New Jersey's child-welfare agency, long under federal oversight for high-profile lapses, said it will review its role in the case of a mother who decapitated her 2-year-old son and killed herself just five months after regaining custody of the child.
The Department of Children and Families said last night it had been working with members of Chevonne Thomas' family to support the woman and her son, who were reunited under a court order in April.
Police yesterday found the decapitated body of 2-year-old Zahree Thomas on the first floor of the Camden rowhouse he shared with his mother. Chevonne Thomas fatally stabbed herself in the neck after calling 911 to report her son's slaying, authorities said.
The agency said in a statement that its staff had visited the family regularly and was providing "extensive" support and counseling services, including substance abuse testing and treatment. Thomas lost custody of Zahree after being charged in 2010 with child endangerment.
In that case, Thomas admitted to police that she had smoked marijuana laced with the hallucinogenic drug PCP, blacking out in a park and leaving her son unattended in a car. The charge was ultimately dropped due to a problem with a witness, according to Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County prosecutor's office.
But some neighbours reported that Thomas remained troubled. Hours before police were called to the gruesome scene, neighbor Melanie Troutman reported seeing Thomas topless and "clearly upset" on the steps of her house. However, another woman insisted Thomas was clothed.
Former neighbour Thelma Moore said Thomas had exhibited mental health issues during the several years she'd known her. Moore described her as being in "a world all to herself," and said Thomas had seen a behavioral health therapist.
"She just walked around and talked and cursed to herself," Moore said.
Thomas' landlord, who did not want to be identified, said the woman had lived at the home for two months and was a perfect tenant, keeping the apartment tidy and clean.
Thomas told the 911 operator that she used to take the antidepressant Prozac.
"I didn't take it today, but I should have," she said, according to a recording of the rambling, often incoherent call released Wednesday evening.
She also initially blamed her son's grisly death on her boyfriend, but quickly recanted.
"You know what, I did it, I'm lying, I'm lying, I'm lying, I did it," she said.
The Department of Children and Families supervises more than 7,000 children living in licensed foster and group homes. The state has spent $1 billion to reform its child-welfare system since 2003.
The overhaul was ordered after authorities discovered the mummified remains of a 7-year-old boy in the basement of a Newark apartment, and four boys in Collingswood were found starving because their adoptive mother withheld food.
Mary Coogan, assistant director of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said the state agency has made progress in reducing case loads and training staff. But she said the department has not made enough headway on engaging troubled families and quickly developing support plans for them, "which are the basic tenets of good social work."
"We're not saying this is an easy task," Coogan said. "It's a very difficult task and it does require everybody's participation."
Coogan's colleague, Nancy Parello, said that while the deaths of Chevonne and Zahree Thomas "may not be a reflection of the entire system, it is a teaching moment."
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