The death of four-year-old Aaron Benjamin Jr. last October, allegedly at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend, “rocked the Human Services Department as well as rocking the territory,” Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez said, and prompted the department to initiate an audit of itself to find out what went wrong.
Speaking Tuesday at a Government House news briefing, Causey-Gomez was short on details of exactly what went wrong in the death of Aaron, but said the department was now doing everything to make sure it did not happen again.
She said that the audit showed no negligence by department staff, but it did show weaknesses in the department’s structure and policies.
At the time of the four-year-old’s death in mid-October his mother, 29-year-old Delicia Daniel, and her boyfriend, 22-year-old Kyle Christopher, were arrested.
Christopher was charged with child abuse and Daniel with child neglect. They pleaded not guilty at the end of October.
As a result of the audit, her department is instituting internal staffing changes and intensive training, Causey-Gomez told the Source and the Avis, the only two media represented at the briefing.
She cautioned that there are limits to what her department can do. She said child neglect and child abuse happens all the time. She said she saw it at the Carnival parades and at Carnival Village.
“If you see something, say something,” she said. “If you hear, see or suspect abuse or neglect of a child, please call DHS Intake at 340-772-7119 on St. Croix and 340-774-0930 ext. 4264 on St. Thomas.”
Causey-Gomez said the internal audit and investigation of the department was necessary to determine how department practices and policies could be changed to help prevent future tragedies involving children in the territory.
“DHS staff have begun participating in local and national trainings with federal and non-federal national partners, to include peer-to-peer onsite knowledge exchange,” she said.
But it doesn’t stop there, Causey-Gomez said.
“Technical assistance is underway to complete a review of the Virgin Islands statutory Children’s Policy, in an effort to identify areas in need of federal compliance as a vehicle to inform needed upgrades to the local practice model for child welfare,” she said.
This will include establishing a Child Fatality Review Panel of multiagency experts to facilitate expeditious, transparent and ongoing assessment and investigation of incidences to help aid in prevention.
Prevention is the goal, the commissioner said. She never wants to see a death like Aaron’s again.
“In the coming months, we will also be assertively engaging with key community partners to help educate and empower our community to play a role in protecting children,” she said.
Although her department was not found negligent in Aaron’s case, Causey-Gomez, as a result of changes brought about by the audit, said disciplinary actions have been taken to address deficiencies by some staff in the execution of their duties. But she added that HIPAA regulations prevented the department from sharing additional details.
“While sadly, no one individual and no one government agency can definitively prevent abuse and neglect from occurring, we can, and must all know the tools and resources available to intervene if we suspect it.”