By LOU MICHEL
Two Erie County legislative leaders want top administrators from the Department of Social Services to explain how a child who twice called 911 complaining to be physically abused by his stepfather could end up dead a year later.
In addition, State Sens. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said Tuesday that they are working on legislation that would require state officials to release portions of state-mandated fatality reports on slain children who had received services from county child-protection workers.
These actions by the elected officials were prompted by a Buffalo News report Monday that state officials refuse to release the fatality report of Abdifatah Mohamud, a 10-year-old Buffalo boy bludgeoned to death by his stepfather after Buffalo police had referred his case to county Child Protective Services.
“I was shocked and saddened by the death of Abdifatah Mohamud. Releasing a child fatality report shouldn’t be an all-or-nothing proposition in cases like this,” Grisanti said. “I am working on legislation that would require the state to release these reports under the Freedom of Information Law, redacted as necessary to protect identities and any information sensitive to the surviving siblings.”
State Office of Children and Family Services officials, in rejecting The News’ request for the fatality report under the Freedom of Information Law, said the law does not give them the option to issue redacted versions, if a “best interests” test carried out by county child-protection workers determines public viewing of the report would traumatize surviving children in the home.
Abdifatah, who was known as Abdi, is survived by two half brothers, 6 and 7 years old.
But by sealing the report, it remains unknown if the county failed to follow procedures that could have saved the boy. Fatality reports are supposed to make recommendations or require actions if it is determined missteps occurred.
“This is about protecting kids who are still alive,” Maziarz said of the need to know whether mistakes were made and changes are necessary.
Meanwhile, County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, and Legislator Thomas J. Mazur, D-Cheektowaga, say a public review is needed to determine how Abdifatah’s case went awry. They have asked Social Services Commissioner Carol M. Dankert or one of her top administrators to attend a Legislature Health and Human Services Committee meeting in February.
“My concern is that he did everything that someone reaching out for help needs to do,” Grant said of Abdi, who called 911 a year before his death to report abuse by his stepfather, Al-Mohamed Mohamud. “He called 911, he told them he was being abused, and from what I read, he said it was a ‘life-and-death’ situation.
Abdi, then 9, made that call to 911 on April 18, 2011. Police responded and referred the case to Child Protective Services.
On April 17, 2012, the stepfather, then 40, struck him 70 times with a rolling pin in the basement of their Guilford Street home on the East Side after gagging him with a sock and binding his limbs with electrical cord. The stepfather later confessed that he was upset that Abdi was falling behind in school. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
Child-protection workers at the county level also reviewed allegations of child abuse inflicted on Abdifatah after the boy showed up at International Preparatory School with bruises, yet he remained under the same roof with the stepfather.
The county workers decided to handle the case in a less severe manner than a regular child-abuse case by referring it to a state-initiated program called Family Assessment Review.
County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Tuesday that he could not discuss the specifics of the Abdifatah case but that the county, as it does in every child death, has analyzed the circumstances to determine whether anything could have been done differently.
“You analyze every situation and see, could it have been different?” Poloncarz said during a meeting Tuesday with The News’ Editorial Board. “We did that with the Abdifatah Mohamud case, and we’ve done that with every other case that comes down, because this report does not just analyze what the county did up to that point, it also looks to see, what has the county done since then to try to avoid a similar situation?” Sometimes, he said, the conclusion is that nothing more could have been done.
The county, in general, no longer refers as many cases to Family Assessment Review as it has done in the past, Poloncarz said. He said he is also concerned about whether enough information is shared between levels of government in these types of cases. For example, he said, the county did not know that a home child care facility had been run in Abdifatah’s house. That information, which is controlled by the state, would have excluded it from Family Assessment Review, he said.
Poloncarz said that he does not object to the child fatality reports being released to the public but that he is bound by what the state decides in each case.
“If every report became public knowledge, it would show, in my view, that the county did what it could,” Poloncarz said, speaking generally about all of the child fatality reports that the county receives.
Grant said she was particularly upset with the reaction to Abdi’s calls to 911. “For a child to do this, to call the police knowing that he might be putting himself at additional risk, it took a tremendous amount of courage, enough to want to stop that abuse,” Grant said.
Mazur, chairman of Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the county has an obligation to take a hard look at what happened.
“We are going to ask the questions: Are we doing everything we are supposed to be doing as a government? Are there some things we need to be doing to change the operations? And how can we stop this from happening again?” Mazur said. “Any time something like this happens on your watch, the County Legislature, the county executive and the Department of Social Services need to get together collectively to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
News Staff Reporter Denise Jewell Gee contributed to this report