October 21, 2005
An Infant Dies Suddenly at a Child Welfare Office
By RICHARD LEZIN JONES and TINA KELLEY
(must subscribe to NY Times to view original article)
A month-old baby boy who was in foster care suddenly stopped breathing
yesterday at a Newark office of New Jersey's child welfare agency and died a
short time later, the authorities and child welfare officials said last
What caused the death of the child, Zaire Knott, remained unclear late
yesterday. Newark police detectives said that they would treat the case as a
homicide, a routine step, until they received autopsy results. The child
welfare agency, the Division of Youth and Family Services, also opened an
investigation, as did the state's child advocate, Kevin M. Ryan.
Child welfare officials said a preliminary review showed that they had
received no allegations that Zaire, who was brought to the office for a
visit with his biological mother, had been abused or neglected.
"At this point, we don't think that there is anything improper," said Andy
Williams, a spokesman for the State Department of Human Services, which
oversees child welfare. Mr. Williams said that child welfare investigators
were focusing on whether Zaire had an adverse reaction to two vaccines - for
Hepatitis B and polio - that he had received during a regular check-up by a
pediatrician hours before he died. Medical experts said yesterday that it is
extremely rare for children to die because of bad reactions to vaccines.
Zaire's death comes at a time when New Jersey's child welfare agency is
already reeling from a report released by an independent review panel last
week that found state officials were not making sufficient progress in
putting a court-ordered reform plan in place.
The overhaul of the system, which began two years ago and has already cost
the state more than $300 million, was part of the settlement of a
class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the state's foster children by a
child welfare reform advocacy group.
After the review panel released its findings, the advocacy group, Children's
Rights Inc., asked a federal judge to intervene in the overhaul of the
system, a step that could lead to the agency being placed in receivership.
One of the review panel's findings was that just a third of the children who
should have received routine medical check-ups had actually done so. In
court papers, Children's Rights cited those findings and warned that
children in the state's care were suffering "immediate" and "irreparable"
Yesterday, Susan Lambiase, associate director of the group, said that
Zaire's death raised questions about the agency's handling of the child's
"Was there something obvious about this baby's case that should have caused
them to be more careful with and pay attention?" she said. "It could just be
one of those things that happens. But when the state takes a child into its
custody, it has a responsibility."
Child welfare officials said that records showed Zaire had received all the
required medical exams since his birth and was given a clean bill of health.
There were no problems found during Zaire's doctor's visit yesterday
morning, although an official said that the child was coughing.
However, around noon, while waiting for Zaire's biological mother to arrive
at the child welfare agency's third floor office at 153 Halsey Street,
workers noticed that he was taking labored breaths and had a bloody nose.
Moments later, Zaire stopped breathing and lost consciousness.
"They took him upstairs to the nurse, who performed C.P.R.," Mr. Williams
said. Paramedics were called and they took the child to St. Michael's
Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 12:46 p.m.
Leticia LaComba, the deputy director of the child welfare agency in northern
New Jersey, said that grief counselors were summoned after the incident.
"These are strong, resilient people on our staff," she said, "but it was
painful for them to see another human being die before their eyes,
especially a baby."
Child welfare officials refused to identify Zaire's foster family. They
refused to provide details about his biological mother, but acknowledged
that her history with the agency had compelled it to take custody of the
child at birth.
Medical experts said yesterday that it was "very, very rare" for infants to
die after vaccination. "I don't have the literature, but in 20 years of
practicing medicine, I've never seen a case of a baby dying as a result of a
vaccine," said Dr. Gregory A. Poland, chief of the Mayo Vaccine Research
Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, N.Y.
Officials said that preliminary autopsy results could be available today.