Parents question report on 2 deaths

Jerlaine Birch, mother of Chevonne Thomas. At right is a photo of her grandson, Zahree.
Jerlaine Birch, mother of Chevonne Thomas. At right is a photo of her grandson, Zahree. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

A state agency says protection workers could not have prevented a shocking summer case.

Posted: December 10, 2012

Chevonne Thomas had been "crying out for help" before she decapitated her 2-year-old son and committed suicide last summer in Camden, but she did not get the care she needed, according to her father.

Thomas' parents, Wendell and Jerlaine Birch, question the decision by state workers to discontinue child care for the toddler, leaving Zahree all day with his mother. At the same time, protective services workers stopped visiting Thomas, 34, who had a history of drug abuse and had been diagnosed with serious mental illness.

Late Friday, Commissioner Allison Blake of the Department of Children and Families issued a report that said protection workers could not have "prevented this child's death," nor could they have known that Thomas was in distress.

After reading the report, the Birches said they remain concerned. The Pennsauken couple twice took custody of their grandson when Thomas was found to be smoking marijuana laced with the hallucinogen PCP (phencyclidine), known to cause violence in some users.

"We were the ones who were always there for him," the grandfather said last week, sitting with his wife in their living room decorated with 8-by-10 pictures of Zahree, his mother, and her older daughter, now 18 and starting college in January.

"When he needed surgery, we stayed with him at the hospital," Wendell Birch said, recalling that Zahree was born premature with numerous medical needs.

They watched him grow, idolizing Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story.

"He had a La-Z-Boy recliner for kids," Birch said. His wife added: "He liked his cup of juice and a bag of cereal. He was a little man."

While all was not perfect over the years, the family got along after Zahree was born. After Thomas regained custody, the grandparents still cared for the boy when she attended night counseling, and they often ate dinner together.

The grandparents are quick to recall happy memories; they struggle with the graphic descriptions authorities offer of Aug. 22, the day Thomas severed her son's head at her Parkside rowhouse. She placed it in the freezer, called 911, and then fatally stabbed herself.

"She's not the monster they're portraying her to be. She loved him," Wendell Birch said during a sometimes tearful interview.

"She was a good mom. She took good care of him," Jerlaine Birch said, her voice sad but steady.

Both wonder whether state workers could have done more.

"I don't think they were doing their job," she said.

In Blake's three-page report, she provided few specifics about how the state managed Thomas' case. The investigation "revealed areas of consistent and thoughtful practice, as well as areas where our system as a whole needs to focus more attention," she wrote.

Thomas, a graduate of Northeast High School in Philadelphia, first lost custody of her son in 2010 after she told authorities she blacked out smoking marijuana and PCP. She had been incoherent and could not remember where she left her son, authorities said.

Zahree was taken away from his mother again after she relapsed Aug. 2, 2011.

On April 3, the state returned custody to Thomas after she completed required therapy and passed state evaluations.

Jerlaine Birch said the state required her daughter to see a psychiatrist and attend counseling, which she did two nights a week. Caseworkers also had visited the home.

The state provided day care five days a week, about 40 hours, for three months, the Birches said. That ended in July. At the same time, caseworkers stopped seeing Thomas, last visiting her July 3, according to a statement issued in August by the Department of Children and Families.

"I don't think they spent a lot time with her," Jerlaine Birch said, recalling a few visits lasting about an hour.

Blake has not returned repeated calls seeking comment. Her communications office released Friday's report and two statements in August regarding Zahree's death. So far, the office has declined to field questions.

Friday's report said the case did show a need for better supervision and more effective evaluations.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director for the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said the state should have kept closer supervision of Thomas and also worked closely with the grandparents.

"There needs to be an external review," Zalkind said. "How is the division doing its job, and how are they protecting kids?"

Jerlaine Birch said Thomas' psychiatrist had diagnosed her in the last year as manic depressive with a bipolar personality disorder. She was given antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs, including Prozac, Wellbutrin, and Abilify.

She last saw her daughter the Monday before the deaths and all seemed fine. The next day, Thomas called, quickly rattling off a list of things she needed to do, repeating phrases and saying God had spoken to her. The mother became concerned her daughter may have been smoking PCP.

Mixing prescription drugs and illicit drugs can be extremely dangerous, said Louis E. Baxter, medical director of the Division of Addiction Services for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.

PCP can cause delusion; prescription drugs change the body's metabolism, and Thomas would have had an "increased risk" of psychosis with relapse, Baxter said.

Zalkind said that when the state ended day care, supervision should have increased, not ended. She also questioned the decision to close the case less than four months after returning custody to Thomas a second time.

The Department of Children and Families has been under the supervision of a federal judge since 2003 because of high-profile lapses. Despite an overhaul, the department still has troubles, according to federal and state reports. It is not providing required visitation for more than half its cases, according to a report issued in federal court in July.

Last year, an annual state review found mental health reports failed to identify risk because practitioners did not always have appropriate skills to assess abuse and neglect.

Zalkind requested state files to review how Thomas was evaluated. Citing privacy laws, the state denied her request.

"Whose privacy are they protecting?" Zalkind asked. "I think they are using privacy as their shield."


Contact Barbara Boyer

at 856-779-3838, bboyer@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @BBBoyer.

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