More questions than answers in N.J. child welfare dept’s handling of Chevonne Thomas case

Chevonne Thomas, 34, during her 2010 arrest.

Toxicology results revealing PCP and marijuana in the system of 34-year-old Chevonne Thomas, who in August decapitated her 2-year-old son Zahree and placed his head in a freezer before slitting her own throat, raised more questions about why the Camden woman was entrusted with the child’s care after he was twice removed from her custody due to substance abuse.

“PCP can, in general, lead to people having delusional, aggressive behavior,” Camden County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Jason Laughlin said. “That’s something we’ve seen on a pretty regular basis.” He said that Thomas’ drug use appears to have been chronic. “We know through investigation that she did have a PCP habit.”

Zahree Thomas was taken into state custody in November of 2010 when the New Jersey Department of Children and Families received allegations that Thomas had left him in a car unattended while high on PCP-laced marijuana, according to a DCF release in August. Zahree was again removed in August of 2011 after Thomas tested positive for PCP during a random drug screening. Each time, the child was returned after eight months.

“I think we would question what happened during those eight months,” said Cecilia Zalkind of nonprofit Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “What did the state do to maintain and monitor the relationship between the child and parent?”

Thomas last tested clean for drugs in June. She was visited by a DCF worker the month before the brutal killing, after which the department was preparing to close the case. “I think that’s one area where we would have a lot of questions,” Zalkind said. “What were the assurances the child was safe and the state could step out completely?”

She said Advocates for Children has more questions than answers, in part because the DCF denied their requests for information regarding the nature of treatment provided to Thomas. “It’s been disappointing that information has not been shared – quite a lot of time has passed,” Zalkind said. “We’re talking about very young children who are particularly vulnerable – they’re totally dependent – and I think examining what happened in this case would be critical to other kids in state care.”

The DCF has also not yet made public any findings from an internal investigation launched into the case’s handling in August. Officials with the department did not return calls for comment.  

“This is a horribly tragic case,” Zalkind said. “What could we learn from it? Were there issues that could be handled in a different way, systemically? Does it point to a need for broader change? I think that’s why it’s important to get that assessment done and release that information publicly.”

Laughlin said his office has no plans to launch its own criminal probe of possible shortcomings or procedural oversights on the part of the DCF. It’s a closed case,” he said. “The crime was a homicide and the person that committed it is dead, so unfortunately our work is done on it.”


Tragic timeline

According to a statement released by the DCF in August:

– Zahree was first taken into state custody on November 28, 2010 after the DCF received allegations that Thomas had left Zahree unattended in a car while under the influence of PCP-laced marijuana. Thomas regained custody on July 11, 2011 after successfully completing substance abuse, mental health and other forms of counseling.

– Thomas again lost custody on August 2, 2011 when she tested positive for PCP during a random drug screening. Zahree was returned on April 3, 2012 after Thomas passed several random drug tests and participated in therapy, visitation and medication monitoring programs.

– Thomas’ last clean urine test was on June 28 and she was last visited by a DCF caseworker on July 3, the month before the slaying.

– The DCF was preparing to close Thomas’ case after reviewing it on July 23. “Our ongoing review does not reveal that any support systems involved with Ms. Thomas had any indications of relapse or noted any behaviors that could foreshadow harm to Zahree,” the department said in a release.


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