Local News

Girl's death could impact state programs to protect children

Posted November 24, 2009 3:30 p.m. EST
Updated November 24, 2009 11:20 p.m. EST

Shaniya Nicole Davis

— The death of a 5-year-old Fayetteville girl is already resonating through hallways of the Legislative Building, where lawmakers say state programs designed to protect children need more support.

Shaniya Nicole Davis was reported missing from her home on Nov. 10. Her body was found in a patch of kudzu off a rural road near the Lee-Harnett County line six days later.

She died of asphyxiation, according to preliminary autopsy results.

Mario Andrette McNeill, 29, of 2613 Pine Springs Drive, has been charged with first-degree murder, first-degree rape of a child and first-degree kidnapping in the case. Police have characterized him as a family acquaintance.

Shaniya's mother, Antoinette Nicole Davis, 25, has been charged with human trafficking, felony child abuse–prostitution, filing a false police report and obstructing a police investigation. Arrest warrants state that Davis "did knowingly provide Shaniya with the intent that she be held in sexual servitude" and "did permit an act of prostitution with Shaniya."

The Cumberland County Department of Social Services previously looked at Davis with regard to her 7-year-old son, according to family members. But it's unclear how much contact DSS workers had with the family because the agency has declined to release information related to the case, citing the criminal investigation and privacy concerns.

Lawmakers said Tuesday that they wonder if DSS could have done more to intervene and prevent Shaniya's death, but they acknowledged that deep budget cuts have left the system poorly staffed.

"Our child protective services are really not adequate at all," said state Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, who chairs the appropriations committee for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

"When we face a budget cut, it's often the programs that serve children that are overlooked. They're the first to be cut and the last to be restored," Insko said.

DSS agencies face growing caseloads and high turnover among young, inexperienced staff, she said – a combination that can become dangerous.

Last year, 58 children were homicide victims in North Carolina, and authorities deemed children had been abused in 33 of those cases. It's unclear in any of the cases whether the abuse was known beforehand or came to light only after the child died.

"What we need to do is to prevent the crime from happening. That's where the focus needs to be," said state Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake.

Ross served on a study committee three years ago that made recommendations to improve Child Protective Services programs in the state. In this year's budget, $900,000 was included to provide extra training for social workers.

She said she hopes that lawmakers will remembers Shaniya's death when the General Assembly reconvenes next May and that it will provide an impetus for improving Child Protective Services programs.

"Any kind of situation like the one we've seen in Cumberland County is unacceptable," she said. "Investing money in preventing child abuse and investigating incidents of child abuse has not become the priority that it needs to be."