Two months after the brutal beating death of a 5-year-old Cleveland girl at the hands of her mother, the records of the little girl’s care by Cuyahoga County social workers remain cloaked in secrecy.
On April 3, Ta’naejah McCloud’s mother, Tequila Crump, 27, and her mother’s girlfriend, Ursula Owens, 36, were both charged in the beating death of the 5-year-old girl.
Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services confirmed to News 5 that at the time of her death, McCloud was at the center of an abuse and neglect investigation.
Social workers visited the home 8 times in five weeks after the case was opened, according to a county spokesperson. A social worker last checked in with the family three days before Ta’naejah was taken to the hospital in full arrest.
According to court documents, the women "did inflict serious physical harm to a five-year-old child that resulted in seizure, brain injury and subsequently death."
It happened at their home on 10700 block of Bryant Avenue in Cleveland, in front of Owen’s 15-year-old son Rayvon Owens.
“I really tried. I really wanted her to wake up,” Owens told News 5. “But she just didn’t she just stayed unconscious.”
Owens told police he had witnessed his mother and Crump beat and burn the little girl on multiple occasions.
And a News 5 investigation uncovered that it wasn’t the first time that the teen spoke up about the abuse. He told his legal guardian, Sierra Giles, that the girl was being beaten in October 2016.
The Cuyahoga County Department of Child and Family Services confirmed that two calls were received at that time. The case was investigated but the “allegations were not substantiated.”
It wasn’t until a separate complaint was received in February that social workers opened a case. Ta'Naejah died less than two months later.
“You’re a social worker there three days before [her death]. How did you miss it?” Sierra Giles told News 5.
Cloaked in secrecy
But News 5’s repeated requests for records of the abuse complaints made to Children and Family Services and records detailing what Cuyahoga County social workers witnessed during their visits were denied.
A county spokesperson cited Ohio law:
Children services investigations and records are not public records and, further, are confidential by operation of law. SeeState Ex Rel. Clough v. Franklin Cty. Children Servs., 144 Ohio St. 3d 83, 2015-Ohio-3425, Ohio Revised Code Section 5153.17 and Ohio Administrative Code Rule 5101:2-33-21. Further, under Ohio Administrative Code Rule 5101:2-33-21(I), DCFS is prohibited from disclosure regarding a child fatality when such disclosure may jeopardize a criminal investigation or proceeding.
According to the national Child Welfare Information Gateway, Ohio’s laws are some of the most restrictive in the country.
In states like Georgia and South Carolina, Ta’Naejah’s records would have been released upon her death. In North Carolina and Oklahoma, the girl’s records would have been disclosed as soon as Crump and Owens were criminally charged with causing the fatality.
Legal experts like Joel Levin told News 5 Ohio’s restrictions make wrongful death suits against the county nearly impossible to win.
“The system is better off at protecting the secrecy of what it does and guarding its immunity against any lawsuit than it is at always protecting the children,” Levin said.
Levin said that over the years it’s only gotten harder to represent abused and neglected children.
“They expanded the notion of immunity, they made it harder to sue, they sealed more records,” he said.
Dying in the dark
Levin said Ta’Naejah is by no means the first child to die while being monitored by county social workers.
Cuyahoga County homicide records cross-referenced against juvenile court records showed that he’s right.
At least five children who had open abuse and neglect investigations were killed by family members in the last decade, a News 5 investigation found.
“These babies are being murdered underneath the care of CPS,” Giles said. “They’re being murdered and it doesn’t make any sense.”
Giles said she is hoping to push lawmakers to change child welfare public records laws in Ohio.
It’s a push that News 5 investigators first covered in 1997. Twenty years later, critics argued that abused and neglected children are still dying in the dark.