WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — The death of Garnett Spears raises the question: When you suspect something, when should you say something?
It's a question some Florida mothers are wrestling with. They knew Lacey Spears two years ago, before she moved to Rockland County, N.Y., and had suspicions about her that they didn't act on. Now, replaying events and conversations in their minds, they wonder if they missed the chance to save Garnett Spears' life. The 5-year-old Chestnut Ridge boy died Jan. 23 at Westchester Medical Center. Police are investigated whether he was poisoned by salt and they are focusing on Lacey Spears, who has not been charged and has denied doing anything to harm her son.
In an online chat Thursday that followed the newspaper's five-part series on Garnett's unexplained death, one mother wrote: "The (parenting) group that I was in with (Lacey) focused on support and non-judgment. For me, I suspected things but backed away because I felt like I shouldn't judge her and she seemed to have a lot more problems than me."
What those suspicions and problems were is unclear. Lacey Spears chronicled a litany of Garnett's hospital visits in dozens of posts on social media and blogging sites. She bemoaned the loss of her soul mate, eschewed Western medicine and doted on her son. But what she shared in that room, in the confidence of strangers, did not leave there.
"A room full of people would sit and listen to her cry out a story, respectfully take her word for it and reach out to her," the anonymous poster wrote. "The group is all about nurturing and better mothering. ... She apparently was the opposite ... I'm just really confused."
Ilana Rosenberg, a Scarsdale psychologist, said the dynamic of a parenting group would make it difficult to pick up the phone and report suspicions.
"If you're not a medical professional, you might not know what a warning signal is or isn't, and you'll think it's a mom being a mom," she said. "And you don't want to get someone in trouble, sound alarms unnecessarily. If you're in this group together, you have this shared identity, there's a camaraderie. There's an unspoken bond between mothers, that you're all in the same boat together and you understand each other."
Susan Sherwood, Rockland County's commissioner of Social Services, said she's not sure how reporting works in Florida, but New York has a central registry — one phone number — where people can report anonymously anything they see as suspicious when it comes to children.
"I went to Albany and listened to some of the calls that come in," Sherwood said. "You would have a neighbor saying 'It's probably none of my business …' That's how they usually start out. It can be as semi-trivial as somebody left their child in a car, that kind of thing. Or 'I've seen things. I'm concerned about people coming and going.' That is very good because then you're already starting to hook into a system."
Hotline workers ask callers followup questions and forward the calls to the corresponding county office of Child Protective Services.
"We typically hear from them the next day and I believe we have seven days to go out and investigate, but we go out sooner than that," Sherwood said. "The good news is that 80 percent of the cases turn out to be unfounded, but that means that 20 percent are something. The usual thing now is that we find something that doesn't rise to the level of child abuse or neglect, but it could be an indicator that the family needs some form of help."
"The last thing we want is to get into a case when a child dies," Sherwood said.
So when should the call be made?
"I think people should trust their instincts," the commissioner said. "None of us want to pry. None of us want to squeal. But if you hear something that, you as a parent say, 'Oh, that scares me. What's going on there?' you should call.
"Don't go in there yourself and say 'I think you're doing something wrong,' because that really is not your place, but we do have people who do this very well."
According to the state's Office for Children and Family Services website, some are "mandated reporters," including "medical and hospital personnel, school officials, social-service workers, child-care workers, residential-care workers and volunteers and those in law-enforcement."
Mike Piazza, Putnam County commissioner of Social Services and Mental Health, said his office received 672 calls in 2013. Reports for Westchester in 2013 were not available. In 2012, there were 6,661 reports forwarded to Westchester, 22 percent of which were founded.
Barbara Gavin, Rockland's director of Social Services, said the county received 1,599 calls from the Albany hotline in 2013.
"The message we're trying to get out, through our school liaison who talks to parents and PTAs, is that it takes a community to raise these kids, so we all have to be vigilant," Gavin said. "It's better to be safe and ask for somebody to take a look than to look the other way, because we don't know what's going to happen."
Sherwood, Rockland's commissioner, said the system is ready.
"People don't have to feel terrible about voicing a concern. It's not like they're reporting someone themselves. They're voicing a concern. ... Start the conversation. If you care about kids."