County Statement Regarding the Children & Youth Agency Investigation and Death of Ja’Zirah Rodgers

The following is a statement from the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners regarding the Children and Youth Agency investigation and death of Ja’Zirah Rodgers:

“The death of two year old Ja’Zirah Rodgers allegedly by her mother’s hand is a true tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of the child.

There has been much discussion in the media and among the public regarding Children and Youth’s involvement with this family, particularly following an incident of alleged abuse which Miss Rodgers’ father contends he personally witnessed. Charging documents and statements from law enforcement relate that the father called C&Y on January 8 regarding the child, and then C&Y notified law enforcement to report the child missing on January 22nd. Numerous questions have been raised about what was being done by Children and Youth between the January 8 notice to C&Y and the January 22 missing child report filed by C&Y.

The Board of Commissioners share the concerns raised in the charging documents and in the public regarding the timeline, and has asked those same questions of its C&Y Administrators and staff. In cases raising allegations of non-sexual, non-serious physical injury, abuse by a household member, state law is silent on when and under what circumstances police are to be notified by C&Y of the allegations. Where state statute is silent, however, the County is free to set internal policy regarding the timing of such notifications. While we have confirmed with the District Attorney and local law enforcement that our Agency has typically had a very cooperative relationship with those agencies, everyone will benefit from a written policy which codifies the timeline in which C&Y should seek the involvement of local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office, particularly in cases where the child victim has not been seen by C&Y within a defined time period after a report of abuse has been received. As such, the Board, with the cooperation of the DA’s Office, has directed CYA to engage law enforcement to establish a new standard protocol going forward setting forth the timeframe in which CYA will contact law enforcement for a family’s failure to produce a child who is the subject of an abuse allegation. The public will be informed once this new standard protocol is set.

Beyond that, while the County respects the interest the public has in ensuring the effectiveness of its public agencies, and in holding them accountable for documentable failures, state statute precludes us from discussing the specifics of any abuse investigation or interaction with a family. In particular, the Child Protective Services Law provides that all reports made and information gathered pursuant to the law are to be held confidential and not be disclosed except to certain enumerated individuals; neither the media or the public in general are included in that list of individuals entitled to this otherwise confidential information. The only information the CPSL specifically permits the County to release regarding the death of a child as a result of suspected or substantiated abuse is the name of the child (although only in the case of a fatality), the name of the agency if the child was in the custody of any agency, the identify of an agency and services provided by that agency to the child in the child’s home prior to the fatality. Beyond that limited information, individuals who willfully release confidential information are guilty of a second degree misdemeanor, which carry a penalty of fines between $500 and $5,000 and up to two years in prison. In addition, that individual is barred from receiving confidential information under the CPSL in the future. For the Board of Commissioners, then, disclosure would not only have a personal impact in terms of fines and jail time, but it would also eliminate our ability to oversee the Children and Youth Agency on a day to day basis.

From an agency perspective, disclosure of confidential information would lead to licensing violations that would affect funding from the state and federal government, and also our ability to provide services to the community in general.

These are therefore circumstances which, in the best interests of the County and the community, we must avoid. Thus, while we have internally sought answers to the questions that many of you are asking about the actions of our employees in Miss Rodgers’ case, we cannot make any specific statement about this matter. However, the public should rest assured that the CPSL provides for a review of our actions in this case not only through our internal investigation, but through child fatality review panels. Under the law, a child fatality review panel made up of at least six individuals consisting of an agency employee, member of the agency advisory committee, a healthcare professional, a local school or early childhood development program representative, the DA or law enforcement representative, an attorney trained in representation of children, a mental health professional, a children’s advocate, the Coroner or forensic pathologist, a local domestic violence program representative, a local drug and alcohol program representative, an individual representing parents, or anyone else deemed necessary to assist the team in performing its duties, is to be established following a child fatality resulting from abuse. The team is tasked with reviewing the circumstances of the fatality, the delivery of services provided by the agency, the agency’s compliance with statutes and regulations, as well as compliance with County policies and procedures. 23 P.S. §6365. After convening, the panel submits a report to the Department of Human Services within ninety (90) days regarding compliance with statutes and regulations, deficiencies in services to children and families, recommendations for changes to statutes and regulations to reduce the likelihood of future fatalities, monitoring and inspection of county agencies, and collaboration of community agency and service providers to prevent abuse and neglect. This report may be made public thirty (30) days following submission to DHS, unless the District Attorney’s office certifies that the release of the report would compromise a pending criminal investigation or proceeding. DHS is to provide a written response within forty-five (45) days after submission by the panel, and this report may also be made public unless subject to a similar certification by the District Attorney.

In addition to the County-level child fatality review panel, the Commonwealth, from time to time, creates citizen review panels that examine policies, procedures and practices of local agencies to ensure those agencies are effectively discharging their duties. 23 P.S. §6343.1. Citizen review panels at this level also examine child fatalities in a manner similar to the child fatality review panels mentioned above.

The CPSL, in authorizing the child fatality review and citizen review panels, allows the specific information related to abuse investigations to be disclosed to those entities for review and consideration, and ultimately to the public following both a sufficient period for investigation and review and subject to the District Attorney’s approval. In this way, the public’s interest in accountability of C&Y agencies and employees is satisfied, we believe, although it limits our ability to discuss specific cases immediately after a death occurs. The Board of Commissioners places its trust in the work of these review panels, as well as in the District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement in conducting the criminal investigation of this matter. We expect that these entities will obtain answers not only to the questions about C&Y’s actions in this case, but also regarding the delay between the alleged abuse (January 2) and the submission of a report of the abuse (January 8), and any other questions that may arise regarding the cooperation and truthfulness of parties and witnesses during the investigation, and to make that information available to the public at the appropriate time.

Certainly, of course, as the criminal process proceeds, more information will also be made public in the trial of any charges brought as a result of Miss Rodgers’ death.

What the Board of Commissioners can express in the meantime, however, is that our C&Y Agency strives to investigate every case in a timely fashion, as is required by the statute. Part of that obligation is to make efforts to see a child within twenty-four (24) hours of an abuse report to the agency. Those efforts are sometimes hampered by the accuracy of addresses and other contact information provided in a report of abuse, as well as the cooperation and availability of parties and witnesses. Our Agency must walk a line in determining whether a party’s absence during this initial investigatory period, for instance, is reasonable or nefarious in nature; we have to make the same credibility judgments and rely on the circumstantial evidence in making these determinations, all of which can lead to errors when observed in hindsight. Beyond the 24-hour initial visit requirement, as with any investigatory agency, our efforts are impacted by the ongoing accuracy of information received from the parties and the cooperation of witnesses, as well as our need to coordinate with other agencies and entities. However, where our processes can be immediately improved, such as by reaching a consensus among all local law enforcement agencies regarding the point at which the Agency’s inability to see a child due to the child or the parent’s absence becomes either a missing person or criminal matter as C&Y has been directed, we will do so.

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