Child Advocate Seeks To Strengthen Safety Net For Children With Disabilities
HARTFORD, CT — A teenage boy with autism and intellectual disabilities who died from starvation, dehydration and child abuse was absent from school for years and known to the Department of Children and Families and the Juvenile Court System, which closed his case weeks before his death.
An Office of the Child Advocate report on the death of the teenager, Matthew Tirado, concluded that the safety net for children with developmental disabilities is inadequate.
“Children with disabilities are at greater risk of abuse and neglect than non-disabled children and are more likely to be seriously harmed by the abuse and neglect they experience,” the report, released Tuesday, states. “Because of his intellectual and developmental disability, Matthew was unable to protect himself from harm.”
A series of decisions by DCF, the juvenile court system, and the public schools allowed the 17 year old to remain hidden from authorities for months or possibly a year prior to his death.
Two days after his death on Feb. 14, 2017, Tirado’s mother, Katiria Tirado, was charged with manslaughter. She has not been sentenced and is currently being held at York Correctional Institute.
Text messages from the arrest affidavit show Ms. Tirado hesitated to get her son medical care because of how he looked.
“Cuz of the way he looks they gonna get DCF involved and shit gonna escalate,” Tirado texted a relative.
“He need medical attention cause he gonna get worse,” the relative texted back.
“Idk what to do cuz of the way he looks … they gonna be questioning,” Tirado replied.
The Office of the Chief State’s Medical Examiner, which ruled his death a homicide, found that Matthew had “numerous injuries in various stages of healing,” including multiple “broken ribs, a laceration to the head, several bruises and contusions on his upper body, a pattern type injury to the upper back and bed sore type injuries to the buttocks.”
Investigators obtained pictures from Ms. Tirado’s cell phone that confirmed she had locked and shuttered her refrigerator and kitchen cabinets, restricting Matthew’s access to food.
However, what was more troubling to the Office of the Child Advocate was the recommendation by DCF — after nine months of not being allowed to see Matthew or verify his whereabouts — that the court terminate the neglect case. Transcripts from the December 2016 court proceeding indicate the hearing lasted less than a minute.
Katiria Tirado never responded to the Juvenile Court and no caseworker ever saw Matthew before the neglect case was closed.
In January 2017, DCF administratively closed its own case on the family. No legal consults were sought prior to DCF recommending the case end, and no lawyer assisted in the drafting or development of this recommendation, according to the Child Advocate’s report.
“All of the systems that served Matthew — education, child welfare, and legal — must improve their ability to support and protect children with disabilities,” Child Advocate Sarah Eagan stated in the report. “Nothing speaks more profoundly to the need for systemic improvement than the fact that a child who had already been identified as a victim of abuse and neglect went unseen for almost a year prior to his death from child abuse.”
Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz said the level of abuse inflicted by the mother and the intentional denial of food are “egregious and incomprehensible.”
However, Katz added the following: “Lacking the authority to force the mother to cooperate and allow access to Matthew, none of these entities had evidence of the abuse that she inflicted on him. With that said, despite the limitations on what actions the Department can take in light of parental resistance, the Department has taken steps to improve the work of our agency.”
Absent a court order, DCF has no ability to force their way into a home, but the agency said it is strengthening visitation standards and requirements following Tirado’s death.
“Kid after kid, she thinks she’s not responsible for any of these things,” Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said of Commissioner Katz.
Fasano said Katz should resign for overseeing a system that continues to fail the children of Connecticut.
He said Katz should have asked the judge for a court order to make sure the child was seen before the case was closed. He said Katz is in complete denial of her responsibility and he again called on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to fire her.
Jason Novak, a spokesman for Malloy, said the Malloy administration continues to stand behind Katz and is working to improve child safety measures through new legislation.
“State law should be amended to strengthen protections for children who may be hidden from DCF or the Court system,” Eagan said. “State law should expressly allow for DCF to assess the safety and well-being of very young children or children with disabilities where there are credible allegations of abuse or neglect and where the child’s ability to communicate concerns about his or her own safety is compromised.”
The Hartford Public Schools have told Eagan’s office they are also making changes based on the incident.
Matthew’s sister stopped attending Hartford Public Schools in November 2016.
Ms. Tirado withdrew her for the purposes of home-schooling. At that time, the Hartford Public Schools failed to contact DCF.
The schools, according to Eagan’s report, also failed to report the chronic absenteeism of both Matthew and his sister.
According to the report, between June 2012 and February 2017, despite his significant disabilities and need for support, Matthew attended less than 100 days of school.
Matthew was enrolled in Oak Hill School, a private, state-approved special education program that delivers services to children. Though Matthew remained enrolled at Oak Hill from December 2014 through his death in 2017, Ms. Tirado frequently did not allow him to attend.
“Oak Hill persistently provided information to the DCF social worker and HPS that Matthew was not attending school,” Eagan’s report states.
While Eagan was putting together the report she was told by the Hartford Public Schools in April 2017 that there were hundreds of children with disabilities who are chronically absent from school, including over 150 children with significant (e.g., Autism, Intellectual Disability) or multiple disabilities.
Eagan’s office also found an inadequate framework in Hartford, and statewide, for ensuring the safety of and education for children who are withdrawn from school to be home-schooled.
“Over the last three school years, more than one-third of the children withdrawn from Matthew’s school district for the purpose of “home-schooling” were found by OCA to have lived in homes with prior histories of abuse/neglect concerns,” the report concludes.
The Hartford Public Schools didn’t disagree with Eagan’s findings and issued a statement that says it’s been working to revamp protocols to protect students, especially children with disabilities. The statement also agreed there needs to be more regulation and state guidance in the area of homeschooling.