Child's decapitation can't be written off

Chevonne Thomas, 34, killed her 2-year-old son Zahree before killing herself, police say.

Some urgency must be added to the investigation of the horrifying death of a Camden child who was decapitated by his mother before she took her own life.

There should be no delay in implementing whatever additional steps the New Jersey Department of Children and Families could take to help it recognize when a parent who seems to be competent to care for a child isn’t.

Just as likely, of course, the investigation may find that no agency could have saved 2-year-old Zahree from his mother, Chevonne Thomas, who had a history of mental illness and drug abuse. But that in no way mitigates the need to find out whether the protection of the 53,000 children under state supervision can be improved.

In a disturbing 911 call a week ago, Thomas told police that she had stabbed her son in their Parkside apartment. Police found the little boy’s torso on the first floor of his home and his head in a freezer. Thomas’ body was found upstairs, where she had fatally stabbed herself in the neck.

The 34-year-old woman twice lost custody of her son in the past two years, once after state workers substantiated neglect charges, and again after she tested positive for the hallucinogen PCP. But she was reunited with the boy last April. A state worker last checked on the mother and child on July 3, four days after she tested clean for drugs. Child-protection workers were preparing to close the case.

In the days following the shocking murder-suicide, the state has been refreshingly forthcoming with details. It said Thomas had successfully completed counseling for substance abuse, mental health, and other issues.

A thorough review will provide more insight. In the interim, questions about the case also cast doubt on the budget-cutting decision two years ago by Gov. Christie to abolish the state Office of the Child Advocate. Perhaps that watchdog agency, created at the height of a child-welfare system crisis, would have recognized a deficiency in evaluating cases like this one before a child was killed.

The Department of Children and Families has been under the supervision of a federal judge since 2003, after being cited for a number of high-profile lapses in oversight, including mishandled cases in which children died.

A recent report noted that with the Christie cuts has come an increase in social-worker caseloads, and that only 55 percent of children under state supervision had received the mandated two documented visits by caseworkers each month. New Jersey must not return to the broken system that led to court supervision. The lives of too many children are at stake.