Isaac Matthew Hernandez

Isaac Matthew Hernandez

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CALDWELL — Sylys Hernandez was just days short of turning 3 months old when he died a brutal death at the hands of his father.

At the time of his death, a coroner found that the baby had 26 rib fractures, four fractures in his legs, mouth and lip injuries and significant bruising.

When Sylys died, Susan Dwello knew it wasn't the first time there had been a complaint.

Dwello, program manager for child and family services in the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare's Region 3, had received a previous anonymous complaint that said the baby was being shaken and neglected. Child protective services investigated.

“The difficulty of (anonymous complaints) is that if the department needed to go back or seek more information or other ideas in terms of who may have further information, with an anonymous call, we're not going to be able to do that,” Dwello said.

Sylys' fatal child abuse case in Caldwell exposes some of the limitations child protective services faces.

And while Sylys' case is an extreme one, child abuse cases aren't uncommon in Canyon County.

Canyon County has around 250 criminal cases of child abuse each year. That's about five cases every week.

Canyon County has one of the highest rates of child welfare cases in the area, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

In fiscal year 2016, Health and Welfare's Region 3, which includes Canyon County, had almost as many substantiated cases of child abuse as did Region 4, which has nearly twice the population of Region 3. Region 4 includes Ada County.

WHAT HAPPENED TO SYLYS

Dwello said after the anonymous complaint, child services saw Sylys and spoke with adults involved in the child's care as well as adults who were close to the child. There were no abnormal complaints from those people, she said.

The baby had been seen by a doctor five days prior to the worker's visit. After medical records showed the baby appeared to be gaining appropriate weight, and there were no concerns, the case was cleared. Without any further complaints to child and family services, the state did not have reason to re-evaluate the case, Dwello said.

Sylys died after Isaac Hernandez inflicted what was later deemed to be long-term, brutal abuse. Hernandez was sentenced in August to 27 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to three counts of felony injury to his child. Because the child's cause of death could not be determined, a murder charge could not be filed, according to prosecutors.

At the time of sentencing, the Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney's Office was unaware that Health and Welfare had conducted a full evaluation of the anonymous complaint, said Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker.

Tom Shanahan, spokesman for Health and Welfare, said the department had "no communication or indication from the Canyon County prosecutor that (the prosecutor) wanted info. In fact, we were not aware she was even going to mention our agency and child protection during the hearing, so her comments caught us by surprise."

Health and Welfare said it was Caldwell Police Department's responsibility to inform the prosecutor of the visit, and they were "not certain what was or wasn’t communicated between the prosecutor and Caldwell police, but we do know that law enforcement was aware of our response to the reported abuse referral."

The county disputed Health and Welfare's statement.

"We strongly disagree with the suggestion that IDHW’s decision that there was no actionable abuse at the time of their review somehow reflects a breakdown in communication between the Prosecutor’s Office and the Caldwell Police Department," Decker said. "In fact, this case proves the opposite — that Caldwell PD and the (Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney) have a strong and effective partnership that in this case, and many others, has resulted in a safer community."

Decker went on to say in an email that the county was not blaming Health and Welfare.

"We understand that IDHW made a decision based on a snapshot in time, just as the case we prosecuted was based on a snapshot in time," Decker said. "From a prosecutorial perspective, we believe despite these snapshots in time that there were warning signs. Thanks to the investigative work of Caldwell PD, we were able to present a strong case when the matter was brought to us and we remain pleased with the verdict and sentence."

WORKING TOWARD CHANGE

While the Hernandez case was exceptionally brutal, the Treasure Valley does see higher child abuse rates than some of the other area counties. 

Region 3, where the baby died, includes Adams, Canyon, Gem, Owyhee, Payette and Washington counties. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this region had an estimated population in 2015 of about 272,000 people. About 77,600 of them are children. 

In that region, Health and Welfare saw nearly 4,700 child welfare referrals. Of those, about 1,900 were referred for assessment and 300 were cases in which children were removed from a home. Based on the population, that is about 60.45 referrals per 1,000 children in fiscal year 2016.

Dwello said that over the last five years, the region has seen an increase in child welfare cases, especially in Payette County, but she couldn't attribute the increase to one issue.

Five years ago, Health and Welfare moved to a comprehensive assessment method of looking at child welfare cases. Prior to that, Health and Welfare responded to cases in a way that is similar to law enforcement, meaning looking at the facts of that specific incident, said Dwello. 

“What we've moved to is looking at not what happened in this incident, but what happened historically,” she said.

That would include parent and child functionality, the extent of maltreatment, the vulnerability of the child, and other issues.

The majority of children removed from a home in Idaho are reunited with their family. Health and Welfare reunites all but 28 percent of children with their families. 

New changes include social workers looking at the history of the family and the child, rather than the issue at hand. Many times, there has been a history of referrals that did not meet Health and Welfare's initial criteria.

“We're not just assessing what happened, but we're assessing the family's capacity to keep the child safe,” Dwello said.

Ruth Brown is the public safety and digital first reporter. Contact her at 465-8105 or rbrown@idahopress.com. Follow @RuthBrownNews.

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