Dane County’s CPS head disputes how police described their involvement before a toddler’s death

Plus: How more than half of child deaths from abuse or neglect in Wisconsin in 2020 included past, recent contact with county CPS agencies

MADISON, Wis. — The head for child protective services in Dane County is disputing how the actions of their case workers were characterized in court records for a case where a toddler was killed on Madison’s west side.

Marshawn Giles is accused of murder and child sexual assault, among other charges, in a child’s death where police said in court records that case workers had told them there wasn’t enough evidence to get a formal removal order for all three children in the home, including the toddler that died.

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In the days leading up to the child’s death, court records say children had in two separate cases told their grandparents and law enforcement that they didn’t feel safe at home, that Giles had threatened them with a gun and hit them, and that he had assaulted their mother and pointed a gun pointed at her in an incident just a few days before the toddler’s death.

Shortly before their younger sister’s death, the mother had tried to get the two older children to also come home with her when she picked up the toddler from the grandparents’ home; however, grandparents told police the two older children had told the mother they didn’t want to go home with her that day.

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According to court records, police officers had asked CPS for a formal removal order so that the children could be legally kept at their grandparents, where their mother was sporadically allowing them to stay. Records said the case workers said that the existing evidence wasn’t enough to prove the children were in imminent danger. However, the records also stated that the CPS records for the case indicated the children were staying with relatives and that police should be called if the mother or Giles tried to take them home.

In a statement sent to News 3 Investigates on Tuesday evening, the Dane County Department of Human Services’ director Shawn Tessmann (the agency housing CPS services in the county) disputed how law enforcement characterized their actions in court records.

“While we are unable to comment about any specific interactions with law enforcement concerning any specific case, the characterization of CPS actions in the criminal complaint appears as though it may be incomplete as it does not conform to how DCDHS operates as a matter of practice,” Tessmann said in a statement.

“When a senseless tragedy occurs and an innocent life is lost, we as a Department are deeply affected because protecting children is our ultimate focus,” the statement also read. “As a matter of practice, CPS receives reports of concerns from professionals and other community members. Decisions about how quickly to respond are made based on the information provided by the reporter.”

Tessmann went on to say that her case workers make safety decisions based on their initial observations and face-to-face contact with children, parents and other adults involved.

Past CPS involvement in child deaths from abuse in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, a News 3 review of child death reports in 2020 that were substantiated as abuse or neglect finds that it is more common than not for child protective services to be involved in a home before the death occurs.

In 17 out of 27 child deaths in 2020, there were past calls to CPS about the family in the 5-year time span before the child’s death — with contact happening in many of those cases in just the days or weeks beforehand. At times, the family was involved in a report that was being actively investigated. In a number of other cases, case workers hadn’t been able to substantiate past reports of neglect or abuse, or ruled out calls for investigation that, even if true, wouldn’t have fit the legal definition of maltreatment.

It was issues like this that prompted concern from state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in a recent public hearing with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families. (In Wisconsin, CPS services are provided at a county level in all but Milwaukee County, with the state DCF overseeing county agencies.)

Concerns centered on two types of actions that case workers take when someone is reported to a county’s CPS agency. When a report is screened out, that means that the report–if true–still wouldn’t meet the legal definition for child abuse or neglect. Additionally, a report that is “screened in” for investigation must have a “preponderance” of evidence to be substantiated; in other words, the maltreatment was more likely than not to have occurred.

In the public hearing, lawmakers voiced concerns about either screened-out or unsubstantiated reports. In 2020, out of more than 60,000 reports to CPS, about a third were screened in for investigation. Of those, about 13% were substantiated. In more than half of the 27 deaths from abuse or neglect that year, there was similar past contact with protective services.

“It bothers me when I hear that ‘This is just such a small percentage compared to the sheer volume of kids that we’re dealing with,'” Democratic senator LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said in a recent interview. “At the end of the day, that’s still a life.”

Rep. Pat Snyder (R-Schofield), who chairs the Assembly’s committee for children and families, agreed with Sen. Johnson’s concerns about the volume of past CPS calls in cases where children had died of maltreatment.

“We really have to err, in my opinion…on the side of the safety of the child,” Snyder said.

Over the last decade, national best practices for child safety have evolved to lean more heavily on in-home services, resources, and placement with relatives, DCF’s Wendy Henderson said in an interview. While she couldn’t comment on any of the specific cases where CPS had been previously involved before a death, Henderson elaborated on how the state provides guidance for county case workers in these situations.

“These are all very complicated individual scenarios,” Henderson said. “It’s not possible to sort of foresee what’s going to happen in any individual case…We have very, very few of those types of incidents. It’s a very, very rare scenario and each one in itself is a tragedy.”

Like much of the rest of the country, Henderson pointed out that child protective service agencies are suffering from short staffing and often have high caseloads. Combined with issues related to under-funding, that can leave case workers in tough situations when developing safety plans for children.

Additionally, she said the state has shifted focus from determining what policies were misapplied in the past when a child’s death had occurred–and now focused more heavily on supporting caseworkers going forward.

“When you look backwards at any sort of complicated set of rules or systems, the violations of those or the lack of doing a certain thing sometimes isn’t as connected to the incident that happened,” she said. “So we’re really trying to look at: How do we support workers through these cases, which are tragedies in and of themselves? How do we stop looking at this as a blaming system?”

Statewide child deaths from abuse or neglect in 2020: A list of past CPS contacts

  • In Manitowoc County, a child’s death substantiated as maltreatment was preceded by two past calls to CPS
  • In a Lincoln County death, a case worker had visited the home as part of an in-home protection plan set up in July 2019; siblings were placed in a foster home after the death.
  • In a La Crosse death where abuse was substantiated, CPS closed a case from 2019 finding services weren’t needed after an initial assessment
  • In a Milwaukee County death where abuse was substantiated, the family was voluntarily participating in intensive in-home services, and a case worker had last visited the home about three weeks earlier. There were also several past calls to CPS about the family.
  • In a Crawford County death where abuse was substantiated, a social worker had visited the home two days prior and the agency was still assessing a call to CPS made about a month previously. In years prior, calls to CPS had resulted in service referrals.
  • In a Portage County death, a caseworker had last visited the home a few weeks prior. Past calls to CPS had resulted in unsubstantiated allegations but ongoing case management.
  • In Milwaukee, CPS couldn’t substantiate an allegation of physical abuse to the 10-year-old sibling of the baby who died. The father was criminally charged in the baby’s death.
  • In Milwaukee, case workers were still assessing an earlier report alleging neglect and had last contacted the mother with a video call the day before the baby died. Past calls had been screened out, and an earlier call was unsubstantiated but the case was kept open for ongoing services.
  • In Milwaukee, a shooting that killed 3 teenagers had multiple past reports where case workers hadn’t been able to substantiate abuse allegations for the children.
  • In Brown County, case workers hadn’t been able to substantiate multiple accuses of neglect prior to a 5-year-old’s death. At least another half-dozen calls to CPS had not been screened in.
  • In Milwaukee, case workers had tried to contact the family about a week before a 3-month-old died in a case where neglect and abuse were substantiated. In 2019, case workers twice couldn’t substantiate neglect allegations, but referred the family to services.
  • In Rock County, case workers couldn’t substantiate a neglect allegation the year before the child died of substantiated maltreatment
  • In Dodge County, CPS had determined a few years earlier that services weren’t needed
  • A year and half before two children died in Outagamie County, the family declined services after a screened-in call to CPS
  • A year before two children died in Milwaukee County, case workers didn’t substantiate sexual abuse; a month before their death, a call to CPS was screened out
  • In Vilas County, three calls about alleged abuse or neglect in the home weren’t substantiated in 2018 and 2016, before the baby’s death in 2020
  • In Iron County, case workers didn’t substantiate allegations of abuse to the child who died about six weeks later