Did DSS fail Zahra?

Could Zahra's death have been prevented?

That's the question on the minds of Catawba County residents, as well as a state board charged with reviewing child deaths after previous involvement with departments of social services.

"When are we going to make children a priority?" asked Angela Phillips, a former Guardian ad Litem district administrator, who recently retired from the program after 24 years of service.

GAL is an advocacy program for children within the court system. Zahra never made it to GAL, but Phillips said the child could have easily been one of about 500 children within the court system in Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties.

Phillips said since Zahra's case became public, the GAL caseload doubled. The number of people working on the caseload, however, decreased. Phillips' position isn't being filled, and now GAL has a staff of four to serve children in a three-county district.

"We're asking a fewer number of people to cover a greater number of children, and my greatest fear is that we'll have another Zahra," Phillips said.

Although that increase in caseload means more people are concerned about child abuse, that also means more work for fewer staff members.

Phillips expressed concerns that state budget woes will negatively affect funding for child support and advocacy services, like departments of social services and the Guardian ad Litem program.

"It's time for this community to make the child the first priority," she said.

Hickory resident Jimmy McGee agreed. McGee's younger sister was murdered in 1986 after a domestic dispute, and hearing about Zahra's death brings back painful memories.

"For this girl (Zahra) to go through what she did, it's just terrible," said McGee, who followed the case extensively since Zahra was reported missing Oct. 9. "People don't want to get involved anymore; they just don't."

It's that involvement that Phillips is pushing for. She said making Catawba County a safer place for children isn't just about child abuse awareness. Prosecuting those charged with the crimes is another vitally important arm in the justice system, and she said that's one area in which Catawba County is lacking.

"Come to Catawba County if you want to abuse a child," she said. "You won't have any legal consequences."

The State Child Fatality Review Team will review Zahra's case in light of investigations into reported mistreatment against the 10-year-old, who was killed and dismembered in September. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill didn't determine definitively what killed Zahra, writing instead on the cancer survivor's autopsy that she died from "homicidal violence." Zahra's stepmother, Elisa Baker, is charged with second-degree murder in the child's death.

But according to several reports, Zahra's death wasn't the first violent act she encountered at the hands of adults. Departments of social services from Caldwell and Catawba counties released statements Feb. 21 detailing the officials' investigations into Zahra's home life.

Despite reports of abuse from neighbors and family members, assessments revealed "no evidence of maltreatment or child safety issues," according to separate statements from Caldwell and Catawba counties.

Both departments are prohibited by law from making additional statements about the case.

The State Child Fatality Review team, as established in North Carolina General Statute, is supposed to "conduct in-depth reviews of any child fatalities, which have occurred involving children and families involved with local departments of social services child protective services in the 12 months preceding the fatality."

Steps in that process include interviews with individuals and agencies involved in the case, as well as reviewing any written materials related to the case.

"The purpose of these reviews shall be to implement a team approach to identifying factors which may have contributed to conditions leading to the fatality and develop recommendations for improving coordination between local and state entities, which might have avoided the threat of injury or fatality," according to North Carolina general statute.

North Carolina counties also have Community Child Protection Teams, which also are required to review cases in which a child died as a result of suspected abuse or neglect, specifically cases in which child protective services received reports of abuse or neglect within the last 12 months.

The review is typically done about a year after the child fatality occurred, according to Catawba County DSS director John Eller.

"That is completely at the state's discretion," Eller said, adding that 12 months gives reviewers time to gather documents and other information related to the case.

Before North Carolina state officials conduct a review of Zahra's case, residents where Zahra lived and died are conducting their own reviews of the systems and Zahra's case.

"I think it's a shame that DSS didn't do more to help," said Bobbie Sain, of Conover.

Catawba County DSS visited the Baker home in Hickory on three separate occasions in July and August, before determining there was no evidence of child safety issues in the house. Caldwell County DSS also visited the family's residence several times before Catawba County took the case in July when the family moved to Hickory.