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DYFS Caution Kills Boy

March 9, 2006 permalink

In this case from New Jersey, child protectors cautious erring on the side of the child resulted in his death.



Sex case kept little fire victim from a safe haven

DYFS decreed accused grandfather, an ex-Woodbridge cop, could no longer care for Erik

Tucked behind a white picket fence, the house sits alongside a quiet, residential road with a 25-mph speed limit.

On the front lawn, a heart-shaped wooden placard informs visitors they've reached "Grandma and Grandpa's House," with directional signs pointing the way to "Cookies + Milk," "Hugs + Kisses" and "Sleep-Overs."

But the house was off-limits to Erik Sturgis, the 5-year-old who died Saturday in a fire after being left alone at his father's home.

State officials said he could no longer go to his grandparents' house to be baby-sat because his step-grandfather, former Woodbridge police officer Douglas Karlson, 46, was accused of taking lewd photos of a 15-year-old girl and sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy. Karlson denied the allegations and while a DYFS investigation determined Erik was not involved, it concluded Karlson was an inappropriate caretaker for the boy.

As a result, Erik's father, Kevin Sturgis was forced to find other baby sitters, often paying neighbors to watch the child, even though Karlson and his wife, Donna Karlson, a Middlesex County sheriff's officer for 16 years, took care of Erik "for a significant period of time," said Thomas Buck, a Milltown attorney representing the family.

On Saturday, Kevin Sturgis, a 31-year-old single dad, went to work at a supermarket warehouse, leaving his son home alone when their Sayreville house caught fire. Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan said the flames did not touch Erik, but the smoke killed him.

Authorities have concluded the fire was accidental, said Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Thomas Kapsak, but he declined to say how the blaze started and would not reveal whether the boy had access to matches or a cigarette lighter.

"I don't think it would be helpful to speculate about that now," Kapsak said. "We really don't want to conclude anything until we complete our investigation."

Authorities say they are discussing whether to file child endangerment charges against the boy's father but will not make a final decision until the investigation into the fatal blaze is completed, possibly by the end of the week.

Kapsak said police have spoken with Sturgis and described the warehouse shipping clerk as "very cooperative." The prosecuting attorney declined to discuss details of police conversations with the father.

"Obviously, this is a tragic event for everybody and certainly for the father of the child," Kapsak said. "I don't want to put words in his mouth. He's obviously terribly upset."

Yesterday, Karlson, the boy's step-grandfather, said Erik would have been safe at his grandparents' house were it not for DYFS' ruling.

"Pulling me from care was premature. They (DYFS) jumped the gun," Karlson said. "I think they were wrong, but in these situations they have to go overboard. If there's an allegation, the child's gone. That's the bottom line."

The grandmother declined to be interviewed. A computer-printed sign on the door of their Old Bridge home read: "Please respect our time to mourn. No interviews or statements."

DYFS spokesman Andy Williams said it opened a case involving Karlson in May last year and determined Karlson was an "inappropriate baby sitter" for Erik.

"The child's best interest is always the determining factor," Williams said. "If there is a question of the child's safety, obviously we wouldn't place him with that caregiver."

The decision required Erik's father to find alternatives -- and Erik's mother was not an option. Christina Ann Sturgis had been killed in a murder-suicide by Linden firefighter James Hoehman four years earlier.

So Sturgis enrolled his son in preschool and provided DYFS with the name and phone number of a baby sitter he would be using when Erik wasn't at school, Williams said. Satisfied, DYFS closed the case.

Meanwhile, Karlson's troubles were just beginning. The 18-year veteran of the Woodbridge Police Department was suspended from his $80,000-a-year job without pay as charges against him progressed. In September, a grand jury indicted Karlson on charges of official misconduct, child endangerment and aggravated sexual assault.

In January, Karlson's co-defendant, 48-year-old Ann Marie Dobbs of Woodbridge, pleaded guilty for her involvement, but avoided prison under a plea deal in which she agreed to testify against Karlson.

Dobbs told a Middlesex County judge that she was with Karlson when he allegedly photographed a 15-year-old girl over an eight-month period. Police recovered an album full of photos of the girl in various states of undress. In some pictures, she is nude but covers herself with her hands and arms.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office said a 24-year-old man will also be testifying that Karlson sexually assaulted him repeatedly over a four-year period starting 10 years ago.

All that -- and the murder of Erik's mother -- was merely the backdrop against which Kevin Sturgis was trying to care for Erik.

Karlson said Sturgis took a demotion at the Wakefern Food Corp. warehouse in Jamesburg so he could change his work hours and be home with Erik.

"His boss threatened to fire him because he was taking Erik to work with him," said Yolanta Kozlowski, a neighbor.

Karen Meleta, a spokeswoman for Wakefern, said the company has no on-site daycare facility. She said she had no knowledge of Sturgis bringing his son to work or of a threat to fire him for doing so.

Sturgis has declined comment. His neighbor, Kozlowski, said he broke down when visiting her yesterday.

"He's not afraid of (criminal charges) or even thinking about it now," Kozlowski said. "He's more devastated that he lost his son."

Staff writers Susan Livio and Jim O'Neill contributed to this report.

Source: Newark Star-Ledger
referred by Fern