In the early morning hours of Sunday, April 17, 2011, Jeffrey Singer, 45, then a resident of Houston suburb Pasadena, Texas, pulled into his father's driveway in northwest Houston. He had a terrible confession to make.
Singer, according to police, told his father that he was responsible for the death of his 10-year-old son, Jonathan, who was stricken with cerebral palsy and was partially or completely blind.
Singer's father called police to report that his son was at his house, had admitted to killing his grandson, and had placed the child in a cardboard box, which was now in the back of his SUV.
Police arrived on scene to find a box in the back of Singer's vehicle with a foul odor coming from it. Many hours later, police confirmed the body of a small child, weighing 35 pounds, inside the box.
In a court appearance, prosecutors charged that Singer had admitted that he'd left the boy in a bath while he went to the store and returned to find Jonathan had drowned.
Though Singer and his attorney, Jim Lindeman, now deny he ever admitted causing any harm to the boy, the autopsy showed care for Jonathan was severely lacking.
Initially only held for questioning, Singer was arrested and charged with injury to a child by omission. After a search of their Pasadena apartment, Singer's wife, Tina Louise Madrid, was arrested on outstanding warrants.
Charges of neglect of a child would not be accepted on Madrid by the Harris County District Attorney's office after the prosecutor decided more investigation was needed.
An autopsy performed by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences revealed the 10-year-old had multiple bedsores on his body, was severely emaciated, and had “other visible signs of injury upon the body.”
Medically Fragile Cases
Harris County Child Protective Services (CPS) spokeswoman Estella Olguin describes cases like Jonathan Singer's as medically fragile children.
Olguin says these special needs cases are a challenge for CPS to police. The children in these cases are more vulnerable, and there is far less chance of an outside entity alerting CPS to any potential problems.
Special needs or medically fragile children often depend entirely on the assistance of a caregiver. They are often not able to tell someone that there may be neglect and do not usually interact with others who might notice anything suspicious. Overlaying issues such as poverty, single parents, and other extraneous factors compound the difficulty.
The children are even dependent on a pediatrician to diagnose them as special needs, a diagnosis that is often difficult for doctors to make.
The cases were a challenge for CPS, and in order to better serve the children and families involved, new action and methods of managing the cases would be needed.
The Investigation Begins
Lindeman says he does find the delay in reporting Jonathan's death troubling and that he would talk with the boy's parents to “determine their mental state at the time [of Jonathan's death].”
In mid-July 2011, HCIFS declared Jonathan's death a homicide, but failed to provide further details on exactly how the boy died. CPS removed Jonathan's siblings from the parent's custody; each sister, one 15 and the other 17, has been placed in relative/kinship homes separately.
The parents were ordered to complete services, and all contact with the children is now supervised. The charges against the mother, Tina Madrid, were dropped and the father, Jeffery Singer, remains out on bond.
A horribly tragic case on its own, some say this case is only renewed cause for alarm. Randy Burton is a former assistant district attorney in Harris County and now founder of Children at Risk, a national advocacy organization.
Mr. Burton says that he has seen too many children die under CPS' control but adds that, “Justice for Children is not an enemy per se of CPS. We are an enemy of child abusers and any organization that impedes protection of abused children.”
Burton says that this case, like many others, is littered with red flags that should have removed Jonathan and his two sisters from their parent's custody.
The Need for Protective Services
Child Protective Services records indicate the family was investigated on more than one occasion. The first report was made in January 2010, which stated that the boy, then 9, may have been neglected and suffered abuse at the hands of both parents.
CPS officials say that the allegations were “thoroughly investigated and no abuse was found.”
Perhaps they were looking for the wrong signs.
Burton says abuse was not the issue. The issue, according to Burton, was severe neglect.
Neighbors said Jeffrey Singer was a hospital maintenance worker with cancer, Jonathan had cerebral palsy, was blind and on a breathing machine, his mother was without a job, and there were two other children, both daughters, in the family.
An autopsy revealed a child who was severely malnourished, weighing between 35 and 40 pounds, suffering multiple bedsores and other injuries. Officials stated that the child had cerebral palsy, and thus depended entirely on the care of others for his well being.
Though CPS does not release records, Burton says that's exactly where the real answers lie.
“I have no doubt that if we had the CPS records, they should reveal that the same malnutrition existed when they visited the home in January 2010,” he says. “I think an open-records request should be granted because the perpetrators have been charged and the child is dead. Therefore, there are no privacy or confidentiality issues to prevent disclosure.”
Just months later, in May 2010, the family was again visited by CPS who were investigating a report that the boy's mother was ill and unable to properly care for the children. However, the investigation was cut short almost before it started.
The family's home had been destroyed by fire, forcing them to relocate to an apartment in a different part of the Houston area. CPS agents discontinued their search after they say the family “couldn't be located.”
In their new residence, the family kept a very low profile. Neighbors there say they kept to themselves and had no idea the family even had a disabled son.
There are several other cases similar to that of Jonathan Singer in Harris County.
In May of 1988 a severely emaciated and neglected 29-pound 8-year-old named Vannoy Jimenez was found wandering down the street.
A few citizens alerted authorities, who eventually came to discover that the boy had broken out of his parent's bathroom window where he had been locked away. He had reportedly been sleeping on the floor, eating from a dog bowl, and drinking out of the toilet.
Jimenez and his three siblings were removed from their parents' custody. His mother was sentenced to 30 years in prison for injury to a child, and his father, Alex, to 10 years probation. The children became wards of the state, leading to a long series of foster-care placements and runaway episodes.
In January 2009, 8-year-old Halle Smith was brought to the hospital so starved and malnourished that she died later that same day. Having been on a feeding tube since birth, Halle and her drug addicted mother, Almita Lockhart had been under CPS's watch.
The agency investigated the family in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1999 and five other times between 2000-09. At the last appointment, the CPS worker noticed a severe drop in weight and could have contacted Smith's pediatrician. However, the case was closed.
A former spokesman said at the time, “At that point we could have consulted with our attorneys about a possible removal…we did not do so. In hindsight, that can certainly be viewed as a mistake.”
In other cases the children survived being severely starved and mistreated, despite the lack of CPS follow through to protect them. In October 2009, 3-year-old Kayvon Lewis was also brought to the hospital weighing 17 pounds. Despite several investigations by CPS, no action was taken.
After Heaven Jenkins' mother left the 21 month old with an acquaintance while she served time for prostitution, the child was allegedly starved for 9 months while the mother she was left with, Joy Padilla, cared for her 12 other children.
After a CPS caseworker visited the family in response to a complaint of 8 kids living in one hotel room, Padilla voiced concerns that Jenkins was losing weight and had no means for medial care for the child. A CPS spokeswoman confirmed that no action was taken and said that CPS should have followed up on Padilla's concerns or even taken custody of the child.
CPS Takes Action
These challenges have led to the creation of a special team in Harris County charged with analyzing special needs cases and following them more closely to better care for the medically fragile. Olguin says that in order to provide better services to families and children with special needs, CPS staff needed additional training, support and resources for cases involving special needs/medically fragile children.
Sandra Haire chairs CPS's Citizen Review Team. It was their recommendations that led to the staffing of children with special needs in a Medically Fragile Community Resource Coordinating Group.
The CRT meets quarterly and reviews redacted CPS cases, which include medical neglect and child deaths. The team recommended a committee be formed of stakeholders, medical staff and CPS personnel to work closely with these cases.
Haire has been with CPS for 31 years and has been in the Harris County Region, which includes 12 surrounding counties, for 15. She works closely with the CRCG, a team which includes Dr. Penny Louis, head of the special needs clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital, Dr. Shih-Ning “Suny” Liaw at Memorial Hermann and Healthbridge, and Dr. Rebecca Girardet at UT Forensics.
The doctors have their social workers in those departments attend as well.
When possible CPS invites the child’s primary care physician or any physician who is treating the child to the discussion. Representatives from Early Childhood Intervention and Raymond Turner from HHSC are also involved. The CPS staff involved includes the caseworker, supervisor, program director, education specialist, nurse specialist, and disability specialists.
After their initial meeting in June 2010, the committee began staffing cases in August 2010. Haire describes the cases not only as a challenge for CPS, but all involved.
Haire says it's been a win-win situation so far.
CPS has been able to better train their staff on what to watch for when working with the children who are medically fragile, she reports. In a number of instances, CPS workers were checking up on cases and families without any knowledge of how to inspect medical equipment or make sure a special needs child was being properly cared for.
Haire says they've benefited from “pulling all the disciplines together, the medical community with the CPS and talking about these mutual cases.” This has provided training to CPS staffers and shown them what specifically to look for when investigating medically fragile children.
“We get the input from the medical piece of it to help us, and then they learn a little bit about the family and the dynamics there.”
Haire says the goal is to help strengthen the family as well and enable them to better handle the challenges associated with caring for a special needs child.
According to Haire, as of September 2011, “The total number of Family Based Safety Services cases for [the Harris County] region is 1,759, of which the 400-plus children in these families were listed as medically fragile based on the [criteria] the physicians indicated.”
In working with the families, the committee attempts to keep the child safe, attend to their needs, and help maintain the family system and quality of life as much as possible.
Despite statewide budget shortfalls since the team's inception, Haire says they were never allotted funds for the committee in the first place. “We didn't get any funds for it,” she says. “We pulled together people from our community. Our caseworkers were already on the payroll, and the doctors and other members of the committee just donate their time. It's a great community effort.”
Haire says the group did not use any other agency or county as a model. The concept for the Community Resource Coordinating Group is not a new idea within the social work field, but it had not been applied to a medically fragile group as such.
The CRCG concept had been used within the state of Texas in Child Advocacy Centers, which deal with cases of sever sexual abuse and/or sever cases of discipline against children.
Coordinating the amount of individuals involved takes time, and conferencing in the child's attending physician often depends upon their availability. It also requires caseworkers and others to put in long hours outside of their normal work schedule.
But, Haire says, “It's worth it to figure out how to best serve this population of kids and families.”
The Singer Case
In the case of Jonathan Singer, these efforts may prove to have been too little, too late. Though this case seems to be a prime candidate for the Medically Fragile CRCG, the committee was not created until after the Singer case had been closed.
When asked for records on the case, CPS officials say that it is part of an on-going investigation, adding that CPS records are never made public. Olguin would say that CPS has taken custody of Jonathan's two surviving sisters after filing a removal affidavit. Attempts to obtain a copy of the court affidavit were also unsuccessful.
According to CPS protocol, among other dispositions for active cases, “Unable to Complete/Family Moved” is a label given only after investigators “exhaust all efforts to try to locate the family and/or obtain a court order to require the family to cooperate.”
CPS procedures specify that they must exhaust all means to locate the family, including requesting sometimes confidential information from sources such as utility companies, neighbors, relatives, schools or day care facilities, places of employment, and public agencies/law enforcement.
CPS says cases are only assigned “Unable to Complete” when the family cannot be located to begin the investigation, the family was contacted, but moved and could not be located to complete the investigation, or the family's refusal to cooperate with the investigation and a court order requiring cooperation was denied.
Burton says this is one more failure by the agency.
“Were this a criminal case investigated by law enforcement, I have no doubt the child would have been removed,” he says. “Since when does law enforcement stop investigating a criminal matter because the alleged perpetrator has fled the scene?”
As Jeffrey Singer's case makes its way through Harris County's judicial system and Jonathan Singer's case is reviewed by CPS' MFCRCG, it appears that despite the efforts of many within the community and increased training and vigilance, it is a sad reality that it may be impossible to totally prevent cases from falling through the cracks.
Be that as it may, Sandra Haire and the doctors and caseworkers are doing what they can to bridge the gaps as best as possible.
Ryan Rios is an assignment editor with KTRK-TV in Houston. He completed this story as part of his Fellowship project as a 2011 John Jay College/H.F. Guggenheim Reporting Fellow . An earlier version of this story was broadcast in April, 2011.