Another baby killed in DC: another set of unanswered questions

On November 16, I wrote about Gabriel Eason, who was beaten to death around April 1, 2020 by one of the adults who was caring for him. Gabriel was not the first child to be killed by abuse in this awful year. Eleven-month-old Makenzie Anderson was brought to the hospital on February 6, 2020 already dead of physical abuse. Ten months later, her mother was charged with first degree murder in Makenzie’s death. We know even less about how Makenzie fell between the cracks than we do about Gabriel. We know that other residents of the hotel shelter where she lived were aware that the baby was in danger. But we don’t know whether they notified the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), which is responsible for investigating reports of child abuse and neglect, nor how the agency responded to any reports it may have received. CFSA and the Department of Human Services (DHS) refused to release any of this information based on confidentiality requirements–requirements which protect the agencies but deprive the public and its representatives of the information needed to protect children better in the future.

We learned about Makenzie’s death back in February 2020 from media reports, including a column from Petula Dvorak in the Washington Post, which discussed the stressful conditions at the Quality Inn as possible contributors to Makenzie’s death. Then there was a long silence as the pandemic descended and MPD built a case, culminating in the filing of charges against Makenzie’s mother on December 1, 2020. According to a police affidavit filed in court, Makenzie’s mother Tyra Anderson brought the baby to Children’s National Medical Center (CNMC) on February 6, claiming she had fallen off the bed on or about February 3 and began to have episodes of shaking. The baby was pronounced dead and the police were called. Anderson told police that Makenzie had fallen before, “sometimes striking her head” as the affidavit put it. Anderson stated that the day after her fall the side of Makenzie’s head was “soft like jello” and that she could no longer hold herself up or stand on her own. The day after that, the baby was gasping for breath, and a day later Anderson found her cold to the touch upon waking up in the morning. On none of these days did Anderson seek medical care for the child, telling the police that she was “scared.”

Anderson told the police that she had been diagnosed with anxiety and panic attacks and “possibly bipolar disorder, but later stated that she wasn’t sure about the bipolar diagnosis,” according to the affidavit. The officer noted that Anderson stated that she “took pills” that morning and “seemed fixated on getting her medications after [her child] was pronounced dead.” Anderson talked about Makenzie’s happy disposition and bright smile. But she also referred to Makenzie as “greedy and lazy.” When asked to explain, she stated “because that’s all she do is eat and sit around.” The police later spoke to Makenzie’s father. He stated that the 11-month-old had previous fallen from a bed on “three or four occasions” but he thought Anderson was a “good mother.”

Video footage from numerous cameras around the hotel showed Makenzie alive and alert most recently on February 1, although her mother and 20-month sibling appeared many times in the next few days. On February 3, Anderson is seen carrying Makenzie, whose head was hanging limply on her mother’s shoulder, to her father’s car along with the 20-month-old. On February 4, Anderson exited the vehicle with a limp baby on her shoulder, accompanied by the 20-month old. Later that day, a witness observed Makenzie in the hotel room sitting in a walker. She had a bump on her head and was leaning to one side, whimpering and shaking. She reported that Anderson kept pushing the baby back up, telling her to “lift her head up.” On February 5, footage shows Anderson and the 20-month-old in the cafeteria and on the way to the father’s car, but no sign of Makenzie. Later that day, images show Anderson carrying her limp body, completely covered in a pink blanket, to the father’s car before arriving at CNMC. Video from the hospital shows Anderson “calmly” walking into the main entrance of the hospital with the pink bundle. Desperate attempts to revive the baby were unsuccessful and she was pronounced dead by hospital staff.

At no time in the surveillance video from the hotel between February 1 and February 6 did Anderson appear to be distressed or frightened, according to the police affidavit. Police later learned that Anderson had not allowed housekeeping staff to enter or clean her room on February 5. A social worker who worked with Anderson told police that they spoke about her housing needs on the morning of February 6, but that she did not mention that her child was hurt or needed medical help.

An autopsy revealed that Makenzie had “multiple acute contusions to the face and head,” acute skull fractures, a laceration to the [tissue behind the upper lip], a laceration inside the left ear, pulmonary edema, and hemorrhaging in the bilateral optic nerve sleeve.” The Medical Examiner ruled the cause of death to be Blunt Force to the Head and the manner of death to be Homicide. The affidavit alleges that “the DEFENDANT intentionally inflicted the decedent’s injuries and/or failed to seek immediate medical treatment which created a grave risk of harm to [Makenzie], and which ultimately led to the decedent’s death.”

Three days after Makenzie’s death, her paternal grandmother went to court to request custody of her two siblings. At an emergency hearing, she testified that she had cared for the older child for her entire life and for the younger child for most of hers. She reported that Anderson was incarcerated in Alexandria, Virginia from April to November 2019, when she reclaimed her younger two children. So it appears that Anderson cared for Makenzie for only a fraction of her very short life. The judge granted sole legal custody to the paternal grandmother on the grounds that “the children are in danger from their mother who killed their 11-month old sibling on February 6, 2020.”

When a child dies of abuse or neglect, child advocates want to know whether the death was preventable. Were there opportunities for agencies to intervene? Only with this knowledge can one determine if and how the system failed and how to fix it. We know of one government agency that was involved with Makenzie’s family, and that was DHS. The family was staying at the Quality Inn, which at the time was serving as an “overflow shelter” for families for whom there was no room at the main family shelter at DC General–now closed as well. If DHS staff had been required to lay eyes on Makenzie daily, she might have been saved. But instead, as reported by Dvorak, the staff did “bed checks” at 10pm daily when Makenzie was quietly lying in her bed–dead or alive. Ironically, these bed checks were instituted to prevent future cases like that of Relisha Rudd, whose disappearance from the DC General shelter in the company of a janitor raised no alarms and who has never been found.

One question that needs an answer is whether the hotel shelter staff complied with their responsibility to report any suspicion that Anderson was abusing or neglecting her children. All staff members were mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect and were trained at least once a year in that requirement, according to DHS. There were 25 staff members serving the 110 families who were living at the shelter as of January 15, according to DHS. This included licensed mental health professionals, case managers, and supervisors. Each family had a case manager that was required to meet with the family weekly.

It is hard to imagine that none of these staff members knew that Makenzie and her sister were in peril. In a December article, Petula Dvorak reported that other residents of the Quality Inn knew that Makenzie was in danger. Family members contacted MPD during its investigation with reports of the mother and father taking drugs like Ecstasy, PCP and Percocet together. We know that Makenzie’s father had been barred from the Quality Inn after a domestic incident with Anderson on January 15, 2020. This was not the first incidence of domestic violence between them. Court documents show that Tyra Anderson went to court three times in 2015 and 2016 to seek protection orders from Makenzie’s father, saying that he punched, kicked and tried to strangle her and also kicked in her front door and damaged her apartment. He also filed for protection against her once in 2015. Court documents also show that Anderson’s mother was raising an older son of hers, who was born in 2009. At the time Tyler was born, Anderson was a teenager and asked her mother to raise him. The grandmother testified in court that the father had been incarcerated during most of the child’s life and Anderson had been intermittently incarcerated and rarely visited her son. As mentioned above, Anderson was incarcerated again soon after Makenzie’s birth, with the three children going to their paternal grandmother this time, only to be reclaimed by their mother only two to three months before Makenzie’s death.

All of these facts suggest a troubled family, and one that definitely came to the attention of shelter staff due to the domestic violence that occurred only two to three weeks before Makenzie’s death. A DHS official told this writer that she was not allowed to disclose whether any staff made reports to the CFSA hotline about this family. Nor do we know if any family members or friends may have reported concerns about the family, since CFSA refused to comment as well. Without knowing if CFSA received any reports, we cannot know if the agency fulfilled its obligations to investigate and make accurate findings.

This is not acceptable. In Florida, an immediate investigation by a Critical Incident Rapid Response Team is required for any child death reported to the Department of Children and Families (DCF) if any child in the family was “the subject of a verified report of suspected abuse or neglect” during the previous year. The investigation must be initiated no longer than two days after the case is reported and a preliminary report must be submitted within a month. The team must undertake “a root-cause analysis that …attributes responsibility for both direct and latent causes for the death or other incident, including ….specific acts or omissions resulting from either error or a violation of procedures.” The team’s report must be made available on DCF’s website, with confidential information redacted. A similar law exists in the State of Washington, where the Children’s Administration (CA) conducts a review when the death or near-fatality of a child was suspected to be caused by child abuse or neglect, and the child had any history with CA in the year prior to death. These reports must be completed within 180 days of the fatality and must be posted on the Department’s website with confidential information redacted.

Ironically, this writer is one of the few people who will eventually find out whether DHS staff reported Makenzie’s mother to CFSA and how CFSA responded. That is because I serve on the District’s Infant Mortality Review Committee, which will be responsible for reviewing the case after Anderson’s trial is over. Unfortunately, I will not be allowed to share what I learn with anybody, even members of the legislature, without risking a $1,000 fine and expulsion from the committee, as I discussed in my post about the death of Gabriel Eason. So the public will never know the answer to these questions, unless the Council takes action to allow the disclosure of this type of information.

With our limited knowledge of how the system failed little Makenzie, there is only one recommendation (No. 1 below) that we can make about how to protect future Makenzies. Two other recommendations would ensure the release of sufficient information about child maltreatment fatalities to enable a fuller set of recommendations to be made. Here is what we recommend:

  1. Homeless shelter staff should be required to set eyes on each resident child daily, or in the case of a child said to be staying temporarily with a friend or relative, verify that the child is alive and well.
  2. When a child dies of abuse or neglect, any history with any government agency that should have been concerned with the safety of the child (such as the child welfare agency, the homeless services agency, and the youth services agency) should be made available to the public.
  3. The DC Council should change the broad prohibition on sharing any information from a meeting to allow attendees to share any information that does not identify individuals by name.

As in the case of Gabriel, there is not one picture of 11-month-old Makenzie to be found online. Did she ever know a moment of love? Was her life full of fear and pain, or was she a victim of an adult’s sudden snap? Why did nobody help her before it was too late? The DC Council should pass legislation requiring that the public be notified about what the government knew and what it did about children like Makenzie and Gabriel. We owe it to them and to all the children who could be saved by such knowledge.