Did weak laws lead to child's death?

June 12, 2008 5:13:34 PM PDT
There are lingering questions in the beating death of 3-year-old Kyle Smith. Could the overworked child welfare system have done more to protect little Kyle? The guardian who was supposed to care for him instead is charged in his death, along with her boyfriend. Now, there are calls for tougher laws to protect other kids.

The Investigators' Jim Hoffer has more on the heartbreaking case.

Banks have no problem tracking someone's credit history, no matter how many times they've moved. But a child abuser moves to another state, and his or her history stays behind.

That's exactly what happened in this case. An abusive past was kept hidden by weak laws and inaction by politicians, who could have strengthened them.

When Nymeen Cheatham applied to the courts for guardianship of Kyle Smith, ACS did an investigation of the home and found it "in order and the child happy and healthy." Kyle's mother believed her son was in good hands, too.

"This is somebody that he saw everyday that took him to the store and bought him candy, bought him juice and bought him clothes," mom Gina Holmes said. "So of course he was happy with her."

Eight months later, Kyle was dead and Cheatham and her boyfriend arrested for the killing. What the ACS visit failed to find out was that the woman caring for Kyle had given up custody of four of her own children following a neglect investigation in Texas.

"The Smith child should have not died," state senator Carl Kruger said. "The system should have identified those bad adoptive surrogate parents and should have kept them out of the system."

But under New York state law, ACS is not required to do out-of-state background checks in guardianship cases. Kruger has been fighting for three years to change that. His bill would require criminal background and child abuse screenings in non-parent custody cases in any state during the past five years.

"People who have done bad or done wrong will no longer be able to go to another state and find themselves in a safe haven," Kruger said.

In a statement to Eyewitness News, ACS says that in the Kyle Smith case, "The caseworker did not know that Cheatham had children in Texas removed from her. ACS has issued a high-level review of the court ordered investigation...to see how this process can be strengthened."

"Who failed that child, I don't know," Kruger said. "But I have to and everybody that is part of government has to accept shared responsibility, and we have to begin today anew to try and change that process."

State lawmakers have approved money for software that would eventually allow ACS to gather child abuse custody data from other states. But that's at least a year away, and who knows how many other Kyle Smiths are out there in unsafe homes.

"Nine months ago, I left my son with her," Holmes said. "Now, he's not here. And it hurts."

When Cheatham stopped pursuing custody, the court dismissed the case. And ACS, having no abuse or neglect complaint against her, closed the case as well.