She and her mother both tested positive for cocaine. Children’s Services filed a petition before Family Court and was granted custody of Sierra after making the determination that the mother’s drug use seriously affected her ability to care for Sierra. It was determined that her father, Russell Roberts, was also not able to provide care for Sierra, and she was placed with a non-relative foster family for three years. She remained with the foster family until 2001. During those years, Mr. Roberts visited his daughter regularly, including weekend visits designed to prepare them for reunification. He also participated in services to prepare him to care safely for his daughter, including drug treatment and parent training. Children’s Services also helped him to secure suitable housing for him and Sierra. Sierra’s biological mother has not had any role in her care since 1998.

There were no subsequent child abuse and neglect reports made to Children’s Services or the State Central Register regarding Sierra’s safety and well-being.

However, in 2003, Children’s Services received additional information through the State Central Register, the state-run hotline for child abuse and neglect reports, after Sierra received treatment for a fractured leg; it was also determined that she had suffered a fractured spine about six months earlier. This information, which was provided by a doctor who evaluated Sierra’s injuries, was not classified by the state or by the medical provider as abuse. Between May and July of 2003, Children’s Services visited the family, interviewed medical providers, and talked to the former foster mother in order to assess Sierra’s safety and well-being. (The foster mother had continued to be involved with the family.) Children’s Services found no evidence of abuse or neglect. Mr. Roberts told medical providers and Children’s Services that Sierra had fallen, hurting her back, and that the injury to her leg subsequently occurred when her father fell on the stairs while carrying her. The caseworker last visited Mr. Roberts and Sierra in late July, 2003.

On October 25th, Sierra was pronounced dead on arrival at Peninsula General Hospital in Rockaway, Queens. Children’s Services immediately began its own investigation of child abuse by the father. Mr. Roberts is being charged with murder in the second degree as well as manslaughter and other charges, according to the Queens District Attorney’s office.

“We will do everything we can to assess every one of our actions in the case of this child,” said Commissioner John B. Mattingly. “Sierra had not been in our care for the last four years, but we take responsibility for finding out whether Children’s Services might have been able to do anything more to protect her during that time. We will make a full report to the public on this tragedy as soon as our investigation is complete.”

Commissioner Mattingly also acknowledged that this is the second fatality of a child known to Children’s Services during the past month in which the deceased child had been returned to the biological parents from a stay in foster care. Children’s Services is currently reviewing all of our practices regarding reunification of children with their biological parents after children have been in foster care. This review will include all decision-making when caseworkers and their supervisors assess a parent’s readiness to be reunited with their child.

For more than 15 years, the Accountability Review Panel, an independent advisory body composed of physicians, attorneys, mental health professionals and other experts, reviews the deaths in New York City families who were previously known to the child welfare system. The panel evaluates the quality of investigations, assessments, service planning and service delivery, identifies case-specific and systemic issues and recommends ways to improve interventions and overall functioning in ACS and other service systems. In calendar year 2004, the Panel reviewed the deaths of 33 children known to ACS. Of those 33 fatalities, 7 were homicides, 3 died of natural causes, 7 from accidents, one suicide, and 15 undetermined. To date in 2005, there have been 19 fatalities in the first nine months of the year, compared to 29 deaths in the same period of 2004. “Children’s Services will be asking the Panel to expedite its review of these two most recent cases to help with our overall assessment of policy and practice at the agency,” said Commissioner Mattingly.

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