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Federal suit: Suffolk workers missed signs of abuse before death of child

Pedro Jones Jr., right, is led out of

Pedro Jones Jr., right, is led out of State Police headquarters in Riverside in August, 2010. Jones Jr. pleaded guilty in January of 2012 to second-degree murder in the death of 17-month-old Roy Jones III, whom he was babysitting on the Shinnecock Reservation. Credit: Handout; James Carbone

The beating death of 18-month-old Roy A. Jones III in 2010 could have been prevented if social workers, physicians and day care providers in Suffolk County had reported signs of abuse to the state child abuse hotline, according to a federal lawsuit.

Marie Jones of Shirley, the boy's paternal grandmother, is pursuing the suit in U.S. District Court in Central Islip against the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, Stony Brook University Hospital, Southampton Hospital and Hollywood Nursery in Riverhead.

The suit, filed in 2011, claims workers who treated the boy before his death on Aug. 1, 2010, observed signs of physical abuse but did not report the information to state child protective service authorities as required by state law.

Newsday has reported on the boy's death and the 2012 criminal trial that found his mother's boyfriend, Pedro Jones Jr., guilty of fatally beating the child, but the federal lawsuit has not been reported.

Depositions of the boy's family and other witnesses are scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, said Michael J. Collesano, a Manhattan attorney representing the boy's estate. Marie Jones is seeking an undetermined amount of money in damages, Collesano said.

"The doctors and nurses didn't report what we believe were pretty straightforward signs of physical abuse," Collesano said. "If they had collectively done so, there is no question that it would have sent up a red flag that could have saved him."

Jones declined to comment.

County and hospital attorneys argue in court filings that they upheld their responsibilities.

"The defendants at all times acted in good faith in that they reasonably believed that they were exercising and acting within their statutory and constitutional powers," Assistant Suffolk County Attorney Arlene S. Zwilling wrote in an Aug. 13, 2013, court document. Spokesmen for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone did not respond to requests for comment.

Child advocates say the lawsuit highlights the need for stricter enforcement of the state's "mandated reporter" law, which requires health care workers, educators and social workers to notify the state's child abuse hotline of suspected abuse.

Violators of the reporting statute face misdemeanor charges carrying up to $5,000 in fines, up to a year in jail time and revocation of their professional license.

"These kids are vulnerable and cannot speak up for themselves, that's why we need teachers, doctors, guidance counselors . . . to make these reports," said Anthony Zenkus, education director for the Bethpage based Safe Center LI, a nonprofit that provides counseling to abuse victims.

 

'Signs of physical abuse'

Roy A. Jones III died after Pedro Jones Jr., who was not related to the child, punched the boy in the chest. A Suffolk County Court jury found Jones, 24, guilty of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison.

The lawsuit argues that health care and social workers could have intervened on multiple occasions before the murder.

In November 2009, the boy was "treated at Southampton Hospital suffering from injuries that indicated initial signs of physical abuse," according to the suit.

On July 19, 2010, the boy was vomiting and taken to Southampton Hospital before being transported to Stony Brook Hospital. There, he was "diagnosed with a fractured skull and the doctors . . . also noticed other signs of physical abuse," the suit says. A day later, the boy was returned to the custody of his mother, Vanessa Collins Jones, and her boyfriend.

The lawsuit also claims two Suffolk Child Protective Services workers assigned to the boy were negligent by not enforcing a Jun. 4, 2009, court order of protection that stated the boy was "neglected" by his mother and father Roy A. Jones Jr.

 

Requirement to report

Collesano said he requested and received the boy's child protective services record from the state, but that confidentiality laws prevented him from releasing them. The State Central Registry hotline was established in 2007 and provides county child protective service workers with a database to track abuse complaints.

Anyone who suspects abuse can call, but certain workers -- including teachers, doctors and social workers -- are required to report their suspicions. Once a complaint is received, county CPS workers have 24 hours to investigate and determine whether the child is in peril and needs to be removed from the household, or whether the family is in need of other social services such as counseling.

Stony Brook University Hospital settled with the family for $40,000 in the State Court of Claims, Collesano said. A hospital spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the federal lawsuit.

Southampton Hospital spokeswoman Marcia Kenny said the hospital could not comment due to the federal suit. In addition to Bellone's office, Hollywood Nursery did not return requests for comment.

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