Monday, September 5, 2011

Recent tragedies cast doubt on Montana's child-protection services

When CPS fails the children, which seems quite often, the children suffer or die. Why can't CPS get it right? Why do they take children from homes on false allegations yet leave other children in homes where abuse really is ocurring? Why?

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The name October Perez was on the radar of state social workers months before it made its way into headlines about her tragic death.

The 2-year-old died in June from injuries prosecutors allege were caused by abuse.

Perez's body was bruised, multiple bones were broken, her brain was swollen and she had suffered severe head trauma. She spent two days in a Salt Lake City hospital, then was taken off life support after being declared brain dead. Her mother's then-boyfriend, David Wayne Hyslop, was charged in the death of Perez. Hyslop pleaded not guilty to deliberate homicide, and a trial has been set for October.

Caseworkers from the Child and Family Services Division of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services had visited the house where Perez lived at least three times. Two of those visits were to investigate allegations of abuse involving the toddler, according to Child and Family Services documents obtained by the Tribune.

How the division handled the Perez case is being investigated by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, according to the agency's director.

"We've had people put on administrative leave during the investigation," Director Anna Whiting Sorrell said.

Sorrell added that other workers in the department made employment decisions, but she declined to elaborate, or to say who was put on administrative leave.

"I'm working hard every day to look at and examine this situation and circumstances around this case," Sorrell said.

From almost the moment Perez died of alleged abuse, questions swirled regarding what Child and Family Services knew about her home situation, and whether anything could or should have been done before her death.

It wasn't the first time such questions were asked.

In September 2010, 4-year-old Kiera Pulaski was found dead in Missouri less than three months after her 1-year-old half brother Darby Hodges died in Kalispell under mysterious circumstances. Family members said Child and Family Services was alerted to concerns about the children's safety before they died.

In 2009, after Kendra Bernardi's daughter went blind as a result of being slammed against a crib, she said the child protection system failed the child, Seraphina Bernardi. Alicia Jo Hocter eventually was convicted of beating the child and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Court documents from the initial investigation indicate Child and Family Services caseworkers received five reports regarding the conditions Seraphina Bernardi and Hocter's newborn daughter lived in prior to the abuse taking place in February 2009.

Perez's death spurred a petition drive organized by Blaine County child advocate and school superintendent Lisa Stroh, as well as members of Perez's family. The petition, which called for changes in the state's child welfare system, garnered about 3,000 signatures and eventually got the attention of Gov. Brian Schweitzer. On Aug. 3, a handful of Perez's family members met with Schweitzer and Sorrell.

"They did not feel that they were listened to (by Child and Family Services workers)," Sorrell said.

According to Child and Family Services documents, three earlier allegations of maltreatment of Perez were listed as unsubstantiated. April Hall, Perez's paternal grandmother, said that Child and Family Services caseworkers also investigated a claim of abuse involving Perez's 5-year-old half brother, which he reported in April to a teacher at Head Start. That report also was found to be unsubstantiated, Hall said.

Division documents describe caseworkers first going to the home where Perez lived based on allegations that the children were in a "filthy" environment. No allegations of abuse were mentioned. Social workers checked the home, deemed that Perez was safe, and closed the case, according to the documents.

The first time Hall called the division was in January, when she noticed bruises on Perez's body that seemed to come and go. While Hall said she couldn't know for sure what caused the injuries, it was unsettling enough for her to call the child abuse hotline.

"It was just getting pretty obvious that there were things, and it wasn't natural," she said. "A child doesn't constantly have bruises on them."

What followed was a series of visits to the home where Perez lived, followed by increasing frustration from family members who kept reporting abuse but couldn't get the girl out of an environment they thought was unsafe.

"We were treated like low-lifes who didn't know what we were talking about," said Hall's sister, Mary Leibrand, who also talked to Child and Family Services social workers about Perez. "The longer we worked with them, the more pathetic it got."

Child and Family Services was back at the home in February to investigate a fracture of Perez's left arm. The break was discovered after the child was taken to the emergency room when Hall and Perez's maternal grandmother saw Perez crying uncontrollably.

X-rays revealed a fracture to Perez's left forearm, plus a healed fracture to her right forearm that an orthopedic surgeon determined to be as old as 6 weeks, the documents state.

Great Falls Police were called that same day to investigate whether Perez's injuries were caused by abuse. However, after medical professionals at Benefis Health System were unable to determine whether the fractures were caused by abuse, the police dropped the investigation. Child and Family Services listed the initial abuse claim as unsubstantiated.

"It was determined by physicians that October's buckle fracture to her left arm was caused by an accident, not by a grab or twist," the division's report states.

In every investigation, caseworkers are required to make a decision on the merit of the initial report of maltreatment, as well as on the child's safety. Although the report of abuse was found to be unsubstantiated, the caseworker made another decision regarding Perez's safety. The child was determined to be in "impending danger," which is worse than "safe," but not as severe as "present danger" under the division's guidelines.

About two months later, the division was called to investigate the abuse allegation from Perez's half-brother. The boy told a teacher at Head Start, and the teacher reported it to Child and Family Services. Hall said a caseworker checked the boy for bruises and interviewed him, but eventually decided that the report was unsubstantiated. Without division intervention, the boy was sent to live with his father in Phoenix on April 9.

Later that month, a Child and Family Services worker paid another visit to the home to investigate reports that Perez had bruises on her forehead and cheeks and some of her teeth were falling out. The caseworker who visited the home noted bruises on the girl's head but was told by someone whose name was redacted from the report the Tribune received that those bruises were from Perez running into a countertop. The maltreatment reports were found to be unsubstantiated, but Perez was again found to be in "impending danger."

During this time, Perez's biological father, Michael Arndt, was stationed in Afghanistan with the Army. He retained Great Falls attorney David Dennis in an effort to gain custody of his daughter because he thought she was in danger. Dennis wrote a letter dated June 3 to Perez's caseworker, expressing his concern about the division's visits to the girl's home.

"It is my understanding that you are conducting home visits and monitoring October's care," the letter reads. "If this is the case, I am at a loss to understand how the department can justify subjecting October to further injury."

Toward the end of the letter, Dennis wrote: "She is suffering daily, and in danger of serious injury."

By the end of the month, Hall would learn while on a trip to New York City that her granddaughter was in the hospital and probably wouldn't survive.

"Every person tells me: 'April, you did everything right,'" she said. "If I did everything right, why is my baby dead?"

While questions piled up about the division's involvement with Perez before her death, it wasn't the first time a family asked those type of questions.

Tommy Hodges, who paid for the funerals of his son and stepdaughter within three months of each other, said he made Child and Family Services aware of his concerns about each child's safety.

In April 2010, Hodges was stationed at an Army base in Georgia when he placed a call to Child and Family Services asking if someone could check on the welfare of his son, Darby, and Darby's half-sister, Kiera Pulaski. Hodges had just separated from his wife, who then moved back home to Kalispell from Georgia. The response he received from the division surprised him.

"They said they don't do that kind of thing," Hodges said. "I thought that is exactly what they do."

On June 27, 2010, Darby was found dead in his crib. The cause of death was officially listed as undetermined, but his autopsy revealed bruises on his forehead and fractures of two of his ribs. His death is under investigation.

After Darby's death, Kiera was placed in a foster home for three days as a precaution, Hodges said. After that, she was placed back into the custody of her mother, who moved to Republic, Mo., shortly after Darby's death.

Hodges called Child and Family Services in Montana to express his concerns about Kiera's safety. He again was told there was nothing the division could do. On Sept. 17, 2010, Kiera died from what an autopsy determined was blunt-force trauma to her head. She was found dead in a hotel room in Missouri, with bruises on her chin, right ear, shoulder and knees.

Her death also is under investigation.

No one has been charged in the deaths of Darby Hodges or Kiera Pulaski, but Tommy Hodges, who now lives in Shelby, is convinced their deaths could have been prevented. So is his mother, Cheryl Hodges.

"All I wanted was for them to stop by and check it out," Tommy Hodges said of the first contact he made with Child and Family Services. "They just brushed it off."

"Everything slipped through the cracks," Cheryl Hodges added.

In accordance with state law, Children and Family Services is not allowed to comment on specific cases and actions taken by the department.

However, Cory Costello, field services director for Child and Family Services, said, speaking generally, that child protection specialists don't make decisions in a vacuum.

If a caseworker is sent to a call for child protective services because of a complaint the centralized intake division received, he or she is required to make contact with supervisors, if possible, before removing the child from a home. Sometimes that doesn't happen immediately.

"The first priority is to determine if the child is safe," Costello said. "Major decision points are staffed with a supervisor."

But supervisors aren't the only ones who are involved. If a child is removed, child protection specialists have 48 hours to file an affidavit with the court to grant temporary custody of a child to the department.

Even then, if it's a case of physical abuse or neglect, medical records and examinations have to be sought, and usually police are involved.

"There's quite a lot of information," Costello said. "We do what we have to do to keep a child safe."

But if a judge rules that the department doesn't have enough information to take temporary custody of a child, that child is returned to the home at the end of the 48-hour period.

"People worry then if a child will be safe," she said. "There are all these checks and balances, which support the rights of individuals."

Montana received a grade of "C" in terms of legal representation for abused and neglected children in the second edition of a report called Child's Right to Counsel, which was produced by First Star and the Children's Advocacy Institute.

That's not surprising to Kristina Davis, executive director of the Montana Children's Defense Fund.

During the 2011 session, Montana legislators signed onto a resolution supporting the efforts of the Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The proposed federal amendment argues that federal and state governments shouldn't be able to interfere with aparent's right to parent a child.

Even though it was only a resolution, Davis said that sort of thinking — that government shouldn't intervene — makes it difficult to advance the cause of improving child protective services and the state's ability to act in the best interest of children when their parents can't or won't.

Montana also is one of 10 states that earned an "F" on a report card from First Star and the Children's Advocacy Institute when it comes to publicly disclosing child fatalities or near fatalities as a result of abuse and/or neglect.

Montana law states that not only is it a violation of confidentiality for any member of the child death review team to release information from its findings, it is also a misdemeanor crime.

National advocates say reporting of this data is crucial to understanding and developing policy that better strengthens child-protection laws.

"We're really protecting these kids to death," said Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children's Alliance. "I would like to see every state improve their performance."

Costello said laws in Montana are designed so that the department can intervene only when abuse and neglect happens, rather than before.

"It's more of an after-the-fact response mechanism," she said.

Costello said child-protection specialists — and the entire agency — have to work within the confines of the law, even if it's a law they don't feel is strong enough.

In the face of criticism that reuniting children with their parents — especially those that have been abusive — isn't the best policy, Costello said those critics need to listen to the children who have been a part of the system.

"When you talk to children, they will tell you they want to be connected to their roots," she said. "Even if they have been abused and neglected, they still love their parents."

Lisa Stroh was shocked when she read about Perez's death in the newspaper.

A couple of days later she found out that she was distantly related to the girl through marriage. As word got out that Child and Family Services had made contact with Perez on allegations of abuse before her death, the Blaine County schools superintendent felt like she was reading a familiar story.

As an educator, Stroh is required to report abuse if she suspects it, but she said she found herself running into walls at the division numerous times.

"I've made referrals that they've refused to take because I didn't know the birth dates of the kids," Stroh said. "If they do take a referral, they'll never tell you if they've even acted on it."

Even before Perez's death, Stroh decided that the system needed major changes. She said as much in a letter addressed to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

"The role of this department is to keep children safe, and the people involved are not responsive when there is a critical need," she wrote in the letter, dated Oct. 26, 2010.

"After the experience I have gotten with (Child and Family Services), I will not only hesitate to report in the future, but I will also lobby my legislators and governor to have a complete audit and revision of the delivery model, because I do not believe it is meeting the tremendous needs of Montana's young people," Stroh wrote.

She said changes in the model are needed more than ever now.

While Stroh cited a lack of urgency from people who took her calls to the statewide hotline, she also faulted the system's framework for what she sees as a failure to protect children such as Perez.

"Most of the people that work for this agency truly care about children," Stroh said. "However, they are working within a system that does not have the proper checks and balances in place. Therefore, children are falling through the cracks."

Source http://www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20110904/NEWS01/109040302/Recent-tragedies-cast-doubt-Montana-s-child-protection-services?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7CFrontpage%7Cp

2 comments:

  1. we know cps is corrupt and so is the govener and ann, these people run a corrupt business. kidnapping and abusing our kids then selling them as if they are livestock at an auction.I bet you those two kidnapping crooks had an excuse for every child that died in there care or lack of care, its time we stand up to these cowards that hide behind their lawyers and pissy laws,Switser is a coward that will not do anything about the corruption within cps because he is the corruption.we pray for the day you retire for good,expire, whatever you want to call it. there is a place in hell for all the corrupt baby snatchers out there,

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  2. A phone number of an attorney willing to look into specific complaints against CPS in Kalispell would certainly be helpful. . .

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