Ohio Toddler’s Tragic Death Need Not Be in Vain if Ohio Courts Seize the Opportunity to Hold Reckless Child Protection Agency Accountable for its Role in the Child’s Abuse and Murder

By Lauren Majewski, Esq. | Staff Attorney, CHILD USA

            An Ohio toddler was killed by her mother,[1] despite child protection workers’ awareness of previous instances of abuse. Ohio courts must hold that agency and its workers responsible for their failures.  As outlined in CHILD USA’s amicus curiae brief, found here: https://childusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Merit-Brief-with-Watermark.pdf, a pattern of similar failures has emerged in Ohio, but the courts in that state have a history of refusing to hold child protection agencies accountable.

Facts of case show two year-old’s death could have been prevented by Perry County Children’s Services

            Harmony Brooklyn Rayne Carsey (“Harmony”), a 2-year old in Perry County, Ohio, was killed after having been mistreated and abused, and Perry County Children’s Services (“PCCS”) had enough information to stop it before it happened – but did not do so.  A PCCS worker claimed to have seen Harmony one day before she collapsed and was life-flighted and admitted to a pediatric intensive care unit with extensive injuries and signs of dehydration, and yet PCCS still did not act to protect Harmony.[2]  Following her discharge from the hospital, PCCS failed to promptly visit Harmony to ensure her safety and failed to promptly obtain medical records.  Harmony died of dehydration less than 2 months after hospitalization for that very issue.[3]  Harmony’s death was preventable. PCCS failed to take action restrict her abuser’s access to her, and Ohio courts must hold them accountable and permit this case – and others like it – to proceed to public trials to shed light on dangerous child protection practices.

Child protective workers can and must act to protect kids from dangerous situations.

            While it is essential for child welfare systems to protect children’s right to be with their parents and parents’ rights to care for their children, children also has the right to be free from harm – including death – at the hands of parents.  Child protection workers have several tools at their disposal to protect children who they believe or know to be in precarious situations, including safety plans (informal contracts with families to restrict or supervise unsafe individuals’ contact with a child[4]) and emergency & non-emergency custody requests, which require court oversight.[5]  Child protection workers are often faced with “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” decisions. Removing a child improperly can wreak unnecessary havoc on the child’s psyche and the family as a whole and, as such, some level of immunity for well-intentioned missteps is important for such a system to operate effectively.  However, this immunity must not be over-extended, particularly when reckless failures to act leave a child improperly in the care and custody of a dangerous parent.  Such reckless apathy often has life-altering – or life-ending – effects.  In Harmony’s case, PCCS workers had ample reason to restrict or eliminate Harmony’s killer’s access to her and chose to take no action at all to do so.

Ohio Supreme Court is reviewing Harmony’s case.

            Harmony’s grandmother, together with the toddler’s estate, is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to correct the grave mistake made by the Perry County trial court and repeated by the Ohio Superior Court.[6]  The lower courts determined that Harmony’s grandmother, Harmony’s estate, and the PCCS agency/individual workers agree on all facts material to the case and that the case is not worthy of being brought to public attention in a trial.[7]  Dismissing this case at an early stage gifts protection to PCCS and provides no motivation for this agency – or its counterparts in other counties and states – to examine its procedures to improve the ways children are safeguarded in the face of serious abuse allegations.

Systemic problems within child protective agencies undermine demands for accountability

             Child protection systems are in need of reform. In 2019, there were 1,840 child fatalities from abuse and neglect have increased, with 34.3% of those having had at least one contact with a child protection agency in the 5 years preceding death.[8]  These numbers highlight the need for continued reform of child protection systems.  Public demand for accountability is on the rise: there is an increase in criminal charges and civil claims against agencies and individual workers for their failures to investigate and protect children.[9]

            Unfortunately, however, many factors combine to work against the effectiveness of implementing reforms necessary to properly protect children. These include lack of training, lack of funding, and, as is illustrated in the dismissal of Harmony’s case, lack of accountability.  With no penalties for failures and bad actions, agencies are without sufficient motivation to closely examine their practices to determine which ones are worth maintaining, and which ought be updated or abandoned, leaving children unsafe and underserved.

            Furthermore, child welfare workers are prone to fatigue and burnout and can become jaded in a way that hinders their judgement[10] – and because of privacy laws and closed dependency courts, they often operate away from the public eye.[11]  While this privacy is important to protect children and families, it also offers a blanket of secrecy, ensuring that failures, errors in judgement, and bad acts will go unnoticed by the general public.

Where is the hope in holding child protective agencies accountable?

            While there are roadblocks to reforming the child protection system, there are just as many opportunities to encourage reform and better protect children.  Increased funding, improved training procedures, and awareness and prevention of compassion fatigue in the child protection industry are all essential elements of child protection reform.  In addition, civil liability offers internal motivation for child protection agencies and their employees to self-monitor their practices, as well as presenting the benefit of public and judicial oversight over any failures.  Permitting aggrieved families with particularly heinous facts, such as Harmony’s, to proceed to a civil trial would ameliorate the existing invisibility cloak and light a motivating fire under child protection agencies across the country to carefully examine their procedures and their choices, leaving children safer.

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[1] Kate Snyder, Mom gets nine-year sentence for daughter’s death, Zanesville Times Recorder (Mar. 14, 2018, 4:03 PM), https://www.zanesvilletimesrecorder.com/story/news/local/2018/03/14/mom-gets-nine-year-sentence-daughters-death/425535002/.

[2] Appellants’ Merit Brief at 1, 8-9, Smathers and Estate of H.B.R.C. v. Glass, et al., Supreme Court of Ohio, 2020-1062.

[3] Id.

[4] Safety Planning in Child Protection, Child Welfare Information Gateway, available at https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/responding/child-protection/safety-planning-in-child-protection/ (last visited Feb. 22, 2021, 3:00 PM).

[5] Out of Home Care: Overview, Child Welfare Information Gateway, available at https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/outofhome/overview/ (last visited Feb. 22, 2021, 3:00 PM).

[6] Lower Court Decision, at 1, 19, Smathers and Estate of H.B.R.C. v. Glass, et al., Supreme Court of Ohio, 2020-1062.

[7] See Id.

[8] U.S. Dep’t of Health & Human Services, Admin. For Children & Families, Admin. on Children, Youth, & Families, Children’s Bureau, Child Maltreatment 2019 (2021), available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/documents/cb/cm2019_4.pdf

[9] See, e.g., Kay Jones, Two Former Illinoi Child Welfare Employees Arrested in Connection with the Death of AJ Freund, CNN.com, Sept. 11, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/11/us/aj-freund-death-dcfs-arrests/index.html,  Mahita Gajanan, The Heartbreaking Story Behind Netflix’s Documentary Series The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, Time.com, https://time.com/5790549/gabriel-fernandez-netflix-documentary/ (last updated March 3, 2020)

[10] See generally, Burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Secondary Traumatic Stress, Child Welfare Information Gateway, available at https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/management/workforce/workforcewellbeing/burnout/ (last visited Feb. 22, 2021, 3:00 PM), Sprang, et al., Secondary Traumatic Stress and Burnout in Child Welfare Workers: A Comparative Analysis of Occupational Distress Across Professional Groups, 90 Child Welfare 148, 163 (Jan. 2011),

[11] Kathleen S. Bean, Changing the Rules: Public Access to Dependency Court, 79 Denver Law Review 1,  1-2, n. 5 (Dec. 2001).

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