Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
A 29-year-old mother accused of killing her 2-year-old toddler had just regained custody of him and three of her other kids earlier this year.
Afriyie Gaspard allegedly strangled her son, Izayah, on Friday. She has been charged with first degree manslaughter.
According to a source familiar with the case, Gaspard had a long history of having her children removed by the city. In 2008, her three oldest children were put into foster care after she was accused of leaving them unattended on two different occasions. The oldest child at the time was three. In 2009, a fourth child was placed in foster care shortly after birth, as was Izayah, who was born in 2010. Gaspard’s youngest child, an 11-month-old baby was not removed.
The source said Gaspard appeared to have been working to get her children back by complying with parenting classes, domestic violence counseling and anger management classes. Eventually, Izayah came home in March of this year and the four older kids were also returned to their mother in June.
The Administration for Children’s Services said it wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the case citing concern for the five surviving siblings, who are currently in foster care. The agency gave information on the typical process followed for children released back to their parents from foster care. ACS spokesman Michael Fagan said, “If a parent is working to improve the issues that brought their children into foster care and showing progress, then we work toward reunification.”
A city official familiar with the case said there was no evidence of prior abuse and unplanned visits by caseworkers had occurred.
“Going from one child at home to six seems like a lot but I wouldn’t want to second guess the caseworker,” said Bill Baccaglini, who runs the Foundling, a local foster care agency. Baccaglini said in two-thirds of his cases, it’s the foster care agency in conjunction with legal guardians for the children that decide whether to return children home. The remaining are usually court ordered.
He said typically when children return home, foster care caseworkers monitor the family for a period of three to six months.
Mike Arsham, with the Child Welfare Organizing Project, which advocates for parents involved in the child welfare system, said once children are returned home, there’s often a gap in services and parents lose the help they were previously being provided.
“That’s a really difficult point in time,” Arsham explained. “Because often the scenario is I have no real bond with this child who was removed at birth and now he’s in his terrible two’s…It’s difficult and stressful.”
He says he often hears from parents who are afraid to tell caseworkers they’re overwhelmed out of fear their children will once again be removed. “It’s a tricky situation,” Arsham said. “If they express trepidation the agency can say ‘Well maybe you’re just not ready to have them back.’”
It only took about five months for things to go wrong with Gaspard and Izayah. Prosecutors say she confessed to putting her hands around his neck for approximately one minute.
Gaspard’s attorney, Edward Muccini, is questioning the videotaped confession, noting in several written statements his client told police her 8-year-old daughter had accidentally strangled Izayah before saying she committed the crime. “What happened in between, what caused her to change her mind,” Muccini asked. “Did the police promise her something? Did the police threaten her? Did they coerce her? It does raise questions in my mind.”
The Queens District Attorney’s office, however, wouldn’t comment on Gaspard’s conflicting statements. Instead, a spokeswoman pointed to the medical examiner’s report which found the child’s injuries were consistent with death by strangulation.