The New Jersey Department of Children and Families this week rejected a request from a child-advocacy group for records on the state's handling of the case of Zahree Thomas, 2, whose mother killed him last month.
Chevonne Thomas, 34, committed suicide shortly after decapitating her son. She called 911 at 12:11 a.m. Aug. 22 to report his death and, after initially blaming her boyfriend, admitted to a dispatcher that she had stabbed Zahree.
The department had been monitoring the Camden woman, who had a history of mental illness and drug abuse.
Twice since 2010, its workers had removed Zahree from his mother's care. He was returned to her in April and, after she tested clean for drugs in June, the department was ready to close the boy's case.
DCF has released some information - more than it is legally required to and more than has been released in past cases. But it did not give a detailed view of the department's interactions with Thomas and the quality of the steps it took to ensure Zahree was safe at home with his mother.
"We want to understand what happened in this case," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
The group asked for records Sept. 18 on 10 aspects of the case, including the substance abuse, mental health, and other services the department provided to Thomas between Nov. 28, 2010, and Aug. 22, 2012; risk and safety assessments; and plans the department made for Zahree while "transitioning him home after both placements in foster care," according to the records request.
The state denied each of the requests Advocates for Children made, citing state and federal law.
"The New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) must maintain the confidentiality of all records or reports of child abuse," the department said in a statement.
Zalkind said it wasn't her organization's intent "to use this case to indict an entire system, but it should be used to really look at what happened. . . . How was this assessed when the decision was made to return the child to his mother? What was done when he was sent home? What were expectations of the mother?"
The DCF may have done everything it could as well as possible in the Thomas case, Zalkind said, "but we don't know that."
In the statement, the department said that its own investigation of the Thomas case was continuing and that, as is routine with child deaths, the state's Child Fatality and Near Fatality Review Board also would conduct a review.