After eight months, the state of Wisconsin has finally released its report on Dane County's actions in a child protection case that ended in six-year-old Deshaunsay Sykes-Crowder being brutally murdered. Not surprisingly, the state found something to criticize in Dane County's handling of the case.
But not as much as it should have. While the state faulted Dane County for a few infractions, it ultimately concluded (in a line that was not part of earlier drafts): "It is impossible to predict what, if anything, could have resulted in a less tragic outcome."
Bullshit. The truth is there were plenty of big, red warning flags. Actions could and should have been taken to avoid the clear possibility that Deshaunsay Sykes would be harmed.
In 2005, Dane County learned that Deshaunsay, then three years old, was likely being abused by her mother. The county started a court petition to consider removing Deshaunsay from her home. But then Deshaunsay's mother left the child with her aunt, Lynda Sykes, and moved to Texas.
State and county policy in child welfare cases directs social workers to look first for a relative to take the child. Lynda Sykes was indeed a relative. Moreover, she was the one who had informed Dane County of the child's abuse.
But the state encourages placements only with suitable relatives. And looking at Lynda Sykes' background, it's hard to fathom how she was considered a fit guardian. Sykes had a violent criminal history which included: stabbing an ex-boyfriend, stabbing her nephew, stabbing another woman, and trying to run another woman over with her car before hitting her over the head with a gun. Over the years, Sykes was convicted multiple times of battery and reckless endangerment, and eventually served time in prison.
Dane County was aware of Sykes' background, but decided she could still take Deshaunsay. "Her offenses did not include maltreatment of children, and there were no indications that she was a danger to her niece," explains Lynn Green, head of Dane County's Human Services Department. Sykes had also completed an anger-management course while in prison. "There was nothing that could automatically rule her out as a fit parent," says Green.
Green overlooks the fact that one of Sykes' stabbing victims was reportedly 15 years old, a minor. And Sykes did turn out to be unfit. Shortly after a court awarded her guardianship of Deshaunsay, she moved to Ohio. While there, Deshaunsay was removed from her home for a year due to severe abuse.
Last summer, Lynda Sykes allegedly beat and suffocated Deshaunsay, then six years old, to death. Her trial is set to begin in May.
Dane County is eager to reject any suggestion that it mishandled the case. It rightfully notes, for instance, that a judge made the final decision to place Deshaunsay with her aunt. And Green faults Ohio authorities for sending Deshaunsay back to her aunt, after removing her for abuse.
But if the goal is to prevent a recurrence, lessons should be learned. In 2005, the county had started a Child in Need of Protection and Services (CHIPS) petition so it could determine Deshaunsay's placement. When Lynda Sykes petitioned for guardianship that summer, the court agreed, and the county did not object.
According to the state's report, Dane County's CHIPS petition did not expire until a year later, in 2006. That means the county could have asked a judge to reconsider Deshaunsay's placement at any time, but didn't.
While Lynda Sykes' criminal background was not an impediment to her getting guardianship of her niece, it did, ironically, keep her from getting the $215 monthly kinship care stipend that relative caregivers can receive. State law prohibits people convicted of battery from receiving the money. Sykes appealed the decision, but the county stood firm. Lynda Sykes could have Deshaunsay - but not the money.
The state's report found Dane County "in compliance" with placement standards. If so, that's an argument for higher standards.
Where Dane County erred, according to the state, was in not requiring Lynda Sykes to return the child to Wisconsin, especially after it became clear that Sykes was no longer responding to phone calls from county social workers. The state is now requiring that Dane County seek to involve the courts in future cases where a child moves out of state.
Dane County's Green has bristled at this new requirement. She says the state of Wisconsin shouldn't be able to single out Dane County for a special requirement. Doing so, she complains, "holds Dane County to a higher standard."
The problem is not that Dane County is now being held to a higher standard, but that its standards were so low in the first place. County officials should remember that Deshaunsay Sykes is the second child to have died from the county's inaction. In 2007, a social worker sent six-week-old Anastasia Vang home to her abusive mother, who allegedly murdered the infant.
Green can try to absolve Dane County of Deshaunsay's death, just as she tried to pass Vang's death off as an aberration in an otherwise competent system. But anyone with common sense can see the truth.
Vikki Kratz, who covered Dane County in her former role as Isthmus' local government reporter, is now teaching elementary school in Madison.