Failing the children

March 11, 2005

THE POOR little Lechner boys. Everyone failed them, even those who tried not to.

We know something of the sad, often miserable lives led by little Roy and his baby brother, Donald, because now that they are dead, people are talking about what they saw done to them. Still, the courts stay stubbornly silent.

Maybe the neighbors who said they saw Roy's mother, Denise, dropping him or leashing him to the house, or who said they saw the 3-year-old wandering the streets alone at 1 a.m. - maybe they could have done more than call the Department of Social Services. Maybe Roy Sr., the boys' father, could have tried harder to keep them safe. Maybe DSS could have used emergency powers to take Roy from his home. Certainly the court's decisions - to return 6-month-old Donald home, then three months later to keep Roy there - were fatally wrong.

Denise Lechner has been charged with child abuse in little Roy's death, a charge that might be upgraded to murder. Police also are investigating the November death of baby Donald, who suffered, according to his autopsy form, a "sudden unexplained death in infancy."

Last year, social workers went repeatedly to the house and once took Donald away. Because those juvenile court proceedings are closed, it's not clear why the court rejected DSS' recommendation that the baby not be returned to an obviously dysfunctional family or, later, its recommendation that Roy be taken into foster care. Donald died the day after he was returned home in November. His brother fared better - he lived 18 days after the court ruling.

At Roy's funeral Wednesday, friends and family grieved and cried. They took comfort in the idea that he was joining his baby brother in the heavens. But we find scant comfort in one child following another needlessly into death. And we have little faith that this horrifying failure, shrouded in secret, won't be repeated.

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