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June 1, 2006 permalink
In the huge workload of cases taking children from parents without cause, it is easy to overlook the occasional case of a child who genuinely needs help. In this case in New York City, that failure resulted in a tragedy.
Help vow too late to save bus girl
The father of the boy whose school bus prank killed 8-year-old Amber Sadiq says he finally got a letter promising desperately needed help for his troubled son — on the day of the tragedy.
In an exclusive interview, Brooklyn dad Albert James said he had been trying for 16 months to get after-school day care help for his 8-year-old son, who has serious behavioral problems.
"If I would have gotten these vouchers before, maybe this would have prevented the accident from happening," said James, 25.
The dad also charged that the boy was improperly booted from school and that officials ignored his pleas just hours before the accident to let the child return — a contention a source familiar with the situation denied.
James spoke to the Daily News days after his son sneaked onto an empty school bus and released the emergency brake — sending the vehicle hurtling into his schoolmate as she walked home from Public School 161 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, last Monday.
On Friday, city officials, in keeping with the wishes of Amber's forgiving family, declined to charge the boy.
James describes his son as shocked, sorry and uncomprehending of "what he has done."
"I just want my son to get the proper help and hopefully put this all behind me," he said. "I'm very sorry for the loss of Amber. Words can't express how I feel. ... It broke me down in tears."
The father of three said he got the long-awaited letter from the Administration for Children's Services approving him for "daycare services for the children so they remain safe" on the day Amber died.
In a statement, ACS acknowledged working with the father since January last year, providing parenting, medical and other aid, and said it was evaluating its services.
The single father said he's worked nine hours a day to support his sons since their mother, Sophia Morales, left last year for Florida. His 7-year-old lives with him, and his 5-year-old is staying with family in Trinidad.
On Friday, James and Morales agreed to put their 8-year-old son in a therapeutic foster home.
Lacking money for child care, James said, he had to depend on the boy's ailing great-grandmother to care for his active, uncontrollable boy during the day.
She was watching him last Monday when she fell asleep. He sneaked out of the house and onto the school bus shortly after 3 p.m. Why the boy wasn't in school is a matter of dispute. James said his son had been suspended — for trying to climb aboard another school bus three days before Amber's death.
James said that just hours before the tragedy, he went to the school to meet with PS 161 officials — and was told the boy could not return to school without a letter from the regional superintendent.
That would violate Department of Education policy, which forbids schools barring elementary school children. Suspended children are supposed to be assigned to detention rooms.
A Department of Education spokesman declined comment. But a source familiar with the situation denied that any official barred the boy from school.
Last year, officials at PS 161 diagnosed his son as needing special education, James said. At first he winced at the label and refused services. Months later, he said, he went back and asked for help.
"He had behavioral problems, it was never fights. Just not listening, and running around. They won't let him come on school trips," he said.
Among the boy's 40 absences this year are at least three week-long suspensions and other days he was told the boy couldn't attend unless a guardian could stay, James said.
"They say he just runs around and they're not going to chase him," he added.
James, who was born in Crown Heights, said he got his GED and finished a two-year business school program with a 3.3 GPA in January 2005, then began working as an office manager for a law firm. He hopes to become an engineer.
Next door to his building is Amber's home, where her aunt Lucy Caba recalled James as a mischievous, mean child who also pulled pranks — like sending false fire alarms.
"I can't remember that stuff," he said. "But look at me now. I've been paying taxes since I was 14. Everyone knows I'm a hardworking father. I don't hang out on streetcorners."
Heartfelt card is sent to grieving kin
Albert James said he had wanted to visit Amber Sadiq's family and apologize to them from the moment he learned his son was responsible for the 8-year-old Brooklyn girl's death.
But he was tormented by what the appropriate move would be — and whether the family would accept his message.
James, 25, finally bought an American Greetings card on Wednesday, and got it to Amber's family on Saturday.
"Our hearts go out to you in deepest sympathy," read the greeting. "Although it is hard to put into words what we would like to say, our thoughts of deepest sympathy go out with you today."
James added these words: "Our heartfelt condolences to your family. We are deeply sorry for your loss. ... To the Sadiq family, with lots of love."
Amber's stepfather, Wascar Herrera, offered this simple message to James: "Thank you for the card."
Nancie L. Katz
Source: New York Daily News