A lack of coordination between child welfare agencies in Suffolk County, New York City and the state was so pervasive that it allowed a Ridge foster father to sexually abuse dozens of boys for years, a Suffolk grand jury has found.
Even after the Suffolk County Department of Social Services refused to place more children with the foster father 15 years ago, the city Administration for Children’s Services continued to send boys to the home and the state Office of Children and Family Services failed to stop the practice, the grand jury report said.
Although the report does not name the foster father, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said last year that the special grand jury would focus on Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu, 60, and the circumstances surrounding his case.
The 83-page report examined the conditions that allowed Gonzales-Mugaburu to foster more than 100 boys in a 20-year period, even though he was investigated for child abuse 18 times. The report made dozens of recommendations to improve oversight of foster care, including changing state law.
Gonzales-Mugaburu has pleaded not guilty to charges of sexually abusing eight boys and a dog, and is due back in court March 2. The top count, predatory sexual assault against a child, carries a maximum sentence of 25 years to life.
The grand jury report said Gonzales-Mugaburu could have been charged sooner and with more crimes if communication between agencies weren’t so “abysmal” and if the statute of limitations did not apply to child sex crimes.
“It’s a bureaucratic nightmare,” Spota said in an interview Wednesday. “Systemic failures left these kids totally unprotected.”
He said child welfare agencies — particularly the city ACS — are either too overwhelmed or too incompetent to properly monitor children in foster care. ACS already is under fire for what critics say is sloppiness that led to the deaths of two children in the city.
Gonzales-Mugaburu’s attorney, Donald Mates Jr. of Hauppauge, said Wednesday he had not yet seen the report and did not comment further. Mates has said the boys and men accusing his client have concocted their stories.
The state and city child welfare agencies named in the report did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
In a statement, Suffolk DSS Commissioner John O’Neill did not address why his agency failed to tell state and city welfare agencies it had barred placing children in the house. He wrote that the county has hired more child protective service investigators to help reduce caseloads.
“Agencies tasked with the protection of children unwittingly supplied him with over 100 potential victims,” the grand jury report said of the foster father. “Over the course of 20 years, [he] exploited a system designed to protect children and, instead, made a career of fostering and adopting children whom he emotionally, physically and sexually abused, all while collecting over $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars.”
The report said the “sheer number” of child abuse reports against him “should have prompted a greater response from each child welfare agency.”
The grand jury also focused on SCO Family of Services, the Glen Cove nonprofit agency that placed many children with Gonzales-Mugaburu on behalf of the city and other agencies.
Even though Suffolk DSS told SCO in 2002 not to place any more boys in that house, the grand jury report said SCO continued to put boys from the city and a West Coast state there.
“SCO did not conduct any independent investigation into the safety of [the Gonzales-Mugaburu] foster home in response to the Suffolk DSS directive to no longer place children in [his] home,” the report said. “It would appear that its only response was to follow the directive, nothing more.”
SCO said in a statement Wednesday that it cooperated with the grand jury investigation and “had undertaken a rigorous corrective action plan to ensure complete transparency and significantly strengthen our foster care program.”
The nonprofit also has been the target of two civil suits. Last September, a 14-year-old Washington state boy sued SCO in federal court for placing him as a foster child with Gonzales-Mugaburu. Another boy from New York State since has filed a similar suit.
The suits say that SCO placed the Washington boy and 70 others with Gonzales-Mugaburu, even though the nonprofit should have known for years that he was abusing, starving and sexually abusing the boys in his “house of terror and abuse.”
In the New York boy’s suit, attorney Richard Emery of Manhattan said two SCO employees warned Gonzales-Mugaburu whenever SCO or government investigators were coming to inspect the house. And even though there were dozens of complaints against Gonzales-Mugaburu with a state child-abuse registry, SCO continued to send boys to the house until he was arrested in January 2016.
The suit said SCO’s “systemic and chronic failures” doomed boys to live “under the roof of a madman and pedophile.”
But in a statement at the time the suit was filed, SCO said it had no idea what was happening in the house.
With Chau Lam
Some recommendations from the Suffolk grand jury’s report:
- The statute of limitations for sex offenses against children should be removed.
- Children should not be allowed to be placed in a foster home where an abuse report is pending.
- A state registry of foster homes should be established that allows homes with safety issues to be tracked.
- The governor should establish a task force looking at many aspects of the child welfare system.
- Suffolk County should increase the number of child protective services caseworkers and hire bilingual workers.
- The state Office of Children and Family Services should more closely monitor local child welfare agencies and ensure they are properly inspecting and reporting foster homes.