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Authorities examining deaths of Rowan infants

By Kathy Chaffin
kchaffin@salisburypost.com
State officials have set a Child Fatality Review of the circumstances leading up to the May 2 death of a 9-month-old Rowan County infant.
Sandra Wilkes, director of the Rowan County Board of Social Services, announced the Dec. 11-12 review at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Board of Social Services. Wilkes said the death was reported to the N.C. Division of Social Services even though there were no visible signs of abuse or neglect because the Rowan department had had involvement with the family of the infant within the 12 months preceding the death.
“We reported it based solely on the fact that we had been involved with the family …” she said, “and not because we suspect the death was the result of abuse or neglect. At this point, we do not have any reason to believe it was connected to abuse or neglect.”
Tom Brewer, program administrator for children’s services for the department, reported the death within five days as required by law, she said.
Wilkes confirmed that the department’s Child Protective Services has an open investigation of the case and is awaiting results of an autopsy.
Though the Department of Social Services has no investigation at this point, the Rowan County Sheriff’s Department is also investigating the May 29 death of a 2-month-old Salisbury infant. Wilkes said an autopsy is also being performed on the younger infant.
The N.C. General Assembly passed legislation establishing a State Child Fatality Review process following the fatalities of four Rowan County children in 1997. Wilkes said the 9-month-old was the first child fatality with department involvement within the 12 months prior to the death since the laws were passed.
State statutes specify that members of the Child Fatality Review Team include a local law enforcement representative, medical professional, a prevention specialist from an agency that provides services to families and children; a member of the Community Child Protection Team; a member of the Child Fatality Prevention Team; and a staff member of the county’s Department of Social Services.
Those chosen to be on the Rowan team are: Sheriff George Wilhelm with Assistant District Attorney Bonnie Busby as his designee representing law enforcement; Susan Thomas, medical professional; Wanda Allen, prevention specialist; Rowan County Board of Commissioners Chairman Arnold Chamberlain, representing the Community Child Protection Team; Leonard Wood, representing the Child Fatality Prevention Team; and Wilkes representing the Department of Social Services.
The Child Fatality Reviewer will be John Weil, program consultant for the N.C. Division of Social Services.
Wilkes said the team will look at the department’s case record and what type of services the family was receiving from Social Services and other Rowan County agencies.
Team members may “also wish to interview people who had knowledge of the case,” she said. “Certainly, they will be interviewing the DSS social worker and her superiors, and they may wish to interview medical providers and anyone else who had knowledge of the family.
“The review is really an opportunity not to point fingers and to place blame on any agency, but it’s more to look at if there are any gaps in the system and how to fill the gaps.”
Wilkes told board members that she is looking at the review in a positive light. If there were any gaps in this case, she said, they will be addressed as an outcome.
Another outcome could be “a gentle reminder to parents about good parenting skills,” she said.
State officials first set the review for April 2009, Wilkes said, but she persuaded them to do it sooner.
Though the two-day review is not open to the public, she said an entrance and exit conference will be. “So we’ll be able to keep the media involved to some extent,” she said.

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