Deaths underline flaws in child protection system's protection of a monster

By Sinclere Lee

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (BNW) --
When Robert Morris' two children died unexpectedly on the same night nine years ago, authorities were certain that they had been smothered in their sleep. However, no charges were filed, and as time passed, the city lost track of the monster, father police suspected might be the killer.

Although the state dropped the ball that resulted in the deaths of innocent Black kids, not enough can be say about the monster, Robert Morris, who killed these Black babies. Killing this dog is not worth the effort; the lesson is that we have this kind of trash in our race and it’s a damn shame!

Unfortunately, no one noticed when Morris fathered a third child with a different woman -- not even when that infant, too, died suddenly during the night. A medical examiner said the baby was a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

It took a fourth child's unexplained death and a phone call from a tipster before authorities realized they could have a serial killer on their hands. Morris was charged this week with murdering all four children.

Social workers said the case illustrates a weakness in the way many cities and states keep tabs on parents accused of abuse or neglect.

In Philadelphia, child welfare agencies generally track only the maltreated children over time, not their mothers and fathers _ meaning that no red flag is raised if an allegedly abusive parent has another child.

The city's Child Fatality Review Team, which has examined the death of every young Philadelphian since 1994, has not made a practice of examining records to see if a parent has had other offspring die unexpectedly.

Similarly, the medical examiners who conducted the autopsies on Morris' third and fourth children were unaware of the previous deaths.

"That kind of tracking just doesn't occur," said Health Department spokesman Jeff Moran.

Some of those practices are under review as a result of the Morris case.

Beginning immediately, the teams that review child deaths will also check to see whether their parents have had other children die young, officials said.

"In a small town, if something like that happened, everyone would know, and this institutional memory would get created, but in a big city it doesn't work like that," said Patricia West, a public health consultant who leads one of the teams. "We have to be that memory."

The case also points to the difficulty in determining the cause of unexplained infant deaths.

Authorities blamed SIDS when Philadelphia mother Marie Noe had eight children die mysteriously between 1949 and 1968. The investigation was reopened in the late 1990s as theories about the commonness of SIDS changed. She ultimately confessed to smothering the children and pleaded guilty to eight counts of second-degree murder in 1999.

The deaths predated the city's current child protection system, but the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information said research indicates that as many as 60 percent of child deaths resulting from maltreatment go unreported or are mistakenly attributed to accidents or SIDS.

Some states have taken a more aggressive approach to monitoring parents accused of abuse.

In 2001, Michigan began using a database to check the history of every mother and father who has a new child. The state looks to see whether the newborn's parents are listed among those who had previously had a child taken away because of allegations of abuse or neglect. When authorities find a match, caseworkers investigate to determine whether the new baby is in a safe environment.

The system was implemented after a number of children died from abuse, including a 7-month-old girl suffocated by a mother who had previously lost custody of six other children. The program has found hundreds of instances in which an abusive parent has had additional children without the state's knowledge, but it has also prompted complaints about parents' civil rights.

Philadelphia Department of Human Services spokesman Ted Qualli said officials generally view government intervention in family life as a last resort, and generally only investigate when a new allegation of abuse arises.

"You have to remember, you could have a situation where a mother had problems in the past, but 10 years later, is finishing up classes at community college, is off drugs and has completely gotten her life together," he said. "How long do you watch them for?"

Morris has not yet entered a plea to the four counts of murder in his infants' deaths. His family has not returned calls seeking comment.

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