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Probe of boy’s beating death uncovers unacceptable failures by county agency

Here is what is clear from the state report on the brutal death of Abdifatah Mohamud: He should still be alive.

The 10-year-old boy was beaten to death by his stepfather last year – bound, gagged and bludgeoned with a rolling pin. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that Abdifatah had reported his stepfather’s previous abuse. As a result, the Erie County Department of Social Services stepped in – and mishandled the matter. The boy was left at the mercy of the man who would soon take his life.

This isn’t simply a matter of 20/20 hindsight. After Abdi’s death last year, the state Office of Children and Family Services reviewed 110 randomly selected child abuse cases handled by Erie County and found multiple deficiencies in how the county investigates child abuse. We don’t know if that’s unusual or not; it is possible that all Social Services departments – under financial strain, probably understaffed and performing intensely stressful work – are similarly deficient.

But this is our Social Services Department. Abdifatah was one of this county’s children, and he suffered an unimaginable, terrifying death at the hands of someone who should have been his protector. Had the threat to his life been handled better, that boy might now be 11 years old and safe from the lethal threat posed by Ali-Mohamed Mohamud. If only.

The biggest problem was that, without proof of the abuse that Abdifatah reported a year earlier, the case was referred to an alternative program, the Family Assessment Response, rather than being handled as a Child Protective Services investigation.

That program, known as FAR, offers a more collaborative approach between caseworkers and families. The goal is to keep children and parents together. But several weeks after the decision to refer the matter to the FAR program, Abdifatah showed up at school with bruises on his face. In a jailhouse interview after Abdifatah’s death, the stepfather blamed those injuries on a bullying incident on the school bus. Perhaps. But it still should have been a red flag that this boy was in danger. The state review found no explanation of why the case was referred to the FAR program.

In its review, the state office also identified these problems:

• Although child protective workers conducted strong investigations in the first few days of receiving cases, they didn’t maintain that pace, creating “a lack of depth and thoroughness in the investigations.”

• Follow-up interviews with families were not consistently made or documented. In Abdifatah’s case, they could have affirmed his reports of abuse.

• Concern that 75 of the 110 families reviewed were the subject of multiple reports of abuse. What is more, 17 of those families had been “re-reported” seven or more times over the previous four years.

Those issues need to be addressed immediately, as does the smothering level of secrecy that surrounds these cases. Privacy is critical, of course, but whether the same level is required after a child’s death is questionable. At some point, the antiseptic of openness is needed not just to cleanse the public wound, but to close off, as best as possible, the possibility of a recurrence.

There are other potential Abdifatahs in Erie County right now. They need protection from a system that works and that is accountable.