CBS 6 investigation leads to changes in Chesterfield child abuse reports

Posted at 5:37 PM, May 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-30 22:01:58-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va -- Chesterfield County Social Services is executing a number of improvements to its child protective services (CPS) program after CBS 6's reporting into alleged assaults by teachers against preschool students. Those allegations were dismissed by CPS, causing impacted families to feel "failed by the system."

Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, CBS 6 obtained memorandums containing reviews of the department's handling of reports of child abuse and neglect.

The memos were written by Social Services Director Kiva Rogers and Social Services Assistant Director for Family Services Danika Briggs on April 5 and April 17 and sent to Family Services Supervisor Casey Fillion and Family Services Program Manager Kelly Mahoney.

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Rogers and Briggs wrote that the reviews followed "media scrutiny" and an inquiry from the Virginia Department of Social Services.

They focused on referrals alleging abuse/neglect by a teacher at Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy.

In March, Chesterfield Police announced Lisa Harbilas, a teacher at Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy, was arrested and charged with twelve counts of assault for allegedly physically abusing five students ages five and younger.

According to a search warrant affidavit, Harbilas allegedly slapped the children on their faces, grabbed their necks, spanked them, and pulled their hair. Court documents showed those allegations were documented in CPS referrals.

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One CPS referral was documented in August.

The others were documented in November.

But CPS screened out those cases.

That means CPS workers determined the complaints they received about Harbilas were not valid, and so they dismissed them.

CPS also failed to refer the allegations to Chesterfield Police, despite the state code indicating that CPS must report injuries or threatened injuries to a child to law enforcement and the Commonwealth's Attorney.

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So, when Harbilas was allowed to return to Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy in March, an upset parent took matters into their own hands and went to the police themselves.

Once police became aware of the allegations, months after the assaults allegedly occurred, they investigated, arrested, and charged Harbilas.

Then in April, police announced the arrest of another teacher at the same preschool who allegedly admitted to assaulting two children in December and April. One of those cases was also screened out by CPS.

Upon review of the referrals, Briggs wrote that several "immediate changes" were needed to the CPS intake process, which is the process in which CPS receives complaints.

Those changes included:

  • CPS will not use a timeframe to determine if a complaint is valid because school employees "can continue to pose a threat regardless of how much time has lapsed."
  • CPS will accept second-hand information since reports are coming from school administrators. If reporters reference written statements or video, those records should be requested during intake.
  • A child does not have to be actually injured to validate a complaint. The Code of Virginia states that even the "threat of injury" satisfies the definition of abuse or neglect.
  • All notifications to Chesterfield Police and the Commonwealth's Attorney must occur within two hours and documented in an email.
  • Intake staff must always search an individual's name to look for patterns and identify history on a case.

In her review of the referrals, Rogers found "difficulty with recognizing patterns was identified as a barrier with the intake process."
Briggs said the following steps must be taken to improve the performance of CPS intake:

  • 100% of cases that were screened out must be reviewed by a supervisor until further notice.
  • The Virginia Department of Social Services (which oversees 120 social services localities) will review various types of referrals to assess practices and make recommendations for improvements.
  • CPS supervisors will review current standard operating procedures to ensure compliance with state standards set by VDSS.
  • All intake staff, including supervisors who make screening decisions, must complete several modules of training.
  • A review of the CPS investigations agreement between Social Services and Chesterfield County Public Schools along with a meeting to review and finalize the agreement before the start of the 2023-2024 school year
  • Schools must be reminded of their requirement to report allegations within 24 hours to meet mandatory reporting expectations.

Briggs wrote that the department will have regularly scheduled check-in meetings as changes are made and that all procedures are to be implemented by July 1.
It's still unclear why CPS initially screened out the preschool assault cases.

The records, provided by the Virginia Department of Social Services to CBS 6 through a FOIA request, had the summaries and screening decisions of the referrals redacted.

In an email dated April 5, and obtained by CBS 6 through a records request, Rogers told a county spokesperson that she would be "getting our supervisor and intake team individualized training around the "threat of injury" definition and how to ask better questions and assess those things that are less black and white."

A parent whose child was involved in the incidents at Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy, and wishes to remain anonymous to protect the identity of the child, said they felt these changes were a "step in the right direction."

"It is however unfortunate that media scrutiny was the primary catalyst for the updates to policy. Furthermore, it is concerning that the parents of the victims were the only individuals compelled to seek justice by alerting the police after 1) CPS screened out the initial report without officially investigating, and 2) the school’s investigation resulted in the teacher being put back in the classroom in which the alleged abuse occurred," the parent said in a statement.

They added that they hope the updated procedures will help prevent other families from enduring what they've had to endure. But they're continuing to push for accountability and action from the school district.

To this date, the parent said they still have received limited answers from Chesterfield Schools.

"While CPS seems to have acknowledged and addressed the gaps in their process, they are only a part of the overarching systemic failure to support the victims and their families. Chesterfield County Public Schools and Chester Early Childhood Learning Academy have made minimal effort to reassure families that changes are being made to ensure that abuse will be prevented and that allegations will be taken seriously in the future," the parent said.

They said their trust in the village necessary to raise a child has been shattered by what happened to their child, and they want to see preventative measures put in place so that incidents in which CPS must be notified don't happen in the first place.

"The policy changes by CPS are commendable, however, they do little to help the existing victims and their families," they said.

Rogers was out of the office Tuesday and unavailable for an interview. In a previous interview earlier this month, Rogers said her department is always looking for ways to improve.

“That’s something that we are looking at ongoing and looking at all of our processes and ensuring we have good processes to respond to situations," Rogers said.

In an email dated April 24, Rogers told an official with the state social services department, "Even if we didn't have the situation with the school, we welcome working with... VDSS on any issues that come to your attention regarding our practice. That's how we get better and achieve our mutual goals."

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