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Report: Gaps in DSS system found in Zahra Baker case

The State Child Fatality Review report on the Zahra Baker case from the North Carolina Division of Social Services blames a series of gaps in the system that allowed possible abuse to continue until the 10-year-old’s death.

Zahra was reported missing in October 2010 and parts of her dismembered body were found in several places in Caldwell County the following month. A medical examiner’s report listed the cause of death as “unspecified homicidal violence.”

The state fatality review began in 2012 after the girl’s stepmother, Elisa Baker, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Zahra’s killing and was sentenced to almost 18 years in prison. She later pleaded guilty to federal drug charges and was handed a 10-year sentence for that as well.

Zahra’s father, Adam Baker, was not charged in either case, and is back in his native Australia. He denied any involvement in the death and dismemberment of his daughter.

“I could never do anything like that,” he said in 2010. “I would never hurt Zahra.”

The criminal investigation revealed that at least four instances of possible child abuse were reported to Caldwell County DSS months before Zahra died. Local DSS officials conducted investigations, but no action was taken.

As DSS investigated the situation, school personnel also reported concerns about Zahra’s care. The state report on those investigations says there was limited sharing of information between school personnel, medical providers, law enforcement and DSS investigators.

When Zahra and her family moved to Catawba County, her situation was not tracked or reported to DSS officials there.

The report does not blame DSS investigators, but instead suggests the system needs improvement. It recommends that more training be made available for DSS officials and field workers, and that additional training be made available for school personnel so they have a better idea what and how to report incidents to DSS.

It also suggests that school districts implement a system to track students who have been enrolled in school but do not show up for classes. When the Bakers moved to Catawba County, they said they were home-schooling Zahra, but there were no records of her studies.

The report also calls for a statewide system where information on prior case histories and investigations can be shared between agencies. Right now, there is no system allowing one county to have access to such reports from another county.

Caldwell County DSS officials would not comment on the report.

In a written statement, the county said the local DSS has already implemented some changes to some areas of practice that needed improvement. The statement did not identify which areas.