Legislation Would Work to Protect Kids Like Erin Maxwell

Assemblyman Will Barclay
Assemblyman Barclay

Submitted by Assemblyman Will Barclay

The case of Erin Maxwell and the circumstances surrounding her death have left the community saddened and troubled.  Her death has been ruled a homicide yet no arrest has been made.  Many questions are still unanswered.  We do, however, know that she lived in unacceptable conditions.   Emergency workers who attended the call to her house report wearing masks to protect themselves from the stench created by animal feces and waste.

This little girl’s death has people wondering about the safety of children throughout our small communities.      Child abuse is common and its effects are usually long lasting.  The Center for Disease Control recently reported that 1 in every 50 children under the age of 1 have experienced some kind of abuse.  In 2006, there were 51,552 indicated reports of child abuse or neglect in New York State involving 76,797 children.  Researchers suggest a strong link between child abuse and impeding brain development, which triggers illness later in life.

Our state has many laws already in place that are supposed to work to protect children.  In Erin’s case, the system failed her, though it’s not clear when or how. We may never know the whole truth.  Social workers were called to the house in 2006 after abuse or unacceptable living conditions were reported to the state’s Child Abuse Hotline.  Social Services conducted an investigation and the public awaits a full report on the department’s findings.  However, according to news reports, there were feet of cat feces in the house at the time of her death and 120 cats.

This incident reveals a weakness in our system and I believe our state laws can be improved. I have drafted legislation that would add an audit for local Department of Social Service agencies.  Under the proposal, state Office of Child and Protective Services workers would select several random cases that county workers have deemed “unfounded” and review those cases.  A small percentage would be selected from each department but the law provide a check and balance for county offices.

As the law exists now, it is up to the discretion of the visiting social worker to decide how to best handle each case that is either reported through the school or through the New York State Abuse hotline.  The law that I have proposed would ensure that certain cases are revisited by an outside agency, which would provide a check-back to what may occur after a social worker visits.  It has the potential to help save children’s lives or at least improve their living conditions.  This would also give state workers the opportunity to work directly with county workers to evaluate the conditions under which children are living by revisiting homes.

The state Child Protective Services law is clear.  Several pages detail “acceptable living conditions” and level of expected care; the standards are reasonable and fair to the child.  Further provisions in the law provide guidelines for social workers to help or advocate on the child’s behalf, including taking steps to provide food stamps for the family, recommending a mental health evaluation for the guardian and, if necessary, removing the child from the guardian’s custody, though this is usually a last resort.  However, something happened that prevented Erin from receiving the help she needed and that is where our state laws can be improved upon.

If anyone has “reasonable cause” to report child abuse, they can call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-342-3720.  If you have any questions, comments or concerns regarding this or any other state matter.  I can be reached by mail at 200 North Second Street, Fulton, 13069, by e-mail at [email protected], or by phone at (315) 598-5185.