September 24, 2008
Statements Made by County Administrator and Commissioner of Social Services Regarding the Erin Maxwell Case
The following statements were made this morning at the Oswego County Legislatureís Health and Human Services Committee meeting, by Oswego County Administrator Philip Church and Commissioner of Social Services Frances Lanigan regarding the Erin Maxwell case:
Oswego County Administrator Philip Church
I would like to take this opportunity to speak to the committee about the tragic death of Erin Maxwell. The death of a child is traumatic for everyone, and the Department of Social Services and all of County government share in the communityís concern, anger, and heartbreak over this tragedy. We understand the publicís frustration with the status of the current investigation, the circumstances surrounding Erinís death, and the limited information DSS has been able to release so far.
I want the public to know that the County has taken three specific actions that will soon lead to the release of more information about Erinís case, as well as a full independent review of DSSís involvement with Erin.
First, I want to emphasize that Department of Social Services child protective investigation records are confidential from public disclosure. However, Social Services Law 422-a, known as Elisaís Law of the Child Protective Services Reform Act of 1996, provides guidelines on the information that DSS can share in the event of a childís death.
Under Elisaís Law, DSS is preparing a written report of the agencyís actions for the chief elected official of Oswego County, Legislature Chairman Legislature Barry Leemann. The report will be completed by mid-week, next week. It will contain further information of the Maxwell familyís involvement with DSS prior to the current investigation. Specifically, the report will address the anonymous complaint that was made in March 2006 to the statewide central registry. DSSís report will be made public after Legislature Chairman Leemann has received it.
Second, DSS Commissioner Fran Lanigan asked the NYS Office of Children and Family Services, which is DSSís oversight agency, to review all records relating to previous investigations involving Erin Maxwell. DSS was not required to ask for this review, but the Commissioner took this action in order to initiate an objective review of the steps DSS took in Erinís case. The State Office of Children and Family Services always reviews cases where there has been a childís death, however, it is done after the completion of the investigation. By the Commissionerís request this process was put ahead of schedule. The State has already begum their review. The Stateís written report and recommendations will also be given to Legislature Chairman Barry Leemann, and will be a public document.
Third, the Commissioner has requested Cornell University staff to review and evaluate all DSS Child Protective Services processes, to make sure that cases are handled consistently according to New York State regulations and guidelines, and to identify strengths as well as opportunities for improvement.
Oswego County Social Services Commissioner Frances Lanigan
There are a few details in Erinís 2006 case that I can share with you today:
DSS records show that its investigation began within 24 hours of receiving an anonymous report from the Stateís central registry in March 2006. DSS cannot receive child abuse reports at its local Mexico office. DSS must receive all its child abuse referrals from the statewide central registry, located in Albany. People can report suspected abuse to the registry anonymously, or they may use their name. Unfortunately, when we receive an anonymous report, as we did in Erinís case, we are unable to interview the potential witness who may be able to provide further important information.
Following DSS and State protocol, Erinís safety and risk were assessed. An investigation was conducted, including initial and follow-up conversations with Erin. Erin was deemed to be safeÖ at the time the case was closed in May 2006. More than two years have passed, with no further child abuse or neglect reports that would lead DSS back to Erinís house. As I have stated previously, there were no facts in any prior reports with the Maxwell family that could have predicted a homicide.
The death of a child is a tragedy that deeply affects all of the community. We understand that the public wants more information about how DSS was involved and what actions were taken. I assure you that information will be provided to Legislature Chairman Leemann and will be made public according to the process specified in Section 422-a of the NYS Social Services Law.
It is important to keep in mind that there are now two investigations underway: a DSS child fatality investigation, and the NYS Police and the District Attorneyís Officeís homicide investigation. We are dedicated toward helping bring the law enforcement investigation to a successful conclusion. For this reason, as difficult as the lack of information may be at times, we ask for the communityís and the news mediaís patience until more details in Erinís case can be responsibly released.
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