When Mom Kills Her Kids

"It almost looked like they were cuddled up together for the night," said one of the police officers who found three dead children lying together on a bed in a Long Island apartment on Sunday, according to media reports.

The children's mother, Leatrice Brewer, 27, is now accused of drowning, stabbing and possibly poisoning her two sons, Michael Demesyeux, 5, and Innocent Demesyeux, 1, and her daughter, Jewell Ward, 6. Brewer calmly called 911 to alert police that she had killed her children, even spelling her name out for the operator.

Nine complaints about the family had been filed with Nassau County social services, but follow-up was only considered necessary for three of them. In the most recent instance, caseworkers visited the home twice last Friday to investigate a complaint by Jewell's father that Brewer might harm the children, but no one answered the door. The supervisor scheduled a return visit on Sunday, but by then it was too late. Brewer had been embroiled in a custody battle with both of her children's fathers; the father of the boys, Innocent Demesyeux, was arrested in June 2004 on an assault charge for allegedly beating Brewer.

So where and when did the system break down? Can child welfare officials do more, or are occasional tragedies simply inevitable, given their constraints? Cynthia Scott directs the Coalition Against Child Abuse & Neglect, a nonprofit that works with Nassau County officials to provide services and education to agencies handling abused children. NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul talked with Scott about what institutional problems may have led to the breakdowns and how they might be prevented from happening again. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What institutional problems could have led to the breakdowns in this case?
Cynthia Scott:
I think this is a really difficult case and difficult issue. I'm not suggesting there can't be changes to how we do business in protecting children, but they're really difficult cases that can often present in one way to a case worker and end up in reality being something else, which is, I think, what happened in this case. The struggle for CPS [Child Protective Services] is that it's a snapshot in time that workers get when they go out and see these families. They're also guided by very specific statutes in the law regarding what needs to be presented to them before they can make a decision to remove a child or make any other kind of major intervention.

What is the biggest problem facing caseworkers when they're handling cases like this?
They're limited in what they can do. Very often the public doesn't have good understanding of what they can and can't do. Yes, there might have been something else that could have been done in this case. However, living on Long Island and hearing the media reports saying, "Oh my God, they should have removed these kids," and the reality is you can't just remove kids. There need to be very clear things present that provide a worker the opportunity to present the case to a judge, who makes a final determination about removal. It's not as simple as people would like it to be. And CPS is required to make an assessment on a very minimum standard of care. They're not assessing optimal care for children. So what we would all like our children to have is not what the law requires of parents. They need to be fed, clothed, go to school, not be physically or emotionally abused. So if there are no bruises, no disclosure from the kids that there's abuse, and there's food in the house, there's heat in the house, there is a house—those are the basic things workers are looking for.

But they went out there quite a bit—nine times. How could that happen?
There were numerous reports made over the course of several years. I think there was some domestic violence in that family, which would certainly generate a report—and which would have nothing to do with how the mother was caring for the child. Knowing the cases we have here, you could go out there for different reasons at different times and not necessarily see anything that's so glaring that you're going to decide the kids are in imminent danger and need be pulled from their home. So if a worker goes out, the report may be that the mom left the children alone. Well, the reality may be that mom ran down to the basement to do the laundry and didn't really leave the kids alone. And based on the statutes CPS is bound to go by, that's not a neglectful parent. The difficulty comes—what do we do with these families about whom we get chronic reports? I think that's worthy of looking at, as a community.

Any specific ideas on what to do?
I think we can coordinate around these cases everywhere. It's not an issue just for Nassau County by any stretch of the imagination. But it requires resources. It requires people to be able to do the work with at-risk families. And it requires families to be open to wanting help. From my vantage point, there's no easy fix.

Is a lack of funding at all responsible for that?
Those of us doing this work are always struggling for resources, so yes, it would be great to have more CPS workers and organizations well funded to handle families in crisis. It takes a great deal of intervention to get through to some of these families who have historic issues of abuse and neglect. It's not just one parent suddenly abusing children. It's a cycle of abuse.

Which specific links in the chain should be singled out for improvement?
[We should] look more at the chronic cases coming through, who are being called in on a regular basis over the years, being reported numerous times. We could go out there and not see anything glaring, but [we should still ask], what does this mean? There must be something going on here.

Should anything be done at the legislative level? Should laws be changed?
You know, there's a piece of me that says I would love to see the bar raised in terms of what we require as a standard of care for children, but I'm also realistic enough to know that that requires a great deal of resources. If we have parents who aren't meeting this minimal standard now, what would we have to do to get them to meet a higher standard? So it is about resources. If we don't take care of the parents, we can't take care of the kids. But we've got mental health issues, drug and alcohol issues, chronic histories of abuse and neglect that happened to the parents—so you're not talking about one level of intervention, you're talking about numerous systems that have to be in place and be supported.

Could the bias toward giving mothers custody have been a problem?
I don't think we have all the facts that were in front of the judge making that custody decision, or in front of that CPS worker making those decisions. And families are very good at hiding the things going on in their lives. So, do mothers end up with their kids more often than men? Yes. But I would hate to say that in this case, it was an error. It is so gray, all of these areas. I know the public would like it to be black and white, but it's never black and white.

The CPS supervisor was suspended, so it seems blame is landing squarely on his shoulders. Is that appropriate?
I understand it. Any of us who have a responsibility for the safety of children would feel a need to retrace our steps and see what, if anything, we could have done differently. Clearly there's disappointment at the county level with this case. But, ironically, what may have been the trigger in this case was the fact that CPS showed up at this lady's house. The organization responsible for protecting kids may have been what pushed her over the edge, ultimately. A woman with clear mental health issues may have seen it as the push for her to have to decide to do that instead of letting her children be taken away.

Should anything be done differently in deciding when to take children out of a home?
It is a very careful, deliberate decision. It is a grueling process and difficult for the team making that decision. There have been points in time when CPS has been chastised for taking kids out of the home. Then the pendulum swings, and then they get asked why they didn't take kids out of a home. You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. There needs to be a community response to these issues. It can't just be CPS. These are complicated families with sad histories and a multitude of problems, and I don't think we can just expect that sending CPS out to investigate is going to fix it. We desperately need CPS, but they need to be part of a bigger team that addresses the needs of children.