Children's deaths in South Carolina, Massachusetts put focus on abuse crisis

State child welfare agencies say case workers were in contact with Timothy Ray Jones days before he allegedly killed his five children in South Carolina. A Massachusetts woman was arraigned on Friday after police discovered three dead infants in a Blackstone home.

Richard Shiro/AP
Photos of Timothy Ray Jones Jr. children are on display during a news conference at the Lexington County Sheriff's Dept Training Center in Lexington, S.C., Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2014.

Two troubling cases this week have shined a spotlight on what some experts have called a child abuse and neglect crisis in the United States.

In Massachusetts, authorities Friday were searching for more bodies in a squalid home in Blackstone where the bodies of three infants were found. And in South Carolina, a memorial service was being held the same day for five children as their father, Timothy Ray Jones, Jr., was arraigned in court for their murder. In both cases, social workers had visited the homes – in the Massachusetts case, removing four children and placing them in state custody just two weeks before the bodies were found.

The cases exemplify the high stakes duty of welfare workers, who walk a thin line between allowing troubled or overwhelmed parents to continue caring for children or taking kids out of harm’s way. The recent tragedies, experts say, could also put focus on the Protect Our Kids Act, in which Congress in early 2013 tasked a 12-member commission to make recommendations about how to strengthen protections for kids and reduce state-by-state disparities in abuse and neglect deaths. 

“Social workers are constantly in a double bind because parents have the right to raise children without interference, but on the other hand when something happens and a child is hurt or dies the first person who is questioned is the social worker, who is asked why they didn’t do more,” says Viola Vaughan-Eden, a clinical social work professor at Norfolk State University.

Between 2001 and 2010, 15,510 American kids died from abuse and neglect, while state social service agencies received 25 million child abuse complaints in the same time span. To some child advocates, those numbers suggest a crisis that needs a federal solution, especially since states are often aware of what's going on in the homes.

“The dangerous conditions in which many of these victims lived were known to authorities,” Michael Petit, president of the Every Child Matters Education Fund in Washington, wrote last year in the Huffington Post. “The existing civil and criminal proceedings meant to protect them were inadequate.”

In the South Carolina case, Mr. Jones, a divorced computer engineer an ex-convict whom police say killed his five children in late August and drove around the South for days before depositing their bodies on an Alabama hilltop, appeared “overwhelmed” by single parenting, social workers said.

The South Carolina Department of Social Services had received three complaints about the Jones household since 2011 and had visited the home more than a dozen times. According to documents, caseworkers said the children seemed well-adjusted, weren’t afraid of their dad, and that the family had taken recent trips to the beach and Disney World together.

But in August, just two weeks before the killings, caseworkers found signs of distress in Mr. Jones after investing an abuse allegation.

“Dad appears to be overwhelmed as he is unable to maintain the home, but the children appear to be clean, groomed and appropriately dressed,” a caseworker wrote.

US law favors those who hold legal custody, which Jones apparently did after divorcing his wife, who was reportedly having an affair with a teenaged neighbor. There was no Amber Alert signal after his ex-wife reported the children missing because Jones was a legal guardian. Police say Jones picked the children up from school and day care on Aug. 28, and killed them "by violent means" at their home in Lexington, S.C.

Ms. Vaughan-Eden says one open question is how closely case workers and the family courts looked at Jones’s time in prison for a crime spree he undertook as a 19-year-old near Chicago.

Mark Testa, a child welfare expert at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, adds in an e-mail that any review of this "tragic case" should look at whether "this is a case of social isolation of the family or missed signs by relatives regarding the real circumstances of the children."

South Carolina child welfare officials released a 50-page file on the Jones household on Thursday, which painted a picture of an overwhelmed dad who ran a messy household, but who was found on one surprise visit hosting a family birthday party for his oldest child. After arguing about the cleanliness of the home with a welfare worker – an argument that got so heated the case worker called the cops – the official returned to find the home “VERY VERY VERY clean,” according to the file.

Child-welfare experts say one open question is how closely case workers and the family courts looked at Jones’s time in prison for a crime spree he undertook as a 19-year-old near Chicago.

Jones was stopped at a DUI checkpoint in Mississippi on Saturday. Police say he was intoxicated and agitated. On Tuesday, Jones led police to the Alabama hilltop where he allegedly deposited the bodies. 

Authorities said they still don't know why Jones killed his children. He waived a court appearance on Friday. His attorney said that he has a history of mental illness and asked for a health evaluation.

In the Blackstone, Mass., infant death case, Erika Murray, the mother of the four children removed earlier from the home where the dead infants were found, was arraigned on Friday. Prosecutors have charged her with “fetal death concealment out of wedlock,” witness intimidation, and animal cruelty. Her attorney said Friday that Ms. Murray may be suffering from mental illness.

Authorities on Friday were searching the house for more bodies.

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