Oregon household investigated 5 times before 7-year-old’s death

In this May 2021 file photo, Sarah Safranek is escorted into an Ogle County Courtroom. She is charged with five counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated battery in the death of her son, Nathaniel Burton, 7.

OREGON – The Department of Children and Family Services visited the Safranek/Burton household nearly a dozen times over the course of two years, following up on five separate reports of suspected abuse and neglect. Each time DCFS closed the case after finding no indications of parental wrongdoing.

That’s according to DCFS records obtained by Sauk Valley Media in a Freedom of Information Act request for a timeline of the department’s interaction with the family.

Nathaniel Burton was 4 when the allegations first surfaced. He was 7 when, investigators say, his mother, Sarah Safranek, suffocated him in their home on Feb. 17. An autopsy showed the boy also suffered a ruptured liver.

Safanek, 34, is in Ogle County Jail on $2 million bond; she pleaded not guilty May 6 to five counts of first-degree murder and one count of aggravated battery to a child.

Nathaniel Burton

According to the DCFS timeline:

• When the first report was made, on Sept. 8, 2018, Nathaniel was living with his mother, his father, Bryan Burton, and two older half-sisters, then both younger than 10. (DCFS does not reveal who made the complaints.)

The first time, both parents were investigated for “substantial risk of physical injury/environment injurious to health and welfare by neglect; inadequate supervision; cuts, bruises, welts abrasions and oral Injuries; and substantial risk of physical injury/environment Injurious to health and welfare.”

DCFS investigators were unable to make contact with the family that day, but came back to the home 3 days later, and again on Oct. 31, observed all three children, and found “no signs of abuse or neglect and the children were assessed as safe in the care of their mother for both visits.”

The case was closed on Nov. 5, 2018, and the family was “referred for community-based services.”

• On Feb. 15, 2019, another report was made to DCFS, this one naming one of the girls, then 7, as the victim. Both parents again were investigated for cuts, bruises, welts abrasions and oral Injuries. Both girls were observed at school and interviewed; both had scratches, which one said was caused by their cat, one had a rash; both denied either parent hurting them.

On Feb. 25, investigators talked with Nathaniel, who had “no visible signs of abuse or neglect.”

All three children were observed again on April 15, and the case was deemed unfounded and closed the next day.

• Three days later, on April 18, 2019, another report as made that the three children were being victimized, and Safranek was investigated for neglect.

An investigator visited that day and saw no signs of abuse or neglect. The DCFS returned June 12 and talked with Nathaniel, and June 17 and talked with all three children. The case was determined to be unfounded and closed that day.

Again, the family was referred for community-based services.

• On Aug. 5, a report was made alleging Nathaniel was being victimized. Both parents again were investigated for neglect, as well as inadequate supervision by leaving the boy alone “at home, outside or in the community” and “in the care of an inadequate caregiver.”

DCFS tried but failed to make contact with the family that day.

• Two days later, on Aug. 7, another report was made, this one listing all three children. Again, Safranek was investigated for neglect; an investigator saw no signs that day, or 4 days later, on Aug. 11. By then, the girls were living with their biological father.

All three children were visited one more time, on Sept. 25, in their respective homes.

No visible signs of abuse or neglect were observed, and the case was closed on Oct. 2, with a third referral to community based services.

The final investigation was made on Feb. 17, when the agency received the report of Nathaniel’s death. It notes the girls were with their father and not home when Nathaniel died; They were interviewed two days later.

According to the sixth and final report included on the timeline, dated Feb. 19, 2021:

“Investigator visited with the two surviving siblings of Nathaniel, observing and interviewing them. The two children were aware that Nathaniel is deceased.

“There were no noted visible signs of abuse or neglect, but T.P [now 11] did admit that she had witnessed their mother (being) abusive to Nathaniel in the past when she lived with mom.”

Safranek faces 20 years to life in prison if convicted of murder, and 6 to 30 years if convicted of aggravated battery. She has a pretrial hearing July 28.

The DCFS investigation remains ongoing.

Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.