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Child Advocate: DCYF mistakes contributed to baby’s death

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A social worker whose recommendation allowed a newborn baby to go home with a mother who had serious mental health problems, only to be severely abused, is still employed by the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families.

The information shocked some lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee Thursday night, where the state’s child advocate detailed her office’s review of two baby deaths and four near-fatalities last year.

The aforementioned infant was not named in the report, but has previously been identified by police as Tobiloba Olawusi. Baby Tobi was admitted to the hospital at just 3 months old, suffering from at least 12 fractures, a skull fracture and apparent bite marks.

Tobi died at Hasbro Children’s Hospital on November 30.

“Things could’ve been handled much differently, specifically for this child’s life,” said Jennifer Griffith, the child advocate, who serves as watchdog over DCYF. She described to the committee the story of Tobi’s short life, which began when he was born to a mother who had already had a previous child taken away from her by the state.

The mother, Arinola Olawusi, was only allowed to have supervised visitation with her older child, but was allowed to take baby Tobi home, after Griffith says a social worker failed to report the extent of Olawusi’s mental health problems to a family court judge.

“She left things out,” Griffith said.

The judge allowed the baby to go home with the parents under a “safety plan,” in which the mother was not supposed to be alone with the baby. Her husband, Olalekan Olawusi, was tasked with watching the baby at all times.

“Straight out, we don’t feel this makes any sense,” Griffith said. “You have to go to the bathroom; at some point you’re going to sleep.”

Griffith’s report also found that the father had said Tobi would go to a daycare, for which he gave DCYF a fake name and address. DCYF never visited the daycare or verified that it was appropriate, or even existed.

“It was not until after the child presented with extensive injuries was it learned that the address provided was for a vacant building,” the report says.

Tobi’s mother was charged with cruelty and/or neglect of a child, and his father was charged with first-degree child abuse. Charges for Olalekan Olawusi were expected to be upgraded after the baby died, but police said he had jumped bail. There is a warrant out for his arrest for missing his court dates.

Several lawmakers on the committee, including Chairwoman Patricia Serpa were baffled that the social worker who had recommended the baby go home with his parents is still employed by DCYF.

“Babies die, and we still have people working at DCYF? What am I missing? Someone explain to me what I’m missing,” Serpa said, incredulous.

Trista Piccola, the department’s director since 2016, said the situation was reviewed, but she couldn’t go into details about personnel matters. She did say that safety plans similar to the one used in Tobi’s case were no longer being used by DCYF.

Serpa, D-West Warwick, elaborated in an interview after the hearing. “People get fired from jobs for stealing supplies from a company,” she said. “I can’t imagine that someone would still be employed after having a hand in the death of a baby.”

Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown, asked Piccola if the social worker had been overloaded with cases, drawing quick objections from some of her fellow committee-members.

“I’m not making excuses,” Tanzi responded. “But we can’t just sit here and yell at people and tell them they should be fired. We have a problem in an agency that we have to solve.”

Griffith said social workers are responsible for making sure they can handle their caseloads.

“If you feel … that you have too much to do, you need to tell your supervisor,” Griffith said. “And if your supervisor doesn’t handle it, then you need to call the union. You need to call someone.”

Piccola said progress was being made in filling DCYF vacancies, but said the department was being swamped with calls, as people become more aware of mandated reporting laws. She said investigations had increased by 20%.

“We are still drowning in the department,” Piccola warned.

Griffith also detailed another infant death from July 2017, where a 3-month-old girl died in a Providence home. The report said the newborn was sent home from the hospital despite “numerous risk factors” in the home. Four other children and a grandmother were home at the time of the baby’s death, and a sibling reported the baby had been removed from her crib and brought into bed with the mother. Just five hours before the baby died, police had found the mother passed out in a driveway after a night of drinking.

Griffith said the child review panel would convene again next month to review 17 cases, including five child deaths and 12 near-fatalities.