State failed Robert Manwill despite many red flags

Had a court order been enforced, he wouldn't have been living in the home where police say he was beaten to death, records obtained by the Statesman show This chronicle of events is drawn from court and Idaho Health and Welfare documents.

kkreller@idahostatesman.comAugust 15, 2010 

Robert Manwill 2.JPG

Had a court order been enforced, Robert Manwill wouldn’t have been living in the home where police say he was beaten to death, records obtained by the Statesman show.

Idaho's child-welfare system failed 8-year-old Robert Manwill.

Melissa Jenkins and her boyfriend, Daniel Ehrlick Jr., were charged with first-degree murder in what prosecutors say were weeks of escalating violence in July 2009. In the months since then, the Idaho Statesman has learned:

® Three times a week for an unknown number of weeks, employees and contractors with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare visited the home where Robert was living in June and July 2009 with his mother and Ehrlick.

A court order banned Jenkins from living there because she had fractured the skull of Robert's baby brother, who lived with Ehrlick, his legal father. If the order had been enforced, neither Jenkins nor Robert would have been living there.

® Health and Welfare workers who visited the home failed to physically inspect Robert for signs of abuse, court records show.

® State welfare workers received three previous reports regarding Jenkins and her family before finally acting in 2008 when Jenkins fractured the skull of Robert's infant brother, Aidan.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

The department did intercede in the family's life when 8-month-old Aidan showed up at a Boise hospital with the skull fracture in October 2008.

Because of her conviction in Aidan's case, Jenkins was not allowed to live with him. He was later placed in the custody of Ehrlick, court records show.

Health and Welfare policy requires removing a child found to be living with an abuser. In this case, that meant Jenkins could not reside in the same home as Aidan.

But court records show that Health and Welfare workers were visiting the home and knew Jenkins was living there with Ehrlick and Aidan. A separate custody agreement permitted Robert to live with Jenkins during the summer.

Health and Welfare officials say another court order permitted Jenkins to visit Aidan, which could explain Jenkins' presence in the home. Contractors for the state supervised the visits and provided counseling, education and training for the family. Officials said the contractors knew the court's orders but did not have authority to enforce them.

Court records say that the department's "visiting social workers" did not see Robert, even though Health and Welfare policy requires workers to see all children in the home to ensure their well-being.

While department contractors may visit a home more frequently, department policy requires state social workers to see, in person, each child living in the home every 60 days.

Prosecutors say Jenkins and Ehrlick hid Robert "in a closet to keep authorities from identifying the injuries" in the weeks before he was murdered.

During a visit on July 17, 2009, Ehrlick and Jenkins told social workers that Robert had been sent home to his father, when in fact he was being hidden in the home, court documents say.

Health and Welfare officials won't discuss whether anyone followed up with Robert's father.

Health and Welfare spokesmen also told the Idaho Statesman the department didn't have authority over Robert because it was Aidan, not Robert, who was in state custody.

EARLY WARNING SIGNS

Court and welfare documents show there was reason to be suspicious. Before Aidan's skull was fractured, the department had received three reports - called "child protective referrals" - regarding Jenkins and her family, according to Health and Welfare documents obtained by the Idaho Statesman.

Those reports were listed by the department as "unsubstantiated," "insufficient evidence" or as "information and referral." No other details were available about the nature of the reports or the response, and state officials cite confidentiality laws in declining to discuss specifics about the case.

HINDSIGHT IS 20/20

Kristine Nelson, a social work professor and dean at Portland State University, said the effectiveness of child-protective services can't necessarily be judged on a single case.

"Child deaths are statistically a rare event," Nelson said. "You can't create agency policy around rare events. ... It's much easier to go back in hindsight. Predicting what is going to happen in human behavior, it's not possible."

But Robert Fellmeth, a law professor who directs the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego school of law, said Idaho Health and Welfare could have done better.

"Obviously, the defense of the department is that hindsight is 20/20 vision," Fellmeth said. "What I'm saying is, forget about hindsight. You are visiting three times a week and you don't see the kid? And you hear a story (that Robert was sent away) and you don't call to check on it? I'm sorry, they aren't doing their job."

Fellmeth contends Health and Welfare needs to complete an in-depth internal review and also should bring in an independent auditor to review the case.

"You need someone who is not part of the bureaucracy to report to the Legislature and the people," Fellmeth said. "All you are left with is people who are covering their fannies."

After Robert's death, Idaho Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said he was satisfied with a verbal internal review of the department's actions. Department staff told the Statesman there is no written report but that the agency's central office and management along with a deputy attorney general do review such cases.

Another child advocate, William Grimm, senior attorney at the National Center For Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., says court and other records show the department "wasn't doing the basic job of child protection."

Many states mandate written reviews following child deaths. The lack of a written report indicates department managers aren't taking the situation seriously, Grimm said.

"If management at this level is not taking incidents as serious and critical as this as indicative of systemic problems within the agency, then it isn't just the individual case workers failing to do their job, it's the management failing to do their job," Grimm said. "Management should be getting to the bottom of why did this happen and how can we prevent this in the future."

WEIGHTED SYSTEM

The child-welfare system is weighted to provide plenty of checks on behalf of parents, law professor Fellmeth said. The burden of proof is on the state to prove that a child should be removed from parents.

A neutral judge presides over all custody and abuse-related legal proceedings, and the state will provide counsel for parents accused of abuse, Fellmeth said. State statutes also emphasize the need to reunite children and parents whenever possible, he said.

"If you pull the kid and you shouldn't have, you were premature. That's bad. There's disruption and suspicion," Fellmeth said.

While Idaho's legal and welfare systems have built-in checks to protect parents, there aren't built-in checks for children who should have been removed from a home and were not, Fellmeth said.

"There is no one looking at a mistake in that direction," he said.

PRIVACY POLICY

Health and Welfare officials declined to comment on how Jenkins was allowed to live with Aidan, how state workers responded to her permanent presence there and whether that situation raised red flags.

Armstrong has said the law prohibits his department from releasing information about Robert's case - even now that he is dead. But officials did address general policy questions.

The department always conducts a review when a child dies in situations in which the family was involved with the child protective system, said department spokeswoman Emily Simnitt. There is an immediate review and a more formal second review as more information becomes available, she said.

Simnitt said new information may emerge at trial, but many questions may never be answered.

HOME INSPECTIONS

Doctors in October 2008 told state workers that Aidan appeared to have a previously broken elbow, according to Health and Welfare documents obtained by the Statesman.

Jenkins admitted to - and was prosecuted for - fracturing the baby's skull. She was fined and sentenced to a month in jail and probation. In order to get Aidan back or live in the same home with the baby, she had to work through the state system and get a judge's permission.

On May 1, 2009, state welfare workers returned custody of Aidan to Ehrlick.

Simnitt said state policy requires that children living in the home of their parent, guardian or foster parent be seen monthly in that home. Those visits are to include plenty of observation of the environment and a physical check on all the children in the home.

JUDGES' OVERSIGHT

The courts determine when, how and if parents can be reunited with their children, Simnitt said. The judge makes this determination depending on whether the safety threats have been reduced, she said.

Jenkins was allowed to visit but not live with Aidan - and therefore with his custodial parent - until a judge allowed it, court records show.

Family members and friends said Jenkins had temporarily moved out of the home so Ehrlick could regain custody. But by the summer of 2009, Ehrlick and Jenkins were living together in their Vista Avenue neighborhood apartment with Aidan and Robert, family members and neighbors said. The courts had scheduled an August 2009 hearing to consider whether Jenkins could live with Aidan. That court hearing never happened.

If an abuser is found to be living in the home with his or her child without court approval, law enforcement would be called to assist in removing the child, Simnitt said.

Simnitt said that the department was operating with the information it had at the time, within court visitation orders and abiding by its policy.

Kathleen Kreller: 377-6418

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