The child who was sexually abused by a Fort Ann man last week had been placed in his care by Warren County Child Protective Services, according to court documents.
CPS placed the 13-year-old girl with Shannon Dickinson, an unrelated man who had a history of heroin abuse.
Weeks later, he was arrested on charges of sexually abusing the girl. Allegedly, Dickinson took her to a hotel in Queensbury and plied her with alcohol, then committed a sex act.
The next day, the girl persuaded Dickinson to take her for a visit to a friend’s house, where she and the friend’s mother called police.
The child’s family came to Family Court this week, stunned that CPS did not send the girl to them, or at least to a certified foster parent.
“Would you put a kid with him?” the child’s father said, adding that he blamed CPS as much as Dickinson for the alleged abuse.
“They’re responsible for it,” he said. “I warned them (about Dickinson’s heroin addiction). I told them something would happen. Why would they give her to him?”
CPS admitted to making one error when it determined who would care for the child.
“At the time of the removal, the department was not aware that (the child’s paternal grandmother) had custodial rights to the child,” the caseworkers wrote in a petition filed in Family Court.
The Post-Star does not identify victims of sex crimes, and is thus not identifying the child’s family.
CPS officials, including the commissioner of the Warren County Department of Social Services, refused to comment on why they placed the girl with Dickinson.
The Warren County Sheriff’s Office said Dickinson is a known heroin addict, who overdosed Dec. 20 after injecting heroin while driving. He is also a twice-convicted felon, spending years in state prison from 1999 to 2004 and 2006 to 2011 for grand larceny.
He lived with his parents and is a paraplegic, the result of a failed suicide attempt decades ago, sheriff’s deputies said.
He was also a friend for a short time of the girl’s family, which is how he met her. Some family members said she asked to live with Dickinson after her maternal grandmother, who had custody, said she could no longer take care of the girl.
Advocates for foster children said CPS should take a child’s wishes into account — but said Dickinson’s criminal past, drug use, medical condition and housing situation were all reasons why he should not have been chosen to care for the girl.
“To be honest, I think those are a lot of issues that would raise flags,” said Christina James-Brown, CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, which is based in Washington, D.C. “It’s a very, very unusual situation.”
She said CPS should have evaluated the situation more carefully.
“Once you make a decision of where you’re going to allow a child to go, there needs to be some kind of assessment: Is the child going to be safe there?” she said.
She added that CPS probably chose Dickinson, rather than a certified foster parent, because the child knew him.
Generally, there’s “a goal of keeping children with people they know and feel safe with,” she said. “But there’s also a strong focus on keeping children safe. You’re always looking for the right balance.”
The child’s living arrangements have also, at times, been under the supervision of Washington County Department of Social Services. Her custody has been a matter for the courts for many years; her mother is in prison and various other family members have had custody at different times.
Her father lost custody last year after allegations that were later determined to be untrue. But his mother, whom he lives with, did not lose custodial rights to the girl.
During the investigation, the child was moved to her maternal grandmother’s house in Queensbury.
Because the maternal grandmother lives in Warren County, that county was overseeing the situation at the time of the sex abuse.
Washington County DSS Commissioner Tammy DeLorme said she could not comment on the case, but said caseworkers must evaluate everyone they approve to take care of a child — even a family member or family friend.
“With kinship, the process is much quicker,” she said. “They do go through vetting, I don’t believe it’s as extensive.”
By state law, caseworkers must conduct background checks. However, state law allows that check to be done after the child is placed with a family member or family friend, known as kinship caregivers. Certified foster parents must pass a background check before a child is placed in their home.
With kinship care, the child’s current guardians must approve of the placement, DeLorme added.
The child’s maternal grandmother confirmed that she said it was OK for the child to go to Dickinson — instead of pushing for her to go to her father, her paternal grandmother, who shared custody, or to a certified foster parent.
The maternal grandmother had been having difficulty with the girl. CPS began offering “preventative services” in February to help keep the girl in the home, according to documents filed in Family Court.
On July 4, the grandmother said she’d had enough.
“(Grandmother) indicated to caseworkers that she no longer wanted the subject child in her care and custody and that she did not want her to return to her home,” caseworkers wrote.
On July 4, the child went to her aunt’s house for the night. The next day, Dickinson picked her up. He called CPS the following day — Monday — to tell them she was in his care, the grandmother said.
“They called me and asked if I thought she was safe. I said yes,” the grandmother said. “I felt she was in a safe place. He’d just gotten out of rehab. I knew he wasn’t doing drugs anymore.”
CPS approved the new arrangement and supported Dickinson’s application for custody.