Before his little body was battered beyond words, before he died in his bed, his teeth clenched in pain, before all of that, there was a letter.
The letter, obtained by the Poughkeepsie Journal, was from the Dutchess County Department of Community and Family Services. Addressed to the boy’s father, it said there had been a “report of suspected child abuse or maltreatment” that would be subject to “a full investigation.” It was dated May 6, three months before Mason DeCosmo, 32 months old, died Aug. 5.
In an ideal world, this two-page document should have protected the Town of LaGrange toddler like a shield. Why it didn’t is a story of an imperfect, overworked system and of circumstances that likely, and appropriately, assigned the case a lower priority.
Tragically, Dutchess County’s Child Protective Services unit – the arm of the department empowered to investigate child abuse – closed its case regarding Mason DeCosmo and his infant brother Jaxon shortly before Mason’s death, according to three sources. Officials, who ruled the abuse report “unfounded,” did not see – and perhaps could not have seen — that another man with a checkered past had entered the children’s lives even as their investigation was ongoing.
Dutchess County officials declined, because of confidentiality restrictions, to discuss the case, and records are not open to the public.
But while it cannot be known what CPS did and did not do to prevent a little boy’s death, there is this: A recent state audit found the unit had a rate of repeated abuse or neglect of children 27 percent above the state’s — a figure the audit said was related to overburdened caseworkers. County officials called the rate “statistically correct” but said it was skewed by over-reporting and did not mean higher safety risks to children.
Mason died, in a mobile home in Milton on a hot summer day, authorities said, at the hands of Kenneth Stahli, 27, his mother’s live-in boyfriend, who has been indicted for second-degree murder, “under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life.” The boy suffered severe internal injuries, a head injury and multiple bruises, according to his autopsy. The boy’s mother, Katlin Wolfert, 22, has been charged in a non-criminal proceeding in Family Court for allegedly failing to protect Mason from horrific injury.
For past Journal coverage of this issue, click here.
Dad played ‘no role’
Louis DeCosmo, 35, recalls his son climbing up on the couch, jumping on his back and tumbling back onto the cushions, a favorite pastime. “I can feel him touching my back as I say this,” DeCosmo, who is blind, wrote in a dictated Facebook post. “I hear his laugh.”
DeCosmo – a father of four who had two sons with Wolfert: Mason and Jaxon, now 12 months old — filed a notice Oct. 28 that he will sue the county for what he alleges is the toddler’s wrongful death. Stahli had been named in two confirmed reports of child abuse in Ulster County, according to Family Court testimony in his and Wolfert’s abuse and neglect cases. And, by several accounts, Stahli’s entrance into Wolfert’s life coincided with the latter part of the CPS investigation in June and before its official close in July.
“If they would’ve done the background checks on Kenny, they would’ve seen [reports of] … abuse to kids,” Louis DeCosmo told the Journal. “How do you not check that?”
According to a fatality report by the state Office of Children and Family Services, DeCosmo played “no role” in Mason’s death. He provided the report and letter to the Journal in an effort to hold CPS accountable.
Wolfert, who declined to speak for this article, has told police she did not know of the abuse at the Ulster County home she shared with Stahli for a month starting in early July. It was there – outside the jurisdiction of Dutchess CPS — that the injuries to Mason were inflicted, according to Family Court testimony. While the case could have been transferred to Ulster County CPS — Wolfert had given CPS her new address, according to both her babysitter and a family friend – the Dutchess probe was well on its way to being ruled unfounded. And Dutchess officials said they transfer cases to other counties only when they can’t or haven’t yet been resolved.
Neighbors on Feller Road in the Town of LaGrange, where Mason DeCosmo lived for about two years, remember him as a rough-and-tumble little boy with an outsized personality, scurrying around in a diaper during his mother’s occasional yard sales. He loved trucks, said neighbor Sherri Olmstead, and would monitor street traffic from the window of the two-bedroom home on a quiet lane of modest houses and mobile homes.
“Hey, man!” he would yell. “Wa goin’?”
“He was a beautiful little boy,” said Olmstead, whose silver pickup, with a blaring choo-choo horn, thrilled Mason. “The smile on the boy was” – here she struggles for words – “he was beautiful.”
Like Olmstead, several neighbors said they saw no obvious signs of abuse of Mason, though they said he and Jaxon, born in December 2013, were out infrequently.
But there were signs of problems: Comments to neighbors by Wolfert and DeCosmo — both off-handed and pointed — that indicated a troubled relationship. Unpaid rent in the thousands. Sheriffs’ cruisers called on at least two occasions.
Records show deputies were summoned to the small vinyl-sided house last May 2 for a “boyfriend/girlfriend domestic,” stemming from an accusation by Wolfert that DeCosmo was having an affair. “When DeCosmo refused to talk about it,” the report states, “she slapped him,” after which he threatened to break a crib. Nonetheless, “There was no threat towards the children or reason to believe they may be a victim of abuse or neglect,” the sheriff’s report concluded.
The incident signaled the end of a relationship that DeCosmo said began in January 2011 at the defunct Badabing Gentlemen’s Club in the Town of Poughkeepsie. DeCosmo, a disc jockey by trade, said he briefly owned the strip club, and Wolfert, 18, tended a juice bar and danced. DeCosmo moved out after the sheriff’s visit, which prompted two other significant developments.
As is standard procedure in domestic-violence cases involving children, the sheriff’s office filed a report with child abuse authorities, spurring the CPS probe. And Katlin Wolfert, a newly single parent who struggled to pay rent — the focus of a second fight and sheriff’s call on May 3, according to a sheriff’s report — took up with Kenneth Stahli, a then 26-year-old father of four from her Ulster County hometown along the Hudson River, Milton.
Beyond the two findings against him of child abuse as an adult, Stahli had troubles as he grew up, according to state police records. In 2003, the trooper records show, a child-abuse report was filed on behalf of three Stahli children – then 10, 15 and 17, with Kenneth in the middle. It had been spurred by a police call involving domestic abuse, records show.
That was not the first such call. The records depict domestic discord in 1995 and 2000 in the Stahli household involving physical violence and, troopers who reviewed the records said, arrests by the Marlborough Police Department. The family suffered further misfortune last month when Kenneth Stahli’s mother, Donna, who lived in Wingdale, died at age 47.
As recently as last February, state police at Wappingers received a report alleging Stahli sent a text message in which they said he threatened to “mirk” – shorthand for harm or kill — an ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend; the woman declined to press charges, according to the report.
When Wolfert left the Feller Road residence in LaGrange in July, two months after Louis DeCosmo had moved out, she and DeCosmo owed $3,540 in unpaid rent and fees, according to court records that also show the couple ordered to pay $7,554 in 2012 from when they lived at a prior address in Poughkeepsie.
Katlin Wolfert’s new life in Ulster County was initially promising. It brought new friends, a shopping foray for an engagement ring, promises of everlasting love on Facebook, and, moreover, a babysitter, Kenneth Stahli, for when she worked a badly needed job.
That new life lasted a little more than four weeks.
Repeat abuse high
Dutchess County’s Child Protective Services unit routinely failed at its mission to root out and prevent repeat abuse from 2007 to 2012, according to a just-released study by the Office of the State Comptroller. In that time, 15.1 percent of children found by the local unit to have been abused or neglected suffered new abuse or neglect within six months, the audit said.
That is triple the acceptable national rate of 5.4 percent and more than a quarter above the state rate. Moreover, the rate has been virtually unchanged since 2007, leading the October 2014 report to conclude: “The County’s actions have not been sufficient to achieve a significant and consistent reduction in its child abuse and neglect recurrence rates.”
County officials said while the recurrence figure is accurate, it doesn’t mean children are at greater risk. More cases may be reported here for two reasons, they said: The county has a rich local social-service network in which workers, as elsewhere, are mandated to report suspected abuse, and court-ordered family investigations are handled here by CPS, but by other agencies elsewhere.
“The state comptroller is very good at numbers,” Robert Allers, commissioner of the Department of Children and Family Services, told the Journal in response to the audit. “He really does not understand caseloads, cases and the workings of a social-service agency.”
Nonetheless, the numbers tell a tale. Looking at eight counties altogether, the comptroller’s study found a single factor driving repeat abuse: high caseloads. Dutchess caseworkers averaged 11.4 cases from 2007 to 2012; in Rockland County, workers had 76 percent fewer cases and a 78 percent lower recurrence rate, the study reported. Ulster County also had a lower caseload, less than 9 per worker, and somewhat lower six-year recurrence rate, 13.4 percent.
Mason DeCosmo’s death would not count as a “recurrence” since officials had ruled the first report of abuse and neglect “not indicated.” But some contend the agency did not look hard enough.
In addition to the CPS report by the sheriff’s office, at least three others told the Poughkeepsie Journal they reported suspected abuse or neglect of Mason and Jaxon during their time at Feller Road. These include Louis DeCosmo’s sister and niece, Dawn and Deanna Geoghegan, and a person not in the DeCosmo family who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of such reports. Dawn Geoghegan, 44, said she called child-abuse authorities after the couple broke up in early May because she feared Wolfert could not manage the children alone. Deanna Geoghegan, 23, said she spoke to an abuse caseworker twice in mid-June; she was prompted by the bitter breakup to report a black eye she had seen sometime earlier on Mason, she said.
CPS visited the Feller Road house perhaps three or four times in the eight weeks from the opening of the case to the move to Ulster County, according to Judith Davies, a close friend of the Wolfert family. She said she has had lengthy discussions of the case with them.
While unable to discuss the case, Dutchess officials said their visiting schedule is based on the perceived severity of suspected abuse or neglect. And records show the DeCosmo case had begun not with a report of child abuse, but with one related to warring parents. Harassment reports, CPS officials said, are commonly made by or on behalf of embittered parents.
“My opinion why nothing happened with CPS is they did the initial investigation and really felt the accusations were unfounded,” said Davies, who did not fault the agency’s oversight.
Next-door neighbor Dominick Wyant, who mowed Wolfert’s lawn and was home most days, said he infrequently saw CPS vehicles visit, which Wolfert had openly acknowledged at one point. “We were very disappointed this happened to this child, and that CPS wasn’t here more,” he said.
Clare Kotacka, who babysat for about five weeks at Feller Road, said just one CPS worker visited from late May through July 4 weekend, when Wolfert, the children and Stahli set up housekeeping in Ulster County.
“I 100 percent believe Mason would be alive right now if CPS did do their job and showed up at that trailer” in Milton, said Kotacka, who said she babysat the DeCosmo children there through July 15. Family Court records list Stahli as “primary child care provider” in Mason’s death report but give no time frame.
Davies and Kotacka said Wolfert had given her new address in Ulster to Dutchess CPS. “She had nothing to hide,” Kotacka said. Davies said a caseworker called Wolfert after the move.
When CPS first became involved when the family lived on Feller Road, Kotacka was subject to a background check, she said — a review she thinks Stahli would not have cleared. “Katlin would have known the type of guy Kenny was and not the front he put on,” she said.
But is it asking too much of caseworkers to know every potential abuser when prioritizing and juggling cases? “You either have to find them when you visit,” said Allers, the county official, “or someone has to tell you.”
“It’s not their job to find out whether or not there’s someone psychotic in her life,” said Davies, the Wolfert family friend, who acknowledged she does not want to help DeCosmo’s lawsuit.
The suit will center on alleged CPS lapses that led to Mason’s “conscious pain and suffering” and wrongful death, papers state. The county “failed to properly investigate and/or do anything regarding the complaints” filed by the DeCosmo family and others, the notice of suit states. “The respondent knew or should have known that the child was being severely beaten and abused.”
When those reports were filed, however, DeCosmo family members told the Journal, Wolfert, not Stahli, was the focus.
In testimony in Wolfert’s neglect hearing, a state police investigator, Dina Pavloudakis, said Wolfert told her she had been involved with Stahli for just a week before they moved in together in early July, a timeframe verified by Kotacka. But Stahli had been around for her last few weeks in Dutchess County, various sources said. He twice babysat for her children in Kotacka’s stead and talked across a fence with the neighbor Wyant, who said Stahli came with a friend around early June and after “came more and more and more.”
A photo posted by Stahli on Instagram in July or August shows Stahli proudly holding Mason, with the Hudson River as a backdrop. The child, wearing mismatched socks and no shoes, appears to grimace, his eyes downcast, one hand clenched in a curled fist. “My masonator,” Stahli wrote.
In Facebook comments, Katlin Wolfert, a slim young woman with highlighted light brown hair and stylish brown glasses, comes off as a woman in love. On July 11, Stahli posted that God had brought them together. “I’m here for the bad, good, and everything in between babe,” she replied. “We got this.”
But while Wolfert worked, it turned out, her child was being savagely brutalized, police have alleged, to a point where Stahli put a knee to the baby’s lower abdomen with such force that it broke the bed the child was lying upon. All because Mason had bit Stahli’s finger and wouldn’t let it go, police said.
That was three painful and agonizing days before Mason’s ruptured pancreas and liver, and other injuries inflicted around that time, caused his death, medical reports show. It was also days after Dutchess County CPS closed its case on the DeCosmo children, according to Louis DeCosmo and what Wolfert told Kotacka and Davies. Ulster CPS only opened its case after the child’s death.
In interviews reported by police and child abuse authorities, a theme emerges to explain Katlin Wolfert’s failure to seek medical attention as her son vomited, was lethargic, exhibited strange bruises and ceased to behave like the effusive child he long had been. She feared losing her children if CPS was called, she told authorities, engulfed as she was in a custody fight with the boys’ father.
That makes CPS both the entity that failed to prevent a baby’s abuse, as DeCosmo believes, and one that in a strange, tragic and unintended way actually abetted it. If that’s true, it isn’t alone.
In another Facebook post on Aug. 3, two days before Mason died, Stahli thanked Wolfert for “always being there, being my helping hand crossing my Rocky road.” He called her “my other half.”
Wolfert hit “like.”
Mary Beth Pfeiffer: firstname.lastname@example.org; 845-687-0792. Twitter: @marybethpf.http://pojonews.co/1AHVbw7