Family Preservation at All Costs? The Case of Zymere Perkins

On Sept. 26, 2016, Geraldine Perkins brought the dead body of her six-year-old son, Zymere Perkins, to the St. Luke’s Hospital Emergency Room in New York City. On October 12, New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner ruled that Zymere’s death was a homicide caused by child abuse. On September 28, police arrested Ms. Perkins and her boyfriend, Rysheim Smith.

Between June 2015 and April 2016, Zymere had been the subject of four reports to the state’s child abuse hotline. Three of these reports had been substantiated by the child welfare agency and Ms. Perkins had begun participating in preventive services funded by New York City’s Administration on Children’s Services (ACS).

The death of Zymere Perkins unleashed a media firestorm resulting in the resignation of the head of ACS. The state and city have issued scathing reports on the failure of ACS to protect Zymere.

The media has understandably concentrated on the many egregious oversights by Child Protective Services workers, who repeatedly failed to investigate thoroughly the allegations of abuse.

But as a former child welfare social worker, what strikes me most is that Zymere’s family was receiving intensive supervision and services funded by ACS for ten of his last twelve months. While under investigation by CPS in September 2015, the family began participating in the St. Luke’s Family Treatment and Rehabilitation Program, which has a contract with ACS to deliver preventive services to high-risk families.

According to the city report, the St. Luke’s “case planner“ documented 42 visits with the family in the home and at the office, as well as frequent conversations with school staff, mental health professionals, shelter staff and other professionals “involved with the family” between September 2015 and July 2016.

In her notes on  those visits, the case planner repeatedly documented her concern about the unusual number of injuries sustained by Zymere, including two mouth injuries serious enough to require a dental visit and extractions, and one eye injury requiring a visit to an eye specialist.

The case planner documented her suspicion that Mr. Smith was hitting Zymere, and that Ms. Perkins was “overly influenced” by him. She also noted that Ms. Perkins had not entered a drug program or received the services that she had agreed to earlier. She had also stopped drug testing.

But the case planner never called the child abuse hotline, nor did she convene an “elevated risk conference,” which was required given her concerns.

The case was finally closed after Ms. Perkins told the case planner that she was moving to Massachusetts, a claim that was false and never verified. St. Luke’s final visit with the family took place on Aug. 26, 2016, two months before Ms. Perkins brought her son’s body to the emergency room.

New York City has suspended all preventive services intakes for the St. Luke’s program until it complies with a “Corrective Action Plan” to correct the deficiencies displayed by the Perkins case. I wonder, though, if systemic issues are as much to blame for the failure to protect Zymere. New York’s emphasis on keeping families together, in line with the dominant ideology in most states, may discourage staff from taking action to protect children from dangerous caregivers.

On Dec. 14, 2016, a day after the damning state and city reports, Dr. Jacqueline Martin, ACS’ deputy commissioner for preventive services, testified before the city council. She boasted that “New York City is one of the few jurisdictions in the country where families have access to a comprehensive, holistic, and fully funded continuum of services and supports to strengthen families and prevent entry into foster care.”

According to Dr. Martin’s testimony, family treatment and rehabilitation services (FT/R) like those received by Zymere’s family “are designed for higher-risk families and include treatment for substance abuse and mental illness. FT/R programs “offer clinical diagnostic teams comprised of licensed therapists, Credentialed Alcohol Substance Abuse Counselors (CASAC), case planners, psychologist consultants, psychiatric consultants and other providers.”

There is nothing about the Perkins case in Dr. Martin’s written testimony.

Dr. Martin’s wording is telling. The purpose of New York’s continuum of services is “to strengthen families and prevent entry into foster care,” but not to prevent abuse or neglect. Perhaps it is not surprising that Zymere’s safety was given short shrift.

Child welfare policy tends to swing between an emphasis on child safety and a focus on family preservation. On the national level, and in most states including New York, family preservation is currently the favored goal.

Of course we should avoid unnecessary placements in foster care. Removal of a child from home is traumatic and should not be done unless the child is in danger. But when a child is left in a dangerous home with multiple strong indications of maltreatment, there is reason to question the balance that is currently being struck between child safety and family preservation.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.

2 Comments

  1. This is an incredible assertion to “wonder” without presenting any credible evidence to support: “I wonder, though, if systemic issues are as much to blame for the failure to protect Zymere. New York’s emphasis on keeping families together, in line with the dominant ideology in most states, may discourage staff from taking action to protect children from dangerous caregivers.” When your words can impact whether thousands of children are removed from home, journalists have an obligation not to “wonder” but to investigate, document and present facts.

    • Journalists present facts, as this writer does in the first 16 paragraphs of this article, and then draw conclusions or point out more questions to be answered, as this writer does in the last paragraph. Using facts to question the status quo and bring about reform is one of the obligations of good journalism. Journalists who questioned high rates of unnecessary placement in the 80s and 90s helped drive the reform that currently reduce unnecessary foster placement.

      Don’t overlook that the removal of children from homes that are fatally dangerous will protect children who can be safe at home, with preventive services, from the high rates of foster care placement that a child fatality backlash will bring. While preventive services are helpful for many families and protect many children, they are not appropriate for every family, as was clearly the case here.

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