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Caseworker, Supervisor Suspended, Reassigned

Fallout from Frazier case continues following independent review

Asher Levin was sentenced to 18 years in prison for abusing, neglecting and then murdering Katelynn Frazier. Pennee Frazier was sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to protect the little girl from Levin and two city social workers are being reassigned, receiving a letter of reprimand and spending 15 days on leave without pay for returning Katelynn to the home in which she was killed.

In the final analysis of an independent review of the Frazier case, the findings concluded that Alexandria Department of Social Services erred by returning Katelynn to her mother, Pennee, on Sept. 15, 2000, and by failing to recognize or address adequately the trends of physical neglect that were apparent, at the latest, by the end of October, 2000.

In addition, the report found that Alexandria DSS made some errors of judgment that may have affected the professional delivery of services to the Frazier family, but they did not err in failing to find or initiate a charge of physical abuse because the evidence available and known to them at the time simply was insufficient to support such findings.

"Although physical abuse caused Katelynn’s death, whether Katelynn’s death would have been prevented if Alexandria DSS had not made the aforementioned errors, simply cannot be known,” wrote the independent consultants who reviewed the conduct of Marilyn Mills and Janice Pritchett. Mills was the case worker assigned to supervise Katelynn’s case and Pritchett was Mills’ direct supervisor. Both have been on administrative leave with pay since Aug. 29, 2001.

The report was released on Jan. 22, to the public and to members of City Council who discussed its contents and the disciplinary action that has been recommended by the city’s personnel director, Henry Howard. Howard has recommended that both staff members receive a 15-day unpaid suspension, transfer to another city position in which they are not responsible for any children in the foster care system and a reprimand.

NOT FAR ENOUGH?

“It is unfortunate that any staff member made errors and I do think that those staff members should be disciplined accordingly,” said Councilman Bill Euille. “I’m just not certain that this recommendation goes far enough.”

Mayor Kerry J. Donley is satisfied with the recommended disciplinary action. “The reassignment to another job is very significant and changes the careers of these individuals,” Donley said. “In one case, the staff member has more than 20 years of work in the field of foster care. This is one of the harshest punishments that I have ever seen given to a city employee in my time on Council.”

Like Euille, Councilwoman Claire Eberwein has some concerns about the recommended disciplinary action. “It really boils down, at the most basic level, to a matter of public trust,” Eberwein said. “The criticisms of Department of Human Services in both the final and draft reports from the Child Welfare League are clear. This latest report finds that reunification was in error and that clear evidence of physical neglect was present," said Eberwein.

"The report disputes whether there was clear evidence of continuing physical abuse, but both criminal cases found that there was. The death of this child has provoked changes such as creating a written policy manual, which should have been a given, and having a fresh set of eyes review injuries to children in foster care. It was noted that there is a 'circling of the wagons' mentality at DHS and I do not believe that the recommended personnel actions get to the heart of that.”

FACTUAL DESCREPANCIES

The investigation was conducted by a group of consultants that included former Virginia Deputy Attorney General Ashley L. Taylor, Jr., Esq. and William L. Lukhard, the former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Social Services. According to information provided by the city manager’s office, the investigative team reviewed 9,100 pages of documents, interviewed more than 30 witnesses and researched the applicable federal and state statutes and standards. However, the report contains discrepancies with what occurred at Levin’s trial.

The report seems to conclude that the bruise observed by Katelynn’s foster mother on the child’s hip on Aug. 11, 2000, and the bruise that was photographed by daycare providers on Katelynn’s back more than one month later were the same bruise. The report also indicates that the bruise on Katelynn’s face that was observed by Mills on Sept. 18, and the bruise that was photographed on Katelynn’s face by daycare providers were the same. Trial testimony indicated that Pennee Frazier described the bruise as “small” while daycare providers photographed a bruise that covered the child’s forehead. The report raises an issue about exactly when photographs were taken that was not disputed by Levin’s attorneys at the trial.

Also, while the report indicates that Childfind staff did not see bruising on Katelynn’s face, it does not say that the worker did observe other bruises on the little girl. The Childfind worker testified at the trial that she reported the bruises to Mills. Further, although the report disputes the evidence of ongoing physical abuse, Pennee Frazier, as part of her guilty plea, said that Katelynn was abused on a weekly basis from the time of her return on Sept. 15, 2000, until her murder on Dec. 27.

“The conclusion was based on a number of factual inaccuracies,” said S. Randolph Sengel, Alexandria’s Commonwealth Attorney. Sengel prosecuted both Pennee Frazier and Levin. “Katelynn’s death was avoidable.”

Eberwein, who received the report late Tuesday night, had not had an opportunity to read it fully. “The report is lengthy and I haven’t finished reading it,” she said. “It relied heavily on interviews, and memories can be faulty after events like this. There are also some internal inconsistencies in logic. However, what was clear from the briefing was that basic common sense did not prevail and that the rehabilitation of the mother took precedence over the safety of the children.”

Euille understands that there are alleged inconsistencies between the report and testimony at trial. “I have not yet had an opportunity to read the entire report,” Euille said. “While we have heard that there are inconsistencies, those of us on Council were not present at the trial. I am satisfied with the independent report and hope that we can put this incident behind us. We have taken steps to implement new procedures that will hopefully prevent a tragedy such as this from ever happening again. It is time to move forward.”

Donley agreed. “I am satisfied with the report,” he said. “These investigators were chosen because of their expertise in this field. We have made many changes in the way that we handle our foster care cases that will hopefully prevent this from ever happening again.”

Mills and Pritchett have seven days in which to protest the personnel action that has been recommended by Howard. After that time, City Manager Philip Sunderland must make a decision whether to accept the recommendations or not.