Nov. 12, 2003 – A broad spectrum of people charged with protecting children from abuse in the Virgin Islands say the system in place for doing so is seriously flawed. Their failure to navigate that system successfully resulted in the death of a St. Thomas toddler nearly two years ago and recently allowed the man charged with inflicting mortal injuries on the 2-year-old to escape prosecution for the boy's death.
Poor communication, the failure to track cases and the tendency for different agencies to take independent action are being blamed for the death of Rasheem Todman on Dec. 18, 2001. Prosecutors cite the same reasons for having dropped charges of second-degree murder against the man who viciously assaulted the child.
The maximum penalty Vancito Farrington could get when his sentencing comes up on Dec. 17 — a day short of the second anniversary of Rasheem's death — is five years in jail, for aggravated child abuse..
Farrington pleaded guilty to that lesser charge earlier this month in Territorial Court. V.I. Justice Department prosecutors allowed the plea bargain at the urging of police investigators who feared Farrington would walk out of court a free man if they had to make the case for murder based on available evidence and witnesses' conflicting accounts.
Now, concerns are being raised about reports that one of Rasheem's brothers, a 10-year-old, was assaulted by his mother and another family member during a recent visitation at a St. Thomas shopping center days before the boy was scheduled to testify concerning Rasheem's death. Authorities removed the 10-year-old and another of Rasheem's brothers and a sister from the mother's home after the toddler's death, leaving only an infant in the mother's custody.
At the end of last week, informed sources said that police were still interviewing witnesses and reviewing the circumstances of the reported assault on the 10-year-old.
A haunting aspect of this new case lies in the fact that Rasheem was himself removed from the home by authorities in August 2001 after a doctor declared a fractured arm and burn on the child to be consistent with child abuse. But a Family Court judge ordered the child returned to his mother's care in October of that year, without a full custody hearing having taken place.
Representatives of agencies involved in the aborted intervention, the investigation into Rasheem's death and now the probe into the alleged assault point to missed opportunities along the way. Among them: witnesses who wouldn't talk, a crisis team that didn't act and an apparent failure by the court to line up its facts before making key decisions.
However, the person in charge of managing crisis cases for the Human Services Department in the St. Thomas-St. John district takes issue with that view. Etta Rahming says the child protective system is working the best it can; it's the people manipulating the system who are missing the mark.
If that is so, why it happened repeatedly in this case alone is a question for which the answer may never be known, because of the secrecy of deliberations in the Family Court Division of the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands. "There is no access to the Family Court by the general public," Attorney General Iver Stridiron said on Monday.
Among those having insight but keeping confidentiality with the Family Court is longtime child advocate Dilsa Capdeville, founder and executive director of the not-for-profit agency KidsCope, who says there are fatal flaws in the system that extend beyond the veil.
"I think we need to realistically look at the potholes and how we can repair them," Capdeville says. "Also, how we can collaboratively as agencies — such as the Police, Human Services, the Attorney General's Office and the medical piece — work together to protect these children." This must be done, she said, not just to benefit the children, "but also to get our facts and our pieces of information dealing with an investigation, so we can have full prosecution."
A system that failed a little life
Case workers who had contact with Rasheem say a suspicious set of injuries led to his removal from the home in August of 2001. Rahming describes the situation involving the child's burned and broken arm:
"There was an incident where Human Services removed the child. We took emergency custody. That incident … the same arm was fractured and burned. When we found out what the injuries were, we took emergency custody.
"We did our investigation, and from what the social workers did — the information that came back to me — [it] sounded more like a submersion burn. A submersion burn is where someone holds somebody in something hot. There's like a round line, there's an even line where there's a burn … Also, when the social workers went and talked to all the different people who were supposedly in the room, there were different stories that came back — which is a flag that somebody's not telling the truth and something happened that should not have happened."
According to Rahming, "the doctor who saw the child felt that it was done purposely. When the police did the investigation, they came back and said it was an accident. Then, when we were supposed to go into court for the judge to hear the hearing where we asked for emergency custody, that hearing didn't come through as a full-fledged hearing.
"People talked to each other before we went into court — that means the different attorneys. The information that was relayed to the judge was that V.I. Police said it was an accident. Based on that being related to the judge, the judge ruled that Human Services had to return the child back to the mother."
And so, Rasheem was sent back home. "If there was a full custody hearing, we might have had a different result," Rahming says. "The only thing that was brought to the judge's attention was the police report, which said it was an accident."
She blames the outcome of the broken bone and burning incident on a number of conflicting stories told by members of Rasheem's family, saying that was a signal that at least one version of the truth was a lie. Other professionals connected with the case blame a failure to communicate between police, prosecutors, Human Services, child advocates and the justice system.
Rahming's accusation evoked a sharp denial from the Police Department's spokesman, Sgt. Thomas Hannah. "It's not the police's fault," he said. "The incident report is only a preliminary report, and it is not complete until we've talked to the witnesses. There are supplementary reports to be filed."
Hannah says the investigation of the boy's August injuries was hampered because "members of the family had different versions of what happened." Nonetheless, he says, there remained a chance to sort out the facts in Family Court.
Had things gone according to procedures, Hannah says, there would have been a preliminary meeting prior to the custody hearing. And there, police officers, detectives, health professionals and case workers would have presented reports on the parts of the case they were working on.
That, he says, didn't happen. "If the judge went on the preliminary report alone, that's a failure there," he says. "When it comes to the court presentation — it's not a hearing, it's a pre-trial meeting that takes place. That's where everything comes together. From what I'm hearing, that did not take place."
For 2-year-old Rasheem Todman, the court's decision to send him home was the close of one painful chapter in his short life and the prelude to the final act.
The end came on Dec. 18, 2001, when his mother, Kimberly Saunders, took him to the hospital, suffering from vomiting and diarrhea, with what turned out to be injuries sustained in the assault by Farrington. A medical expert testi
fying in Territorial Court at Farrington's trial told the judge the child died of internal injuries after Farrington kicked him repeatedly in the abdomen between 10 and 13 times, rupturing his intestine.
The assault took place in view of the child's older brothers and sister, who investigators say did not initially tell their mother what happened. Farrington was at the time in charge of caring for the children.
Absent consistency and cooperation
Once again, authorities said, came a flurry of conflicting stories, as different family members told — or failed to tell — how Rasheem's injuries occurred.
Assistant Attorney General Douglas Dick says inconsistencies in the accounts of what happened to Rasheem ultimately led to the decision to go for a plea bargain. Dick places much of the blame on the boy's father, Val Hendricks, who lives on Virgin Gorda. Hendricks first told prosecutors he had a taped confession from Farrington, then would not produce it, Dick says.
Dick also blames Saunders, saying that, despite repeated telephone calls, she showed up for just one meeting with prosecutors to prepare for cross examination. And there, he says, she offered a version of events that he and his co-counsel, Dionne Meyers-Louis, concluded would never hold up on the witness stand.
"She was supposed to come back again and work with us some more," Dick adds. "She didn't show."
"We had numerous problems with the case," Dick relates. "We had a number of problems with the evidence. We had uncooperative parents who were not working with us. The father of the child, who had indicated originally that he had an audio tape with a statement by the defendant alleging that he had accidentally killed the child … never produced that audio tape."
According to Dick, Hendricks "would not come in and meet with either myself or Attorney Meyers in our office, did not meet with the Police Department or provide the tape, or with Human Services. He had a number of different appointments to come in. He never came.
"When I spoke with him on the telephone shortly before trial, indicating that we really needed him to come in and we needed his cooperation, he promised when he got into St. Thomas he would call. He did not."
And, Dick says, Hendricks "indicated that he comes to St. Thomas a lot to party over here and that he doesn't want to be looking behind his back."
The Police Department's Hannah is among those who find themselves stunned by — and wondering at — the father's attitude.
"When the father said, 'I come to St. Thomas to lime and I don't want to be looking behind my back,' that tells me something else is going on," Hannah says.
Dick says he, too, was disturbed by the statements, and that the father's failure to produce the promised taped statement harmed the prosecution's case. But because Hendricks was living in the British Virgin Islands, he says, there was little the Justice Department could do about it.
More red flags appeared during the prosecutors' one opportunity to question the dead child's mother. Dick says they knew there was trouble ahead when Saunders' statements skewed wildly from those of medical experts over Rasheem's condition just prior to his death.
"There were problems with the medical testimony that Dr. [Frank] Odlum would have given that would have contradicted" some of the things Saunders was saying "with regards to how the child was acting the day she took the child to the hospital," Dick says. "He would have said, basically, that was not consistent with his medical findings."
Originally, Dick says, Saunders "had given a totally different story about how the injuries occurred, something about the kids falling and fighting and that the child had fallen on the porch or something; that there was fighting and the kids were knocking each other around. That was not really consistent with the later story."
More contradictions surfaced as the Justice Department team questioned Rasheem's older brothers and sister.
Dick says: "We did have a problem with the children, with a change in the testimony at the last minute indicating there was an additional person that was in the home the night of the incident that they never mentioned to the police or to us or to Human Services before."
This added information in the siblings' account was not seen as a major inconsistency in and of itself by the prosecutors. But, Dick says, it had to be coupled with Hendricks' failure to provide the alleged tape of Farrington's confession, Saunders' weak performance as a witness during her preparation for testimony, and her subsequent failure to return for further preparation.
And taking all of that into account, Dick says, the Justice team felt they had no choice but to drop the murder charges against Farrington.
Attorney General Stridiron, speaking a few days after Farrington pleaded guilty to aggravated child abuse, called it an unsettling decision and a matter that troubled his chief prosecutor for child abuse cases, Dick. Stridiron says they discussed the case together and with other Justice officials at length before the decision was reached.
In the end, the attorney general says, no one was happy.
Another case, another investigation
By law the maximum sentence for aggravated child abuse is five years in prison, but Dick says chances are Farrington will get less than that. Two days after a judge accepted Farrington's guilty plea, Dick also held out the possibility that Raheem's brothers and sister might be sent back to their mother.
Now, in light of the alleged assault of the 10-year-old boy, that may no longer be the case.
As Dick relates the matter, "There was an incident out at Four Winds, about a week and a half now. [The mother] is under investigation for having abused one of the children that was a witness in the case, and that's still under investigation by the Police Department. The oldest boy alleged that she actually punched him in the chest during a visitation that took place at Four Winds."
The incident, according to Dick, took place a few days before the boy was scheduled to testify about his brother's death.
Without providing details, Dick refers to the police investigation of this matter as an active one. "We are still investigating the Four Winds incident," he says, "along with … the VIPD Domestic Violence Unit. KidsCope is also assisting with interviews of the children. We can't comment on a pending investigation."
Given the trail of wrong turns that led to Rasheem's death, the troubling question must be asked: What will be done to protect the surviving children, and others in peril?
An answer that's obvious, essential and elusive
Some of those involved in the territory's child protective services system liken it to a maze, subject to failure at any turn because of poor communication and the lack of coordination among the agencies involved. Capdeville has been in the forefront of efforts to improve the system through reliance on a multi-disciplinary team made up of police, prosecutors, social workers, child advocates and medical personnel.
She says that soon after KidsCope opened its doors in 1997, providing counseling and advocacy to children in crisis, such a team was formed to track child abuse cases from initial reports to authorities through final disposition.
The team, in fact, discussed the Rasheem Todman case around Thanksgiving 2001 — that would be the month between his return to his mother's custody and his death. According to a knowledgeable source, the Human Services member of the team was mired in drug abuse and failed to act. Capdeville denies that, saying that "the team was functioning extremely well" at that time.
But in the last year, Capdeville says, key members of the team have been lost. One of those key members died unde
r shadowy circumstances; another has personal legal problems involving assault charges. And at present Human Services is not represented on the team.
Still, Capdeville says, the struggle continues: "The team is still active. Certain people still keep coming. We are still a work in progress."
She also points out — and Hannah agrees — that crisis workers pay a price for their constant exposure to other people's traumas, especially those involving children, and the misery it brings. "A lot of professionals are in crisis because our universe is in crisis, and that's a fact," Capdeville says.
But despite the pressures, and to the credit of many, she says, there are those who continue to take on the challenges — their own and those of others — and still perform and thrive.
None of that made a difference, however, in the case of Rasheem Todman, whose final disposition, after falling through the cracks in the system, was death.
"My heart goes out to really everybody involved in this case, especially the children — who in my opinion are still at risk," Capdeville said a few days after the court accepted Farrington's plea to the lesser offense of aggravated child abuse.
Rahming at Human Services says there is a better way. "I'm not contradicting anyone's authority," she says, "but if we worked better together, we would have different results."
She urges her partners in the fight against child abuse to find out more about how they can become more effective. "Here, you're not really working together," she says.
That appeal comes at a time when police are warning that the system will see more cases like this. Reports of parental neglect and child abuse are on the rise, according to Hannah. In many of the cases, he says, the parents themselves are young, often under 30, and they either under-react or over-react when their children behave inappropriately or when others act out against their children.
The potholes in the system, as Capdeville puts it, are not going to go away of their own accord; nor will make-shift patching from one case to the next be a reliable solution.
With more than three decades of experience — with Human Services, then Family Resource Center, and for the last six years as the head and the heart of KidsCope — Capdeville knows the terrain well. She says with regard to collaborative effort: "It's something that can be done."
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