The series explores the breakdowns that happened in Family Court in deaths of five children
A Times Union investigation into New York’s Family Courts examines the deaths of five young children despite earlier accusations made in Family Court that dangers were posed by one of the parents. Our reporting found warning signs were ignored, breakdowns in abuse investigations and a lack of standards in how accusations are evaluated.
A Times Union investigation examining breakdowns in New York’s Family Court system found cases in which judges missed or ignored warning signs that preceded the deaths of children. The first part of this series profiles five of those fatal cases: 6-year-old Davonte Paul of Troy in February; 8-year-old Thomas Valva of Long Island in January; 3-year-old Autumn Coleman of Queens in 2019; 2-year-old Jovani Lirurgo of Long Island in 2018, and 6-year-old Gabriella Collins of Syracuse in 2014.
Family Court judges handle dozens of cases a day, and lack time to independently investigate allegations that a parent is abusing a child. Often a forensic evaluator is hired to review accusations and give an opinion to the judge, who typically follows the evaluator’s recommendations. Another key official, the attorney for the child, ideally can provide insight about the truth of allegations as cases proceed. These officials have power over contentious Family Court cases, but there are almost no guidelines or standards for them to follow, and critics say they’ve failed in recent cases of child deaths. Absent rigorous investigation, an argument called “parental alienation” has led to abuse allegations being brushed aside.
Child Protective Services officials did not follow basic state regulations in investigating complaints of abuse or dismissed them as “duplicative” in two recent instances where children ended up dying. County CPS offices around New York are a key part of New York’s Family Courts, serving a function similar to how a police department interacts with criminal courts. A Times Union review found the two recent investigations fell short in ways that have long been known problems.
New York’s Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced in February that, for the first time, her Office of Court Administration would review the circumstances of child deaths occurring within New York’s Family Court system. Four months later, the child fatality review committee has one member and no progress to show. Family court critics have turned to legislators for help and several have started efforts to reform family court.
The Times Union will continue to investigate the New York Family Court system and the breakdowns that lead to children dying. If you have any tips about Family Courts, please email reporter Chris Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org.