Boy's death raises red flags

June 9, 2008 4:45:12 PM PDT
The beating death of a 3-year-old boy in Brooklyn is raising serious questions about the lack of a child abuse reporting system. Could the boy have been saved if authorities had known that his guardian was forced to give up her own kids because of possible abuse in Texas?

The Investigators' Jim Hoffer has the story.

This time, there were no abuse complaints and no missed days at school, but there was a past that perhaps foreshadowed a horrible end to a little boy's life.

The horrors that a Brooklyn couple is accused of putting little Kyle Smith through is unspeakable. Court documents detail bloody injuries to his buttocks, thighs and scrotum that caused him severe pain and eventually led to his death.

Eight months earlier, an ACS investigator on a mission to determine if Nymeen Cheatham was fit to be a guardian found, "the house in order and the child happy and healthy."

"ACS probably did a criminal background check," said Andrew White, editor of Child Welfare Watch. "I've heard they went and spoke with the kids in the family and spoke to the parents."

Some child advocates say a thorough check should have found what we discovered, that in 2002, Cheatham voluntarily gave up her parental rights to four of her children while living in Texas. A Family and Child Protective Services spokesperson there tell us the children were left alone for long periods of time, not properly fed, had no running water and were dirty.

"This is a huge glaring red flag," White said.

The problem is that even if ACS checked the computerized New York State registry of abuse, Cheatham's Texas past would have never come up since the registry only tracks New York cases.

"There is no nationwide system to alert one state about child welfare cases in another state," White said.

The former head of the U.S. Center on Child Abuse and Neglect says that is still no excuse.

"It is completely fair to expect the case worker to find out the history of the family and to ask, 'Where did you live before this, did you have children before this child, where is that child?' former director Douglas Besharov said.

In 2006, the beating death of Nixzmary Brown led to intense criticism of ACS for failing to react to repeated warning signs of abuse. This time, ACS says there were no abuse complaints and the child was never in their care.

"This is not about a mistake of Child Protective Services," White said. "It's about a horrific situation in a neighborhood, and nobody in that community said anything."

Family court dismissed the guardianship case when Cheatham stopped pursuing legal custody.