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Originally published April 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 13, 2005 at 7:55 AM

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Report cites CPS errors, caseworker load in deaths

At the time of their death by starvation and dehydration last November, Justice and Raiden Robinson had fallen off Child Protective Services'...

Seattle Times staff reporter

At the time of their death by starvation and dehydration last November, Justice and Raiden Robinson had fallen off Child Protective Services' (CPS) radar despite their mother being accused of child neglect at least six times.

That critical lapse, according to a review of the boys' deaths released yesterday, was the result of lackadaisical investigations by a rookie CPS caseworker carrying four times as many cases as the industry standard.

The worker's errors were compounded by an absence of supervision and outdated laws that limit the state's interventions in chronic-neglect cases, according to the review by the state Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman.

The boys' caseworker in Bremerton blew one deadline after another, then filed inaccurate and overly positive reports about their mother, Marie G. Robinson.

In the last investigation before the boys' deaths, the caseworker said Robinson had relapsed into alcoholism once in two years, contradicting her agency's own records of four relapses.

Fatality Review

To read the fatality review of Justice and Raiden Robinson, go to the Web site of the Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman, www.governor.wa.gov/ofco/reports.htm.

To contact the ombudsman office, which investigates systemic problems in the state child-welfare system, call 206-439-3870 or 800-571-7321. To report child abuse, call the CPS hotline at 866-END-HARM.

A more adequate investigation may have found good cause to take Justice and Raiden, ages 16 months and 6 weeks, from their mother and to potentially save their lives, said the report's author, Mary Meinig.

"I still don't understand how that history was missed," she said. "It wasn't hard to find."

In November, Kent police arrested Robinson for allegedly allowing two of her sons to die of thirst and starvation while she drank herself into a three-day stupor. Police found 307 empty beer cans in the apartment.

Robinson is being held in lieu of $2 million bail and is awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment.

Chris Robinson, a state child-welfare administrator for Pierce and Kitsap counties, agreed with the report's critical findings. "We try to train our staff to be objective, gather data and look at it," said Robinson, no relation to Marie Robinson. "Clearly the standards were not met in this case."

A pattern of neglect

As victims of fatal neglect, Justice and Raiden Robinson differed from others in the state's grim series of high-profile child deaths, who largely died of physical abuse.

Child neglect — which includes abandonment, withholding medical treatment or a lack of food and water — represents nearly 60 percent of the 79,000 complaints CPS received last year.

But the toll of neglect is harder to see than the bruises or broken bones of physical abuse. It is far harder for CPS to prove that a neglected child is in "clear and present danger" of harm, the legal threshold to remove a neglected child from a home.

Meinig randomly sampled 42 neglect complaints to CPS in other cases while investigating the boys' deaths. Her unscientific results: 24 percent of them involved children who already had been the subject of 20 or more calls.

"This is a really chronic problem," Meinig said.

Last week, the state House unanimously passed a bill that would change the definition of neglect. The bill, now in the Senate, lowers the threshold for removing a child to "substantial threat of harm." That wording change is estimated to cost an additional $5.8 million per biennium in extra social workers and foster parents.

"I'm just praying the deaths of these two little boys will lead to the state correcting a horribly flawed child-neglect law," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle.

A late investigation

The fatality review makes Justice and Raiden Robinson poster-children for child neglect.

CPS had received two child-neglect complaints about Robinson and her drinking even before the birth of Justice, who had older siblings. Shortly after his birth, CPS received three more complaints in the same week Robinson was hospitalized in a drinking-related car crash. The complaints say Justice and his older brother "had feces all over" and "were starving" while their mother "staggered around the house," CPS records say.

But the CPS investigator, Laura Munn, closed the investigation on the three complaints in December 2003 without getting the hospital or crash records. She also didn't check with the boys' pediatrician, who was alarmed that Justice's weight had dropped dramatically, according to the review.

Three months later, in February 2004, CPS got another report that Robinson was bingeing and abandoning her children. The complaint was labeled high-risk, requiring a face-to-face visit within 10 days. Munn, again assigned to investigate, waited 23 days to visit. By then, the house was clean and Robinson was sober.

The case then fell into a bureaucratic black hole, according to the fatality review. Munn's supervisor, Judy Willott, reviewed Munn's work in May 2004 and found nothing amiss.

Although CPS investigations are supposed to be finished within 90 days, the case remained open until Kent police found the boys dead Nov. 11.

Munn and Willott were transferred out of CPS as a result, but they remain state employees. Neither returned telephone calls yesterday.

A caseload of 49

During the year she handled Marie Robinson's case, Munn had as many as 49 open cases, nearly double the state average and quadruple the level recommended by the Child Welfare League of America.

That surprised Meinig. CPS worker caseloads have dropped from an average of 36 in 1996 to 24 in 2004, thanks to a river of funding from the Legislature.

"She had a huge caseload, and she was a new worker for the state," Meinig said. Strong and knowledgeable supervision could have helped, but Munn received neither, according to the review.

Robinson, the child-welfare official, said Munn had a high caseload because the Bremerton office had unusually rapid turnover. After an office reorganization, each worker now has about 20 open cases, Robinson said.

Meinig said the case was crushingly sad because the boys died while their mother lay passed out.

"In this case, there was just a lack of an investigative plan, of checking your facts, verifying what you're told, and a lack of finding the history," she said.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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