State Plans 2 Reviews In Lakehurst Toddler’s Slaying
Imani Benton's young daughter was found dead in a park stream on Nov. 22, allegedly killed by Arthur E. Morgan III, Benton's former boyfriend and the girl's father. And if she could have her baby back, Benton says she would endure it all over again: Morgan's possessiveness, the alleged beatings at his hand and the "hell on earth" it was to be with him at times.
"But I suffered for my baby," she said Tuesday night, moments after learning that Morgan was arrested in San Diego on a murder charge in Tierra Morgan-Glover's death. "He could've took me before he took her."
It dawned on Benton, 24, after her 2-year-old was brutally killed -- authorities believe the child thrown off an overpass and into a stream in Shark River Park -- that she did not have to suffer all that time. She and her relatives then started pointing fingers and calling out the refrain: The system failed Tierra.
The family was familiar with the system, as it had floated in and out of their fractured lives since Tierra was an infant and, just less than two weeks before Tierra died, deemed the young girl safe.
DYFS: Tierra Was Safe
The state Division of Youth and Family Services, which made that determination on Nov. 10, has since initiated a case record review of its history with Tierra, and its Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board, composed of physicians, law enforcement and members of the public, will conduct its own review and will likely issue an action plan.
"We're trying to find out if our system did fail this child," said Allison Blake, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, which includes DYFS. "That doesn't change the fact that this is a tremendous tragedy."
And so the debate bubbles back to whether a state agency did its job properly, navigating a rigid court system and the families it's charged to keep safe, and whether a little innocent girl was doomed to a fate decided by an angry, possessive parent and jealous ex-lover, as Morgan has been characterized.
Hard to determine so soon, advocates and critics say.
WHAT AGENCY IS TO BLAME?
Undoubtedly, though, the department and court system, both of which played roles in the family's lives, are under a heat lamp. "It's a natural reaction to point the finger and say, `this person should have done more,' " said Jo Ann Palumbo, director of program services for Monmouth County's 180 Turning Lives Around, which works closely with the family services department, "but ultimately the abuser makes the decision."
The alleged abuser, in this case Morgan, should not have been anywhere near Tierra or Benton, with whom he had an on-again, off-again, relationship for three years, said Richard Wexler, executive director at the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, based in Virginia.
MORGAN USED "THE GIFT OF GAB"
Morgan, who Benton said is charismatic and has "the gift of gab," beguiled the system as so many abusers do, Wexler said. Benton said he slick-talked his way in the courtroom to get visiting rights and used his charisma to try to fool officials into believing he was not abusive. Morgan, too, made his attempts to show Benton was abusive and threatening.
"This shows how manipulative batterers can be, and that overwhelmed workers for agencies like DYFS have no match for them," said Wexler, an author and former journalist.
Allegations of abuse surrounding Tierra and concerns about her home environment were not substantiated by the department, which becomes involved in family matters when claims of child abuse and neglect are made, Blake said. And at least one of its findings is bolstered by court evidence.
In October 2010, DYFS investigated domestic violence claims made by Benton, who had successfully sought a temporary restraining order against Morgan, according to DYFS and court officials.
Superior Court Judge Francis P. DeStefano, sitting in Freehold, received no proof of abuse from Benton; in fact, Morgan brought evidence to DeStefano from an Eatontown police report, in which the department documented threatening phone messages from Benton, saying, "I am going to make your life a living hell." The restraining order was dismissed, and DYFS closed that case on the family in February.
MORE CONCERN OVER LIVING CONDITIONS
But it got involved again in July, when it was alerted to concerns over Tierra's home environment. She was living in Lakehurst with Benton and her grandmother, Michelle Simmons. Family members at the home denied all allegations, Blake said. The allegations were deemed unfounded and the case was closed in August.
Another alleged domestic violence incident, this time between Benton and her brother, was probed by the department in September.
Again the family denied the allegations, and again the department identified no service needs.
On Nov. 9, Morgan made a child welfare assessment referral, reporting that he didn't know Tierra's whereabouts and made several claims against Benton that turned out to be false, Blake said. The following day, a caseworker visited Benton and Tierra, and that same day Tierra was determined to be safe, Blake said.
DYFS DISAPPOINTS AGAIN
The case history is disappointing to state Sen. Shirley K. Turner, D-Mercer, who issued scathing criticism of the department when she learned that it had not done more. Citing a 2004 change in the department's definition and implementation of abuse and neglect findings, as well as the reduction of a three-tier findings system to two-tier, Turner lambasted the department, saying that a stricter findings system would have "established a pattern of abuse to provide the intervention and protection necessary to save the child's life."
Wexler, the author, who has been critical of DYFS, acknowledged it has made considerable progress in recent years, and is fearful that it will be only a matter of time until "some grandstanding legislator introduces `Tierra's Law,' to require some new procedure that will further overwhelm the system." The period following a tragedy like this is the most vulnerable, he said.
"Horror stories almost always lead to a knee-jerk reaction," Wexler said. Noting that such tragedies are the exception and changes should be made based on findings from a wide pool of analysis, he added, "we make huge mistakes when we look too much into horror cases."
While there will always be unthinkable acts, Wexler said DYFS, given its increasingly well-trained staff and wider range of resources, should have acted when Benton could not or did not. "I'm not saying she's blameless," Wexler said. "A really well-functioning system would have picked up on this back and forth and gotten her more help and stand up to this man."
Simmons on Friday said Benton has hired an attorney, and had been advised not to make any more comments to the media.
Benton met Morgan at an Asbury Park church in 2008. Since Tierra's birth, in March 2009, the couple's status has been complicated, given Morgan's sharp turn in behavior, becoming controlling, possessive and sometimes abusive toward Benton and Tierra, Benton said. They lived together on and off in different areas of Monmouth County, as well as with Simmons in Lakehurst, but earlier this year, Benton said, she terminated the relationship for good.
Winnie Comfort, a court spokeswoman, said, "they certainly appeared to have their ups and downs."
While at a domestic violence shelter, Benton compromised the home's location when she told it to Morgan, Blake said. She was moved to a new shelter with Tierra, preventing Morgan from keeping a court-approved visitation schedule agreed upon by him and Benton on Aug. 19, Comfort said.
The couple in 2010 agreed to a "visitation schedule," Comfort said. The Aug. 19 consent order was signed by Superior Court Judge Dennis O'Brien, sitting in Freehold.
Three months after the agreement was reached -- and less than two weeks after Morgan contacted DYFS, saying he did not know where Tierra was -- Morgan and Benton deviated from the court-approved schedule when they agreed Morgan would have Tierra for a few hours on Nov. 21, Comfort said. "There was no court involvement in, or knowledge of, the Nov. 21 visit," she said. "It was not part of the agreed upon plan."
This article originally appeared in the Asbury Park Press.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)