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Child-abuse deaths under scrutiny by new Suffolk panel

Legis. Kara Hahn addresses speakers during the public

Legis. Kara Hahn addresses speakers during the public comment portion of a meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature on March 24, 2015. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Suffolk County has formed a special panel to examine child- abuse-related deaths and other suspicious juvenile deaths, with the goal of preventing future fatalities.

Suffolk Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) who sponsored legislation to establish a Child Fatality Review Team, said the initiative stemmed from discussions with county Medical Examiner Michael Caplan. He said other states and counties, including Nassau, have established panels charged with finding “gaps in the system” that may have resulted in a child’s death.

“It’s important that we identify where there is potential for us to make improvements to prevent future losses,” Hahn said, adding that she hoped to form a similar team to examine domestic-violence deaths.

In 2014, the state investigated the deaths of 284 children with a previous history of child abuse reported to authorities, including 12 in Suffolk and two in Nassau, according to the most recent state figures available.

More than a dozen other counties throughout New York have established state-sanctioned Child Fatality Review Teams. The teams focus on “preventing deaths and promoting child safety,” said Monica Mahaffey, spokeswoman for the state Office of Children and Family Services.

Nassau established its team in December 2008, in the months after three children were killed by their mother, Leatrice Brewer, in the family’s New Cassel apartment. Brewer, who was later committed to an upstate psychiatric facility, fatally stabbed her 6-year-old daughter, Jewell, then drowned her 5-year-old son, Michael, and 18-month old daughter, Innocent, in a bathtub.

Nassau Department of Health spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain said there have been “positive outcomes” from the team’s work.

Suffolk now has a Cribs for Kids program that provides low-income parents with a free crib, bedding and an instructional video on best sleeping positions for babies. The program was launched in 2010 after the team noticed a number of infant suffocations that occurred while they were sharing a bed with an adult, Laurain said.

Hahn said that in Suffolk, the panel will hold closed-door meetings four times a year to examine deaths such as that of 17-month old Justin Kowalczik, who was found buried in his family’s Farmingdale backyard in October 2012.

Hahn also noted the death of Adonis Reed, 4, of Amityville, who was beaten to death by the boyfriend of a surrogate caretaker in January 2013.

“Especially as time passes you can look at the circumstances in a case with fresh eyes, without making assumptions or trying to assign blame, just giving the cases the close and analytical look they deserve, with the goal of improving the system and saving lives,” Hahn said.

Suffolk’s 13-member panel, which was approved unanimously by the legislature and signed into law by County Executive Steve Bellone in April, will be headed by Caplan. It will include pediatricians, child-welfare experts, social workers and law enforcement officials.

Caplan said he hopes the team’s work evaluating the deaths of those under the age of 18 “may be able to prevent similar tragedies in the future.”

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