Social agencies alerted JFS to warning signs
Nov 17, 2012 at 4:29 PM
Twice since 2009, workers at local social agencies alerted Erie County Job and Family Services to suspected problems at a Vermilion Township family's Risden Road home.
Get Saturday's Register for reaction from James Brothers' ex-girlfriend, or click here for previous stories about this family tragedy.
The two phone calls — as well as a third from someone else — were not enough to launch an investigation, Erie County Job and Family Services administrators said.
The administrators' comments came Thursday, more than a week after 18-month-old Isaac Brothers-Bartholomew died of starvation inside his family's Risden Road home in Vermilion Township.
An autopsy by the Lucas County coroner's office found the child died of malnutrition and dehydration. He weighed just 12 pounds at death.
Isaac's six siblings, ages 2 to 11, have been removed from the home, and four are still in a Cleveland hospital being treated for malnourishment, Erie County deputies said.
Isaac's death and the medical conditions of his siblings prompted Erie County deputies to launch an investigation into the parents, James Brothers, 33, and Adrienne Bartholomew, 34.
Bartholomew called 911 on Nov. 6 when her oldest son, age 11, found Isaac unresponsive in a crib inside the home. When paramedics arrived, Brothers was in the driveway, holding Isaac's limp body in his arms, an Erie County deputy's report said.
In an interview with the Register late last week, Brothers said he and his wife spent all their time caring for the seven children, some of whom suffered from medical conditions and disabilities.
Brothers also told the Register a social worker had been to his home about a month ago and found nothing wrong.
Investigators have already confirmed an employee from the Help Me Grow program, at Erie County Board of Developmental Disabilities, visited the home as recent as September.
The Register learned Friday that a Help Me Grow employee was actually one of the three callers who in recent years alerted Erie County Job and Family Services to potential issues in the home.
The sheriff's investigation is quickly growing tentacles, as deputies are trying to figure out why no one stepped up to contact the family, even after tipsters made phone calls to Erie County Job and Family Services in late 2009, 2010 and earlier this year.
Last week, Erie County Job and Family Services director Karen Balconi Ghezzi told the Register her agency never received complaints about the Brothers-Bartholomew family.
On Thursday she reversed course, confirming her agency had, in fact, received three phone calls since 2009.
But none of those calls rose to a level that merited an investigation, Balconi Ghezzi and job and family services supervisor Angel Young said.
Young said the social services field is complicated and there are strict guidelines social workers must follow to actually initiate an investigation.
In February 2009, Balconi Ghezzi's agency closed a case that had been transferred to Erie County from Cuyahoga County, when the Brothers-Bartholomew family moved from the Cleveland area to their Vermilion Township home.
Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services began investigating the family in 2005, when a caller alleged Brothers and Bartholomew were neglecting their children. That investigation was followed by another in 2007, which was transferred to Erie County.
Balconi Ghezzi said her workers made 13 visits to the Risden Road home from March to October 2008. The case ended in February 2009, as the parents showed social workers they were capable of caring for their children, Balconi Ghezzi said.
Balconi Ghezzi has refused to say who made the three phone calls to her agency, other than explaining one caller simply had a "gut feeling" about the family.
On Friday, the Register confirmed through other sources that a Help Me Grow employee was one of the callers, while another caller was a neighbor.
The third caller was likely associated with Erie County family court's Wraparound program, although juvenile court Judge Robert DeLamatre said Friday he has a "high confidence rate" the call did not originate from this program.
DeLamatre added: "I can't say I'm 100 percent confident."
DeLamatre said one of his workers told him the Wraparound program's involvement with the family ended in 2009, about the same time the job and family services case ended.
This much is certain: Local social services employees called Erie County Job and Family Services on at least two occasions since 2009, raising concerns about the family.
Balconi Ghezzi refused to discuss the nature of those calls, citing confidentiality.
A panel of three social workers had reviewed the complaints and came to the conclusion they did not merit further investigation, Young said.
“The concerns called in didn’t warrant us to get inside the house,” Young said. “There was no evidence.”
The calls were transcribed and filed away in a database, until Isaac's death last week.
“We’ve gone through the (family’s) file maybe five or six times asking, ‘What did we miss?’” Balconi Ghezzi said earlier this week. “We haven’t found anything. Our agency has done everything it could.”
Once Erie County deputies complete their investigation, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services has said it plans to investigate Erie County Job and Family Services' involvement with the Brothers-Bartholomew family.
Help Me Grow coordinator Carrie Beier declined to confirm if her agency made one of the calls to job and family services, but she did say her workers would absolutely make that call if they saw any problems.
"If we were aware of something, we would make a call to express our concerns," Beier said.
Her agency has already supplied investigators its files on the Brothers-Bartholomew case. Those files would include the family's plan of action, identifying the younger children's needs and various assessments.
"Those are done periodically, but they can be requested as often as needed," Beier said. "Typically we do annual assessments and six-month assessments."
Help Me Grow has three service coordinators who are licensed social workers, educators or degreed professionals. The Wraparound program also has three workers who handle cases, connecting families with community services and other programs.
In yet another leg of the investigation, deputies continue to probe the role of the Brothers-Bartholomew children's grandmother, who served as their home healthcare provider.
The grandmother called the grandchildren her "clients," and Brothers called his mother the children's "home healthcare provider," Erie County Chief Deputy Jared Oliver said.
The grandmother was responsible for caring for three of the older children, ages 7, 6 and 6, according to deputies.
She was at the home five days a week, eight hours a day. She worked for a healthcare company called Maxim Healthcare Services, where a supervisor was supposed to check in with the family every two months, Oliver said.
The family later agreed to those meetings only after the company threatened to cut off services. Even then the supervisor only met with Brothers and the children's grandmother, while the children were asleep elsewhere in the home, deputies said.
Pick up Saturday's Register for an interview with Brothers' ex-girlfriend.