RHODY LIFE

Public confidence in child welfare

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Peter Lynski came to America from Lithuania in 1905. A weaver, he married Ustina Stavrus and fathered six children – Walter, Anna, Eva, Jennie, Joseph and Catherine.

On June 2, 1924, Ustina died in Providence at age 32. Their youngest child, Catherine, was only 3 months old. Two months after Ustina’s death, Catherine died and Peter attempted to care for the five remaining children on his own. Finally, the children were placed in state care.

The four youngest were placed in the home of an Oaklawn couple. On March 16, 1928, the couple reported that 6-year-old Joseph was dead. They relayed that the little boy had previously lost four toes from frostbite, which caused an unsteady gait and frequent falling. They claimed he had fallen against the stove several weeks earlier and received a scalp wound. An autopsy showed that the wound became inflamed and death resulted.

After their questions were answered by the foster couple, Cranston police and the medical examiner were satisfied that Joseph’s death was accidental. But several local agencies had concerns and did their own investigations. Mattie Beattie of the RI Children’s Friend Society; Henry Burt, executive secretary of Providence Community Fund; the RI Civic Committee; and Dr. Elizabeth O’Meara, visiting physician of the state institutions, saw major problems with the placement of these children at the Hope Avenue home where Joseph died.

O’Meara’s report described the horrific treatment and neglect the four children had endured. The RI Civic Committee reported, “Whereas the death of Joseph Lynski and the brutal treatment accorded his three sisters; Annie, Eva and Jennie, in the home of (foster parents) in Oaklawn, is an indictment against the administration of child welfare in the state of Rhode Island.”

In Burt’s report, he stated, “The death of little Joseph Lynski and the bruised and beaten bodies of his little sisters present a tragedy without parallel in Rhode Island.” He demanded action by the State Welfare Committee to restore public confidence in child welfare.

Beattie’s report noted that those who had initially investigated the home and failed to report the findings were guilty of negligence.

Their bodies dirty and bruised, 12-year-old Anna, 10-year-old Eva and 8-year-old Jennie were removed from the foster home and the foster couple was arrested and arraigned on charges of unlawful treatment of children with habitual cruelty, and unlawfully permitting children to be perpetual sufferers from a habitual lack of proper care and oversight.

The foster parents admitted they utilized forms of discipline with objects such as a strap or belt, and that the children were expected to perform manual labor. They explained that, because they could not afford the expenses of a trial, they would plead guilty.

The court decided that neither the labor nor the punishments constituted abuse. It was ruled there was no evidence that the couple contributed to Joseph’s death. The foster parents received a meager fine, probation, and their freedom. No one was ever held accountable for Joseph Lynski’s death.

Anna returned to her father. Jennie was placed with widow Mary Keefe, who took in state wards, while Eva went to the Barney family in Cranston.

In the 93 years that have followed the tragic death of Joseph Lynski, has the public confidence in child welfare been restored in Rhode Island?

In 2019, a 9-year-old special needs child was discovered deceased, face down in the bathtub of a Warwick foster home. The Child Fatality Review Panel investigated the death. Their report shows that the home contained eight special needs foster children and that the license of the foster parent never should have been granted.

Despite the applications being outdated and incomplete, the foster parent having no training in special needs, the required references only including two family members, and the parent’s history of mental health issues and criminal activity, the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth & Family Services allowed the foster parent to take in children.

In 2011, a service provider had reported that one of the children should be in a home without pets, due to medical issues. DCYF never addressed the problem and the child remained in the home. In 2012, one of the children was transported to the hospital due to a seizure after being discovered by emergency responders laying naked on the floor of the home.

After the third time the child was hospitalized, in 2014, concerns were brought to DCYF regarding no one ever accompanying the child to the hospital. DCYF never responded to the concerns.

The school contacted DCYF concerning one of the children being locked into a room at home. No reports showed that any investigation was made. Despite numerous hotline calls to Child Protective Services and DCYF concerning the foster parent’s inability to care for the children, a seventh child was placed there in 2015.

A WIC investigator notified CPS that the foster parent was selling her allotment of baby formula on Craig’s List, which was illegal and evidence the child was not getting proper nutrition. Despite the fact the child had been diagnosed as failing to thrive, CPS did not follow up on the matter.

An eighth special needs child was then placed with the foster parent. The home study reports throughout the years were never fully updated and did not even show the correct address of the residence. The section to contain the childrens’ physical and mental issues was inaccurate and incomplete. There was little to no follow-up by DCFY with the childrens’ medical providers and the agency was allowing the foster parent to supervise the childrens’ visits with their biological parents and report back to them without witnessing or validating any of the information provided.

It was discovered that the foster parent would place a 13-year-old autistic child in charge of the other seven children when she wasn’t home. The home was dirty, marijuana and other drugs were out in the open, the smell of animal feces permeated the air and the beds were soiled with vomit and urine. Now, within the chaos, lay a dead 9-year-old.

The Review Panel stated that there was a faulty understanding of the rules and responsibilities by all DCYF staff, ensuring the safety and well-being of the children under their care. They charged the state’s Licensing Unit, Family Service Unit and CPS with deferring issues back and forth without action.

The Review Panel charged inadequate supervision of the agencies involved and failed internal communication within all units of DCYF, which resulted in putting children at risk. The “ongoing failure” of DCYF to access the risk and safety of the children in this case was noted along with the failure of state-appointed guardians ad litem to represent the legal rights of the children. When questioned, the attorneys stated they had no recollection of ever visiting the home.

“DCYF, with its social workers, supervisors and administrators created this situation,” the Panel’s report read. “We maintain that the actions, or inaction, of DCFY staff contributed to the death of this child.”

This is merely one of the numerous fatalities and near-fatalities suffered by children in state care since the death of Joseph Lynski in 1928. In almost a century, public confidence in child welfare in Rhode Island has not reached restoration.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

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