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Chevonne Thomas Decapitation-Suicide Places NJ Department of Children and Families Under Review

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A police officer talks to neighbors near 1415 Kaighn Ave., in Camden, N.J., Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. Police say a New Jersey mother apparently decapitated her 2-year-old boy and put his head in the freezer of their home before she fatally stabbed herself. (Photo/Mel Evans)
A police officer talks to neighbors near 1415 Kaighn Ave., in Camden, N.J., Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. Police say a New Jersey mother apparently decapitated her 2-year-old boy and put his head in the freezer of their home before she fatally stabbed herself. (Photo/Mel Evans)

NEWARK, N.J. — Autopsy results released Thursday show that a 2-year-old boy was alive before he was decapitated, and his mother, who authorities said killed him, died from a self-inflicted knife wound to the neck.

Police found the body of 2-year-old Zahree Thomas in the family's Camden rowhouse early Wednesday. His head was in the freezer. His mother, Chevonne Thomas, stabbed herself in the neck minutes after placing a rambling, sometimes incoherent call to 911. Thomas told a dispatcher that she had stabbed her son.

Thomas lost custody of the boy in 2010 after admitting to police that she smoked marijuana laced with the hallucinogenic drug PCP, blacked out and left Zahree alone in a car. She regained custody in April 2010 under an order signed by Judge Angelo DiCamillo of Camden County Superior Court's Family division, according to Tamara Kendig, a court spokeswoman.

Kendig said all standard procedures for placing a child in a home, including substance abuse, mental health and parenting skill evaluations were carried out in Thomas's case.

Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said it will take weeks for toxicology tests to come back. But there were indications that Thomas might have still been using drugs, Laughlin said.

Thomas told 911 dispatchers she was on the anti-depressant Prozac but didn't take it that day.

"I didn't take it today, but I should have. I should have," she said.

The case raises questions about New Jersey's Department of Children and Family Services, which has been under federal oversight for more than a decade. Agency spokeswoman Kristine Brown said it's still investigating the circumstances of Zahree and Chevonne Thomas' deaths.

The department said Wednesday it had an open case on the Thomases and its "staff visited with the family regularly, and was in communication with all service providers." The state said it provided the family with substance abuse testing, reunification services, counseling and other services.

On his monthly radio show on 101.5 FM, Gov. Chris Christie said he was "saddened" by deaths, The (Newark) Star-Ledger reported.

"What I have seen so far was that DCF was very involved in trying to make sure that appropriate counseling was given," the newspaper reported Christie saying. "All of us have to understand that the government can do the very best it can but cannot be overseeing parents with their children 24 hours a day either."

The case comes a month after a report from a federal court monitor showed that social worker caseloads at the Department of Children and Families were starting to rise and only 55 percent of children put in foster care placement had two documented visits by caseworkers each month, the number mandated by the federal settlement.

"The Monitor continues to be very concerned by this low performance given the importance of visitation by caseworkers during the first few months of placement to assess children and families' needs and to ensure stability," the report states.

The state Legislature cut $11.5 million from the 2013 DCF budget.

Mary Coogan, the assistant director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, a nonprofit children's organization, said it will try to get more detail on the Thomas case.

"How often were people actually out to this home?" Ms. Coogan asked. "We hope the department really looks at a case like this in detail and really has a public conversation about it."

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