HARTFORD — During a recent legislative hearing the Department of Children and Families and other entities defended their actions concerning the starvation death of an autistic, non-verbal Hartford teenager, stating it was up to the legislature to change laws to help prevent future tragedies.
The sometimes tense two-and-a-half hour Committee on Children hearing came following a critical report from the Office of the Child Advocate on the circumstances that led to 17-year-old Matthew Tirado’s death last year.
The report pointed to insufficient efforts by the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Hartford school system, and the juvenile court, noting that Matthew had been absent from school for months and his mother had been known to DCF for years.
DCF withdrew a neglect petition to the court and closed its case file shortly before his death. The child advocate’s report noted no orders were sought by DCF or Matthew’s court-appointed attorney to keep the case open until he was found or to seek commitment of him or his sister to state custody.
Katiria Tirado, Matthew’s mother, has been charged with manslaughter and intentional cruelty to persons in connection with her son’s death. She is being held on $200,000 bail.
“As horrible as this may sound, there comes a point where you have to make a determination that you have done all that you can legally do,” DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said at the hearing. “There are 15,000 cases and only so many social workers.”
Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said the overall theme of her report on Matthew’s death was that all child-serving systems that worked with Matthew needed to improve their capacity to protect and serve children with complex disabilities.
Katz repeatedly said her department is legally restricted from making contact with a child if their parent refuses access — unless there is evidence of physical abuse or that the youth is in imminent danger.
Katz said DCF did not become aware of Matthew’s physical abuse until after he died. She said DCF is legally constrained from making contact with a child over a parent’s objection in the absence of proof of imminent physical danger.
“Matthew’s mother legally denied access to Matthew, thereby denying DCF the ability to know of the abuse she was inflicting,” Katz said.
Katz told the committee her department’s hands were tied and that the legislature should adopt measures to give DCF more authority and access to children in such situations.
Katz’s testimony didn’t sit well with state Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden.
“I was shocked to read that you withdrew from this case,” Suzio said.
“When you got to third base, you stopped, knowing there were a lot of unanswered questions. Running into a wall of resistance from the mother, I would think, should have made the department more determined,” Suzio said. “It seems like the department gave up.”
Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, said that “as an aunt to two boys with autism” she is particularly concerned that Connecticut’s child advocates understand the unique needs an autistic child requires.
“We need a systematic review of how this happened and how we can ensure it never happens again. Today was the start of that process, and as a member of the Children’s Committee, I will work with my colleagues to do all we can to protect our state’s most vulnerable children,” Linehan said.
Following the release of Eagan’s report on Matthew’s death, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, called for Katz’ resignation in a letter to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
He said too many preventable deaths and injuries have resulted from “failing procedures and a lack of oversight at DCF. Instead of being open to reform, the agency’s commissioner has refused to take responsibility or listen to the voices of the advocates.”
He said in the letter to Malloy that while no child-protection agency can stop every tragedy, “there is a pattern of problems under the current commissioner that you have turned a blind eye to for far too long.”
Malloy has stood by his DCF commissioner.
Children’s Committee Co-Chair Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said it is important to remember that agencies that care for children in need in Connecticut have been given “high marks” by rating agencies.
Having said that, she said there needs to be new legislation enacted in the upcoming General Assembly session to close up holes in the system that contributed to Matthew’s death.