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Accountability in the death of Jordan Brooks, Oswego County teen with cerebral palsy

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There is accountability to be claimed and accountability to be assigned in the tragic story of 17-year-old Jordan Brooks of Palermo, who lost more than half his body weight, weighing just 55 pounds in the months leading up to his death.

Brooks lived with Cerebral Palsy, a broad name for a group of disorders that affect the ability to move and maintain balance and posture.

Authorities say he died of malnourishment and sepsis, with exposed bones and sores covering his body and with a useless, rusty, urine-stained wheelchair with a moldy seat.

The circumstances surrounding his death are sickening.

There are heroes in this story though, whose efforts to save Brooks at times either fell on caseworkers who didn’t want to hear it or who were openly hostile and annoyed by the complaints about his welfare.

These heroes are caring staff in the Mexico School District who knew Brooks was in trouble for years.

The legal case brought against Brooks’ mother and stepfather for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide details how staff members put a mark on Jordan’s diaper on a Friday and when the school week began again on Monday, the mark was still there.

It was the same diaper.

RELATED | Oswego County CPS caseworker warned Legislature in January about 'potential for tragedy'

School staff members are mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect. It’s their job to raise the alarm when they believe an alarm should be raised.

These employees did, time and time again; Oswego County Social Services responded in a similar manner.

Many months after Jordan’s death, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services filed a child fatality report, which read in part:

“The allegations and concerns were not fully explored. Jordan was not asked about sores on his body or toileting. The moldy and stained wheelchair was not addressed. School staff’s concerns were not addressed with the mother or stepfather. Oswego County Department of Social Services (DSS) did not follow up with Jordan’s mother to ensure she was utilizing the appropriate incontinent supplies.”

Over the weekend, dozens attended a vigil at Mexico High School to honor Jordan’s life.

Many of them treated the vigil as the closest thing they could get to a funeral service, as they said there was no public celebration of his life last spring after his death.

CNY Central has not been able to uncover an obituary on Jordan.

At the vigil, Jordan was remembered for his smile, his sarcasm, and his kind attitude toward others.

“His personality was one of...he was just a kind, loving kid that had a great sense of humor, loved sarcasm, and was just really focused on helping others and took great joy in that,” said Mexico resident, David Manley.

While many people brought stories about him, they also brought anger over what happened to him.

“He was a bright young man with an infectious smile, even through his struggles,” said Mexico resident Tammy Nipper during the vigil. “He would often express frustration in his body not working correctly, but never did it stop him from trying to complete the things that were challenging for him.”

“If you want to make a difference, leave here and create Jordan’s law, leave here are create a law that will protect children, leave here and be the voice that’s louder than everybody else,” Nipper continued.

The death of Jordan Brooks reveals what many have known but few want to talk about: Being a child in Oswego County is a risk factor.

While so many parents and caregivers are doing the right things - showing love in all the right ways – many are not.

Children in Oswego County are being abused and mistreated at three times the rate of other children across the state.

Yet, the Oswego County Legislature only felt the need to add one senior caseworker and no frontline caseworkers in the most recent budget.

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Nothing about the current state of the DSS in Oswego County should come as a surprise to anyone who is in charge of running it, working in it, or overseeing it.

In fact, the commissioner has been raising concerns about staff turnover since at least 2017 when she told a committee of the legislature that the turnover rate was a crisis.

This begs the question: If Oswego County Department of Social Services Commissioner Stacy Alvord had been raising the alarm for so long and if she was aware of the trouble brewing at the office she’s in charge of, why not say something to us when she had the opportunity?

Instead, Alvord issued a statement saying how her heart breaks for all those who cared for and loved Jordan and saying “we are doing all we can” to assure this never happens again.

At about the same time the commissioner was trying to get away from CNY Central’s reporter, the county was issuing a statement in her name.

That statement said the DSS takes full responsibility for not verifying and assuring Jordan’s medical needs were being met and goes on to say the caseworkers relied on the mother’s word and shouldn’t have trusted that she would get Jordan help if he needed it.

Commissioner Alvord runs a department of caseworkers who are responsible for vetting abuse and neglect reports.

Who among us has not worked in a system where some people are more effective in their jobs than others? Who among us has not seen someone leave a job or be let go because they are not a good fit?

One person – maybe several people in a large system can be problematic employees – that's life.

It’s also why the DSS has a commissioner, someone in charge of holding the staff accountable.

The evidence uncovered so far does not lead to a conclusion that this is a couple of bad apples; it’s the whole tree.

It’s system-wide, and we’ll be watching, and questioning as outrage over Jordan Brooks turns to action.

Before taking any responsibility, The DSS made it clear that Jordan’s mother and stepfather were in charge of his care.

When we went to the family home in Palermo last week, we had many questions, including why Jordan’s parents failed to get him a required swallow test to keep his Cerebral Palsy in check and ensure he would get proper nutrition without choking.

Jordan’s stepfather, in a very brief conversation with CNY Central Anchor Megan Coleman, seemed most focused on what he considered to be unfair media coverage of his stepson’s death and the arrest of him and his wife.

Any comparison of Jordan’s death to the death of Erin Maxwell in 2008 was simply not right, he said, because his house is clean.

The murder of Erin Maxwell was not simply about housekeeping.

To suggest so is a mischaracterization and does nothing to understand the mountain of problems and failures that were uncovered afterward.

Erin’s murder exposed filthy living conditions and a home life that many would consider torture.

She was hungry and the criminal case against Jordan's parents says Jordan was malnourished too.

Jordan Brooks was 3-years-old when Erin Maxwell was killed by her stepbrother; after her death, community outrage led to action.

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The changes after Erin’s death were supposed to ensure kids like Jordan didn’t slip through the cracks.

Oswego County started a Child Protection Advisory Council to boost training and make sure everyone at DSS was following regulations.

The department also hired more caseworkers to reduce caseloads.

Social services changed some procedures regarding how it communicates with schools and there was also a change in leadership as the Commissioner of Social Services was replaced.

So, what happened to those changes?

Can anyone calling for change again be confident we won’t wind up in this same place?

Those interested in what the DSS in Oswego and every other county in New York is up against when it comes to abuse and neglect will find the narrative the state keeps on the death of every minor by county.

Since the death of Jordan Brooks, CNY Central has uncovered the death of a baby girl in Palermo from 2021.

The child was in rigor mortis by the time 911 was called and had a recent broken wrist and forearm among other injuries to her face.

All the adults in the home – the mother, her boyfriend, grandparents, and two uncles – are listed in the child fatality report as “alleged perpetrators.”

No one has been arrested for the 1-year-old's death.

Incidentally, these child fatality reports are put together by the Office of Children and Family Services, which is looking at an $800 million cut in funding if the state budget passes as it is now.

A petition calling for the Commissioner of Social Services in Oswego County to be removed from her position is now making rounds, but already the beleaguered department is acknowledging its failures before anyone really investigates its shortcomings.

Social Services will work with a visiting nurse service to evaluate medically frail children; but, will that make a difference.

In the meantime, the criminal justice system will speak for Jordan Brooks.

The focus here is solely on his parents and there has not been a whiff of an allegation of criminal wrongdoing on the part of anyone at social services.

The failings there, at this point, appear to be systemic and moral. All of it is wrapped up in policy, procedure, law, and confidentiality that make it very difficult for anyone on the outside to gauge the true extent of what’s going on and where change is needed.

RELATED | Proposed changes for Oswego Social Services came after 2021 review

The Oswego County Sheriff’s Department has not answered our questions about why the criminal case against Jordan’s parents took all this time to build.

However, it is worth noting that without charges against them, few people outside a small circle of politicians and the DSS itself would know anything about this: Jordan Brooks would have disappeared.

We’d never know that a Child Protective caseworker last had eyes on him one month before he died, and that person didn’t note any concerns about how he looked or his health in general.

Without the law enforcement piece of this - the arrest of the parents – the Oswego County Department of Social Services might have had the last word.

As a rebuttal to the state’s Child Fatality report, the DSS said, “Given high caseload size, significant staffing issues, and the worldwide pandemic, we will do our best going forward.”

The rebuttal by the county’s DSS to a list of failings doesn’t even rely on the eyes and ears of its own caseworkers: It refers to “several service providers.”

The Chairman of the Oswego County Legislature, which has oversight of the DSS, told CNY Central there will be a full-blown investigation into how they handled the case of Jordan Brooks.

Much of this is still being formulated, but already State Assemblyman Will Barclay had indicated he is ready to step in and help and may even call for his own independent investigation if he does not like or trust what’s going on at the local level.

Whatever any investigation turns up, it won't clear up some fundamental misunderstandings about how social service works – or the limits of its power.

The same was true after Erin Maxwell’s murder and the same will be true after this.

But, community understanding of the intricacies of Child Protective Services is a matter for another time.

The urgent concern is for all of the hundreds of children whose names exist in caseworkers' reports, just as Jordan’s did.

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All of those children may be in danger as we speak.

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