It’s rare for employees of a child-welfare agency to be charged with a crime in connection with their jobs, no matter how poor their oversight of a child. So it says something about the case of 15-month-old Iris Mummert, who was murdered by her mother while in Adams County Children and Youth Services’ (CYS) care, that three Pennsylvania CYS employees were arrested and charged with felony child endangerment last month. Unfortunately, their behavior is not as rare as we would like to believe, and we have good reason to suspect that the policies of child welfare agencies are at least partly to blame.
Mummert died in May 2020 as a result of physical abuse inflicted by her mother, a woman well-known to child protective services long before Iris’s birth. Authorities in Pennsylvania had received reports in August 2017, January 2019, and May 2020 regarding “parental substance use, lack of medical care, lack of a caregiver, and conduct of a parent that places a child at risk.”
Though the case record released by Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services is full of redactions—including the name of her mother, Felisha Ellis, which has been cited in multiple media reports—the agency’s failures are clear. After Iris’s older sister had been denied health care and the mother had been found to be using illegal substances multiple times, “a safety plan was put in place,” in which Ellis’s children wound up placed with someone else—the narrative redacts this name, too—but the mother maintained contact with that person.
These “safety plans” are increasingly common. They do not constitute a formal foster placement, but rather a way for an agency to avoid placing a child in foster care. Doing so costs less, keeps foster-care numbers down, and eliminates the work of finding a suitable foster home. The plans require that someone, typically a relative, agree to take the child and then prevent the parent from having unsupervised contact with that child. But that’s a tall order for most relatives.
When Iris Mummert was born with cocaine, marijuana, and opiates in her system, the state took her and her older sister into emergency custody, realizing that there was no way to avoid foster care in this situation. The sisters were placed with Courtney and Kevin McCann. Courtney was a trauma social worker at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Having seen the results of Iris’s visits with her biological mother, McCann told CYS that Ellis had “perceived limited cognitive functioning, anxiety, possible domestic abuse, an inability to manage both children at the same time without assistance.” But CYS didn’t listen. McCann wrote, in an October 15, 2019, email to CYS, that she “struggled to describe (CYS’s) work as anything else but shallow and mediocre.”
Nevertheless, the two girls were returned to Ellis’s custody in February 2020. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, many states simply decided that child-welfare agencies didn’t have to do their jobs anymore. In California, for instance, caseworkers were furloughed. Other states used virtual visits to check on children’s safety. In Pennsylvania, drug testing was suspended on March 18, 2020.
In May 2020, another report came into a child-abuse hotline about Ellis’s behavior: she had become intoxicated, was vomiting, and had passed out with her children close by. None of this was reported to the judge who presided over a hearing in the case that month. Within a week, Iris was dead. She suffered a broken clavicle and an acute subdural hemorrhage after her mother shook her violently.
The local district attorney decided to do something. After a lengthy investigation, a grand jury found that “on multiple occasions over a period of several months,” the foster mother and various agencies working with the family “all expressed their concerns about Ellis’ behavior and the safety of the children to these employees. They simply dismissed the concerns out-of-hand, failed to conduct any follow-up investigation, or minimized the concerns during court proceedings, with ACCYS ultimately recommending that the children be returned to Ellis.” Caseworker Steven Murphy, supervisor Clarissa Kiessling, and the agency’s assistant administrator Sherri DePasqua were all charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
The report from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, on the other hand, is a joke. Reading through the “deficiencies in compliance” section would make you laugh if it didn’t make you cry. The agency should “complete more unannounced drug screens rather than announced drug screens,” the report suggests. What is the point of an announced drug screen? The report also recommends that if the state decides to stop drug testing again, it should “have a plan in place that includes other measures to monitor drug and alcohol use.” How about not stopping drug screens, ever?
Other recommendations include using a “paperless system between the county and state for the flow of information” and offering “more resources and education in regard to Domestic Violence.” The good news: “some providers felt that there was good teaming on this case.” Please.
As Iris’s grandmother said, “We’re glad someone finally stepped [to] give her some justice.” Too late for Iris—maybe some other heads should roll.
Photo: Ivan Zhdanov/iStock