Parents sue Luzerne County and Children and Youth over toddler’s death – Wilkes Barre Times-Leader

The parents of a deceased toddler have sued Luzerne County and its Children and Youth agency in federal court, arguing “sheer incompetence” and lack of oversight caused the boy’s death.

The death of 21-month-old Anthony Puscavage led to the agency’s license downgrade last fall, a state report said.

Wilkes-Barre Attorney Jonathan S. Comitz filed the suit Monday on behalf of Wilkes-Barre residents Nichole Puscavage and Anthony Cook. Puscavage administers her late son’s estate.

According to the suit, the parents allege:

The toddler was removed from his parent’s care around Sept. 13, 2014, purportedly because the heating system was being shut off at their home.

During that month, the boy was declared dependent due to alleged abuse and neglect and placed under Children and Youth’s supervision, care and custody.

Before placing the boy with Cook’s relative, the agency did not adhere to its own regulations and protocol to “adequately and carefully assess the appropriateness” or investigate and obtain background clearances of the caregivers and relatives in this home.

Cook’s relative was “involved in a long prior history” with Children and Youth involving child abuse incidents, resulting in the placement of her own children with the agency and termination of her parental rights.

A “cursory review” of the agency’s internal records would have revealed the “troubling history” and “obvious inappropriateness” of placing the boy with this relative.

The boy’s parents did not have the required opportunity to participate in the development of his family service plan completed in October and never received a copy of this plan so they could dispute or contest it.

“Instead Children and Youth Services disregarded Nichole and Anthony’s legal and parental rights and literally shut them out of the care, protection and safety that they could provide young Anthony.”

Around Nov. 3, 2014, Children and Youth filed a court action to remove the boy from the home of Cook’s relative, and the agency then placed him in the home of his maternal grandmother — again without obtaining background clearances of members of this household.

The maternal grandmother had an “extensive history” of involvement with Children and Youth, including removal of her children from her home when they were minors.

In addition to the boy, the maternal grandmother also had custody of Nichole Puscavage’s three other children. The suit says no allegations of abuse or neglect have been made against Nichole Puscavage or Cook regarding the boy or any other children.

On Jan. 8, 2015, the boy allegedly suffered a head injury that caused a large abrasion on the back left side of his head while he was in the maternal grandmother’s care.

The grandmother found the boy unresponsive on her couch around 9:15 a.m. Jan. 10 and contacted emergency responders, who arrived at 9:36 a.m. and found the boy barely breathing and unresponsive, with a blown pupil.

A CAT scan at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Hospital indicated the boy was suffering from internal bleeding. Surgeons removed blood clots from the left top part of his brain, but he did not survive the surgery and was pronounced dead shortly before noon.

An autopsy revealed “multiple abrasions and contusions in various stages of healing, as well as a history of poor feeding and various other medical problems.” The boy also had a history of bruising and poor growth development, it said.

“Further, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy opined that the injuries sustained to young Anthony, including the chronic subdural hematoma with recurrent bleeding, were due to traumatic abuse over time,” it said.

The suit accuses the county of failing to adhere to its required and mandated safety protocol, policies and procedures and maintains the boy would be alive if he had remained in the care and custody of his parents.

It points to a state Department of Public Welfare report that “clearly disputed” whether Children and Youth assessed the boy’s safety on two dates because language in the assessments had been “shockingly copied” from a previous assessment.

The October 2014 family service plan for the boy also was not signed by a Children and Youth caseworker and supervisor until after the boy’s death, which the suit alleges is “clearly evidencing a conspiracy to cover up” the agency’s “egregious behavior.”

The suit says the agency, as an arm of the county, has an “incredible responsibility” carrying out its power over parents and children throughout the county.

“There must be respect, transparency and cooperation, but in this case there was contempt, secrecy and obstruction. There must be efficiency and accountability not incompetence and dereliction,” it said.

County Acting Chief Solicitor Vito DeLuca said the suit has not been served. When it is, he said he will alert the county council and notify the insurance carrier, which will assign defense counsel.

At the time of the license downgrade, a state report said the maternal grandmother had attributed the boy’s injuries to a fall from the couch and/or banging of his head when he had temper tantrums.

The medical professionals who treated Puscavage that day said neither explanation was plausible, according to the state report, which was part of a review required by state law in all suspected child abuse cases that result in fatalities or near fatalities.

Another state summary of the case said the 21-month-old died as a result of physical abuse and indicated the state Department of Human Services Office of Children, Youth and Families determined the child’s maternal grandmother was the “perpetrator.”

The Center for Children’s Justice had questioned why nobody was charged because the state report provided a detailed description of injuries. The state report said the manner of death was ruled accidental.

County Coroner William Lisman has said his office investigated the case along with the county district attorney’s office and Plymouth Police Department.

The state’s summary of the case said the boy’s parents had been investigated by Children and Youth between October 2010 and January 2014 due to referrals involving two older half-siblings. These allegations were deemed unsubstantiated, but the parents participated in a parenting program.

Another referral in March 2014 prompted Children and Youth to conduct ongoing investigations that led to the November 2014 placement of the boy and his sibling with the maternal grandmother and step-grandfather. The two half-siblings were in the custody of the grandmother at that point.

The complaints about the parents included the condition of their home, their partying and allowing people to stay at their house drinking and playing loud music, fighting between the mother and father, developmental delays of the children, inappropriate dressing of the children and the children ’s frequent illnesses, the state summary said.

During the state investigation, it was determined the boy’s surviving sibling had a fractured clavicle and lower back bruising, and neither grandparent could provide an explanation for these injuries. Both caregivers were found to be responsible for the sibling’s injuries.

The surviving sibling and two half-siblings were placed together in a foster home after the boy’s death .

The state indicated the parents were working with Children and Youth to regain custody of their youngest surviving child.

Services were being provided to the maternal grandmother and maternal step-grandfather to determine if the older half-siblings could return to their care.

County officials stressed they were implementing a corrective plan to address concerns at the agency, including staffing shortages and turnover, following the license downgrade to provisional status.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.


Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.