The family members of 21-month-old Anthony Puscavage pointed blame on Monday, the one-year anniversary of his death from bleeding in the brain.
His parents, Wilkes-Barre residents Nichole Puscavage and Anthony Cook, filed a federal lawsuit Monday morning against Luzerne County and its Children and Youth agency, alleging that “sheer incompetence” and lack of oversight caused the boy’s death.
Cook’s stepsister, Patricia London, who lives in the Wilkes-Barre area, held a candlelight vigil for the deceased child on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre on Monday night, calling for charges to be filed in the boy’s death and criticizing the boy’s parents for seeking financial gain through a suit.
Puscavage’s death led to the downgrading of Children and Youth’s license to provisional status last fall, with the state citing “serious concerns” and “regulatory violations” discovered through inspections.
The state Department of Human Services Office of Children, Youth and Families had concluded the boy died as a result of physical abuse and determined the child’s maternal grandmother was the “perpetrator.”
The county Coroner’s and District Attorney’s offices investigated the case with the Plymouth Police Department, but no charges have been filed. The death was ruled accidental, although county officials say the matter remains under review.
The parents’ suit, filed by Wilkes-Barre attorney Jonathan S. Comitz, alleges:
The toddler was removed from his parents’ care in September 2014, purportedly because the heating system was being shut off at their home. The boy was declared dependent that month due to alleged abuse and neglect and placed under Children and Youth’s supervision, care and custody.
Before placing the boy with Cook’s relative, the agency did not adhere to its own requirements to fully assess and investigate the caregivers and relatives in this home.
Cook’s relative was “involved in a long prior history” with Children and Youth involving child abuse incidents, resulting in the placement of her own children with the agency and termination of her parental rights.
In November 2014, Children and Youth filed a court action to place the boy in the home of his maternal grandmother — again without obtaining background clearances of this household’s members.
The maternal grandmother had an “extensive history” of involvement with Children and Youth, including removal of her children from her home when they were minors.
On Jan. 8, 2015, the boy allegedly suffered a head injury that caused a large abrasion on the back left side of his head while he was in the grandmother’s care.
The grandmother found the boy unresponsive on her couch around 9:15 a.m. Jan. 10 and contacted emergency responders, who arrived at 9:36 a.m. and found the boy barely breathing and unresponsive, with a blown pupil.
A CAT scan at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Hospital indicated the boy was suffering from internal bleeding. Surgeons removed blood clots from the left top part of his brain, but he did not survive the surgery and was pronounced dead shortly before noon. State reports indicate the death occurred Jan. 11.
An autopsy revealed “multiple abrasions and contusions in various stages of healing, as well as a history of poor feeding and various other medical problems.” The boy also had a history of bruising and poor growth development, it said.
“Further, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy opined that the injuries sustained to young Anthony, including the chronic subdural hematoma with recurrent bleeding, were due to traumatic abuse over time,” it said.
The suit accuses the county of failing to comply with its mandated safety protocol, policies and procedures.
It points to a state Department of Public Welfare report that “clearly disputed” whether Children and Youth checked the boy’s safety on two dates because language in those assessments had been “shockingly copied” from a previous assessment.
The boy’s parents did not have the required opportunity to participate in the development of his family service plan and never received a copy of this plan so they could dispute or contest it.
“Instead Children and Youth Services disregarded Nichole and Anthony’s legal and parental rights and literally shut them out of the care, protection and safety that they could provide young Anthony.”
This family service plan also was not signed by a Children and Youth caseworker and supervisor until after the boy’s death, which the suit alleges is “clearly evidencing a conspiracy to cover up” the agency’s “egregious behavior.”
County Acting Chief Solicitor Vito DeLuca said the suit had not been served Monday afternoon. When it is, he said he will alert the county council and notify the insurance carrier, which will assign defense counsel.
London said she was the first relative cited in the suit as Anthony’s caretaker and maintains Children and Youth was fully aware of her past problems with her own children in the late 1990s, which she attributed to her refusal to take medication at that time.
She said she had repeatedly contacted Children and Youth urging the agency to remove her nephew from the care of Cook and Nichole Puscavage due to alleged neglect.
According to London, the boy thrived under her care in the fall of 2014. She proudly holds up photographs of their time together showing him grinning on a swing at the playground, riding a toy horse, sucking on a lollipop and dressed as the Chucky doll for Halloween.
She nicknamed him “Magoo” because she thought he resembled the cartoon character Mr. Magoo as a baby and started a “Justice for Magoo” social media page pushing for charges in the case. She posted a video of him on the site pushing his tricycle around the yard, something he did for hours.
A state report said the maternal grandmother had attributed the boy’s injuries to a fall from the couch and/or banging of his head when he had temper tantrums.
The medical professionals who treated Puscavage that day said neither explanation was plausible, according to the state report, which was part of a review required by state law in all suspected child abuse cases that result in fatalities or near fatalities.
London said she never experienced behavioral problems with her nephew.
“I swear on that little boy’s ashes he never had temper tantrums or banged his head off the wall when he was with me,” she said. “He always had a big smile on his face.”
She said she is now estranged from her stepbrother and Nichole Puscavage.
“They have no business suing because they didn’t do what they had to to take care of those kids,” she said.
In addition to the boy, the maternal grandmother also had custody of Nichole Puscavage’s three other children. The suit says no allegations of abuse or neglect have been made against Nichole Puscavage or Cook regarding the boy or any other children.
According to a state report, the complaints about the parents included the condition of their home, their partying and allowing people to stay at their house drinking and playing loud music, fighting between the mother and father, developmental delays of the children, inappropriate dressing of the children and the children’s frequent illnesses, the state summary said.
The surviving sibling and two half-siblings were placed together in a foster home after the boy’s death, the state said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.