FORT BRAGG, N.C. (WTVD) -- It's been more than five years since two toddlers ended up dead less than a year after being adopted.
The ABC11 I-Team special, 'Deadly Adoptions', first highlighted the case that exposed multiple cracks in the systems designed to protect children.
A Fort Bragg soldier and adopted father Anthony Rivera was scheduled to go to trial in February 2023 after he was issued a court martial in 2021 for the homicide of his two- and three-year-old children. Court records show Rivera pleaded not guilty in January 2023.
On March 1, 2023, charges against Rivera were withdrawn, according to military court records.
Bragg officials told the I-Team that the military judge disqualified the prosecutors working on the case due to a potential conflict of interest. The case is not closed, instead, a higher command will take it on. No new trial date or timeline has been set.
Rivera's defense attorney has not responded to the I-Team's numerous requests for comment.
Rivera's son Michael died in November 2017 after waking from a nap, "pale, staring off and moaning."
Two months later, his younger sister, Olivia, was reported dead after the parents found her unresponsive in her crib.
The medical examiner's investigation labeled both toddlers' deaths as homicides from blunt force trauma. Their autopsies detailed similar injuries from contusions and abrasions on the legs and face to severed backbones to healing fractures.
Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens, a child abuse advocate called the number of injuries described in the report "incredible."
When a child dies in North Carolina and the family had involvement with DSS, the State Fatality Review Team is supposed to review the case and identify any missteps along the way to ensure similar mistakes aren't made again.
This never happened in this case, despite DSS getting involved after the first toddler's death.
A spokesperson for NCDHHS said because of the ABC11 Investigation they re-examined the deaths of Michael and Olivia and determined child fatality reviews were needed.
The department said it finished collecting information on the Riveras' deaths and plans to review both these cases in the coming weeks.
"Any death of a child is an unthinkable tragedy. NCDHHS works every day to create a North Carolina where children are protected and families are safe, and when a child dies due to maltreatment, we reexamine our systems and recommit to do better," a spokesperson for NCDHHS wrote in a statement to the I-Team.
The department said legal proceedings, and investigations can slow down reviews. The department declined an interview on its process and the Rivera case.
Sharon Hirsch, the president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse NC, said reviews after fatalities are critical.
"We could spend lots of time and attention on the horror of it that unless we spend time going back and asking all of those questions -- so that we can do better next time -- we're going to continue to repeat the cycle," she said.
Beyond the deaths of the two Rivera toddlers, 'Deadly Adoptions' uncovered multiple instances of Child Fatality Reviews identifying gaps in systems that may have contributed to children's deaths.
A review of more than 200 deaths in North Carolina, showcased cases where the high turnover in staff led to child welfare workers giving assessments without proper training and poor documentation. In other cases, difficulties sharing data, critical information withheld, lost records and improper case documentation, and lack of collaboration across and within county agencies, were highlighted as issues.
Earlier this week, the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force recommended the state strengthen its child fatality prevention system as part of its 2023 annual report.
"Our statewide child fatality prevention system, which includes child death review teams in every county, needs to be restructured and strengthened to optimize the work of these teams and to ensure that information learned from reviews is effectively used at the state and local level to prevent future child deaths and to strengthen child well-being," said Karen McLeod, Co-Chair of the Task Force.
North Carolina is one of only two states in the country that is not part of a National Fatality Review Case Reporting System. The system would "dramatically" improve data collection and reporting of information learned during child death reviews.
State leaders reported the current prevention system has weak connections between local and state officials and is under-resourced and decentralized.
This year the team is recommending legislative leaders implement centralization of state-level staff and electronic data. The state would also like to see a reduction in the fatalities that have to be reviewed by officials and the types of reviews that need to be completed.
Hirsch agreed that the state's systems need more resources.
"Systems need to talk and communicate with one another. These are often systemic failures and they're failures of investment and they're failures of coordination," she said. "
She said preventing abuse and neglect is really a holistic approach and the state needs to support everything from quality childcare to parenting programs to overall economic support.
"Things like a state-earned income tax credit, paid family and medical leave, Medicaid expansion, and more childcare subsidies. All of those things are correlated to reductions in child maltreatment reports and drops in the number of children in foster care, but we haven't invested in those kinds of things," Hirsch said.
She also said she believes it would make a difference to continue to educate everyone that some workers are required by law to report any cases of suspected child abuse or neglect.
"We can all get better at making sure everybody that works in law enforcement and school systems and medical professions understands not just the reporting aspect, that is really, really critical, but also how to make a referral. How do you support a family? How do you do that appropriately?" Hirsch said. "That is a piece that that we as a society have not done a very good job with yet, but I'm really hopeful that more and more folks are understanding that that's what needs to happen."