Were their deaths preventable?
As details of the Westerville murder-suicide emerge, there are questions about what was known of the family, when and by whom
Saturday, December 5, 2009 3:10 AM
By Theodore Decker, John Futty and Rita Price
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
CHRIS RUSSELL | Dispatch
A memorial for Nicole and Sarah Dobson sits outside the home where they were killed by their father. The girls met with a child-welfare worker, who asked if their dad had hurt them, three weeks before they died.
Three weeks before their father killed them, Nicole and Sarah Dobson met with a child-welfare worker who asked whether he had hurt them.
"The girls denied that they were abused or maltreated," said Eric Fenner, executive director of Franklin County Children Services.
With no physical evidence or statements supporting the allegations that had been made in a referral, the caseworker saw no grounds to remove the children from Daniel J. Dobson's Westerville home, Fenner said yesterday.
Police say Dobson, divorced this year from the children's mother, Joyce, shot the girls and then himself Thursday in an upstairs bedroom of the house at 813 Westray Dr., just west of Sunbury Road.
Now the agency is left to wonder: Were the girls so scared that they lied? And if so, did investigators, who had been called about the Dobsons twice before, do everything they could to find the truth?
"A child who is afraid may not say everything," said Fenner, who had tears in his eyes as he talked about the shooting deaths of Nicole, 15, and Sarah, 11. "What worries me is, 'Did they reach out to someone? Did they try?' "
In early 2008, both girls reportedly said that, on a scale of 1 to 10, their fear of their father "was close to 10," according to the complaint Children Services supplied to Westerville police.
The report indicated that Mr. Dobson sometimes hurt the girls by tickling them and bruised them by squeezing them too hard, usually while he was intoxicated. Sarah reportedly said she "wished she could hurt her father so he doesn't kill us."
But Fenner said those comments came not from a caseworker but from the person who referred the case to the agency, whose identity is protected by law. He said those were the type of claims that the agency was unable to confirm.
Police closed their investigation of the 2008 case as "unfounded" after the mother told them "this whole thing was blown out of proportion and has been resolved," a detective's report shows.
"Daniel is in counseling and on antidepressants," the detective wrote.
Fenner said the agency will investigate and review all its work in the case. In addition to the recent allegation, he said caseworkers had received referrals about the treatment of the children in October 2007 and February 2008.
In each case, no abuse was substantiated, although it was clear that the mother and father had a volatile relationship, Fenner said. "Dad was drinking; there was some domestic violence." Franklin County records, however, show that Dobson had never been charged criminally.
Fenner said the most-recent complaint, that Dobson had slapped his older daughter on the leg, came in to the agency on Nov. 2. The caseworker went to the house several times before finally finding Mr. Dobson at home on Nov. 13.
The caseworker notified Westerville police about the case, standard practice when a physical-abuse allegation is made, officials said.
Lt. John Petrozzi said a detective left a voice mail for Dobson Monday night. Dobson didn't return the call.
Petrozzi said information supplied by Children Services indicated that a therapist alerted the agency about Nicole's claim that her father slapped her on the leg "because she wasn't getting ready for school fast enough."
Handwritten notes that Dobson left before killing himself make no mention of child-abuse allegations. He wrote various notes to his family, his ex-wife, even his doctor, all on the same notepad. He thanked his family for their love and support through the years and said there was nothing more they could have done.
The letters expressed no anger toward his ex-wife, or anyone else, and said that he had entertained suicidal thoughts for decades and wanted to spare his daughters pain.
"There will be no more worries for us," he wrote.
"I could not stand to see Nicole and Sarah suffering and could not leave them behind."
He also left a note at the bottom of the stairs.
"Joyce, do not come upstairs. Call the police."
The Dispatch reviewed the notes at the Franklin County coroner's office through a public-records request.
According to a 911 call from the younger girl's principal, which led to the discovery of the bodies, school administrators were aware of domestic problems.
Kathleen Norris, the principal of St. Paul Elementary School in Westerville, called 911 Thursday after Sarah failed to show up for school and her father didn't report her absence.
In her call, Norris was asked by a 911 operator whether Daniel Dobson might harm Sarah.
"Mother feels that, yes, but I have, I have no proof," Norris said. "She was worried."
She described the parents' relationship as "adversarial."
After 10 years of marriage, Mr. Dobson filed for the divorce in August 2008 and it was granted in May. He kept the house and agreed to a shared-parenting plan with his ex-wife. Nicole was to live primarily with her father, and Sarah would move between their homes on a week-to-week basis, court records show.
Although the girls were not in school on Wednesday, Petrozzi said detectives think they weren't killed until sometime Thursday morning, possibly before dawn.
What the three did during the day on Wednesday is unclear, though he said he thought the girl's mother spoke to one or both girls Wednesday morning, and a neighbor reported seeing Mr. Dobson in his garage about 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Franklin County Coroner Jan Gorniak could not pinpoint a time of death but said the girls and their father likely died Wednesday night or Thursday morning. She said all died of single shotgun wounds to the head.
Fenner said cases involving domestic violence can be difficult for child-welfare agencies, partly because fear and threats are more difficult to substantiate — and to read on children's faces — than physical abuse and neglect.
He said the agency is developing a special unit that will have more training.
"This is an area we want to strengthen," he said. "We want to find out how we can, within the confines of the law, delve deeper."