, Salem, MA


January 2, 2008

Unanswered questions in shaken baby death

Jennifer Ward, charged with first-degree murder in the shaking death of her 9-month-old daughter, is set to appear for a bail hearing in Salem Superior Court today.

Hopefully, the appearance by the 37-year-old Peabody resident will lead to more details about the Nov. 21 death of Jocelyn Ward Anderson, and how the state Department of Social Services handled her case.

So far, there has been little helpful information on that account. We do know, according to an agency spokesman, that until her death, DSS considered the girl's case "a success story."

There are many unanswered questions:

* Jennifer Ward was allowed to take her daughter home from the hospital after the Feb. 22 birth despite the fact both had illegal drugs in their system. (This contradicts an earlier statement by the DSS that the agency took the baby into custody after the birth.) Is it common practice to allow newborns to go home when they and their mother have drugs in their system?

* The infant was taken from Ward late the next month by DSS, which was responding to a complaint of neglect. She was returned in July, after Ward went through drug treatment and a parenting education program. Is a little more than three months enough time to deal with problems of drug abuse and neglect?

* Did the agency continue to monitor Ward after July and, if so, how closely was she monitored?

It is important these questions be answered not only for this child's sake, but for other children. DSS, according to spokesman Richard Nangle, considered this a "typical" case.

"The mother has the baby taken away shortly after birth, successfully completes drug treatment, does very well, the baby is transitioned back to the family and the courts sign off on the case," Nangle wrote to reporter Julie Manganis in an e-mail. "The family has a good support network, and everyone involved believes it is right to return the baby to the mother."

But this was not a success story. It was another in a growing list of agency failures:

* In 2005, 4-year-old Dontel Jeffers of Boston was killed by his foster mother Corinne Stephen. Stephen was sentenced to eight years in prison last month.

* Also in 2005, Haleigh Poutre, 13, was beaten into a coma by her adoptive mother, who was under DSS supervision. She was nearly removed from life support just before her condition began to improve.

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