Report Details Maxwell Investigations

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY – A 26-page report detailing Oswego County Department of Social Services’ investigations involving Erin Maxwell was made public Thursday afternoon.

Originally prepared for Oswego County Legislature Chairman Barry Leemann, the report provided information about three separate investigations that were launched over a three-year span between 2003 and 2006.

Eleven-year-old Erin died Aug. 30 after emergency workers were called to her home on state Route 264 in Palermo Aug. 29. The Onondaga County medical examiner has ruled her death a homicide; the result of asphyxia. Sexual trauma was also indicated in the autopsy report. To date, no arrests have been made in the case.

Erin’s death has sparked a significant amount of public outcry and scrutiny into DSS’ involvement with the child prior to her death.

“There has been a tremendous amount of speculation about the condition of the home, and what we may or may not have done,” Lanigan said after the report was released.

Lanigan noted that the report shows Child Protective Services (CPS) took every action required and permitted under the law during its investigations.

“I’ve read the report,” Leemann said. “I think it answers a lot of questions and I think it will bring up a lot of questions.

“As we review the report… all we can really do is wait to see what happens when the state report comes back and if it corroborates this report,” Leemann added. “If it does, then we have done everything appropriately. If not, I guess we will take appropriate action at that time.”

“I don’t think we will ever satisfy everybody,” Lanigan said. “People have their own opinion.”

She noted, however, that the point of releasing the information was to give the public a better understanding of the rules her department has to follow and show how cases are handled.

Lanigan stressed that reports made to the State Central Register that result in investigations bring the department in to see the conditions of a home at that particular time.

“We are dealing with what we know at the time,” Lanigan said. “We don’t have a crystal ball.”

She said there was nothing at any of those times that would have indicated Erin was in danger and no way to predict what would happen to her earlier this year. Had CPS believed at any of those times that Erin was in imminent danger, Lanigan said the department would have acted on it immediately.

“I am hopeful that this report will do two things,” County Administrator Phil Church said. “First, I hope it gives the public a better understanding of CPS and how they work, what their goals are and how they are able to help families and help children.

“Secondly, I believe it answers a lot of questions,” Church added. “I believe it will clear up a lot of assumptions.”

The report is broken into three sections. The first section provides information on the process undertaken by DSS staff when it receives reports of abuse or neglect by the State Central Register (SCR). The second section provides details on three separate investigations that involved the Maxwell family. The third section includes Social Services laws.

The first investigation was prompted by an anonymous report received by the SCR at 2:16 p.m., July 25 accusing inadequate guardianship of then 6-year-old Erin.

“The allegations included ‘parents hitting the child with a belt and child being put to bed without supper, isolated in room, and sent to her room for misbehaving, and the house is filthy dirty,’” the report reads.

The worker noted that the house was dirty but that the family was cooperative. Through its investigation, the department found no evidence that Erin was being abused or kept in her room. The report was indicated for inadequate guardianship, however, because the Maxwells kept two geese in cages inside the home.

The second investigation was prompted by a complaint to the SCR that was made by a mandated reporter, Nov. 19, 2004, complaining that Erin’s clothing wreaked of cat urine. The report said that Erin’s hair and body were clean and that she was doing well academically but noted that her clothing often had to be changed and that that it was affecting her peer relationships.

“The investigation was completed, the report was unfounded,” the caseworker wrote. “It is true that Erin Maxwell’s clothes have smelled of animal odor at school. However, this does not appear to effect (sic) her school work and it does not bother Erin. Erin is more bothered by the school targeting her for it.”

The caseworkers provided suggestions to the family, such as sealing Erin’s clean clothing in plastic bins so that they did not take on animal smells.

The third report began from an anonymous report made to the SCR at 12:36 p.m., March 27, 2006, alleging that the Maxwell home was in a “deplorable condition.” Erin, who was 9 years old at the time, was regarded as unkempt. The caller reported that she “eats out of garbage pails and hoards food.”

In a note to school, Lynn Maxwell indicated that Erin hoarded food at home, as well.

“The report was indicated for inadequate guardianship against all three adults in the household,” the worker wrote. “The housing fails to meet minimum standards. No services are to be provided at this time as the child is not being impacted negatively. Indicated and closed.”

All three investigations included interviews with Erin. Four separate child protective services caseworkers were involved in the investigations and personally spoke to Erin no less than six times during the course of three investigations. Safety and risk assessments were conducted for each report, each time concluding that Erin was safe and not at risk of imminent danger. Six home visits were made. In each case, progress was made addressing the issues at the home that prompted the investigations.

A footnote in the report said that Erin’s step-mother, Lynn Maxwell, and step-brother, Alan Jones, were subjects of an inadequate guardianship investigation in 1996, as well. No details were provided.

Lanigan said no other reports were made to the SCR after the 2006 investigation.

Lanigan and the department’s attorney, Kevin Caraccioli, also noted that little can be said at this time about an ongoing DSS investigation.

“A report was made to the statewide Central Register in Albany after Erin died, alleging specific acts of maltreatment which, ultimately, resulted in Erin Maxwell’s death,” the executive summary in the report reads. “The current report received by the Oswego County Department of Social Services by the SCR is under investigation.”

Caraccioli pointed out that the call was made to the SCR Sept. 2.

“It is currently under investigation,” he said. “(The department) has 60 days to complete the investigation. At the conclusion, we’ll evaluate (the case) and take whatever action is appropriate.”

Caraccioli noted that the nature of the investigation will not be hindered by the department’s inability to speak to Erin.

“We are right in the middle (of the investigation) and bound not to disclose the details,” Lanigan said. “At the conclusion, there may be occasion under Eliza’s Law to disclose more.”

As for the county, Church said the next step is to wait for the state’s independent review of the same case files.

“If there are any recommendations from that, we can implement them locally,” he said.

“A lot of this will be left to the reader’s interpretation,” Church said. “But it appears at first glance that our caseworkers followed all state regulations.”

To view the entire report, click the link below:

Maxwell Report