‘How can we allow this to go on?’
By Tracy Vedder
SEATTLE — The most vulnerable children in our state – children who are supposed to be protected by the state – are dying at an alarming rate. The KOMO 4 Problem Solvers spent two years filing legal requests and analyzing hundreds of documents from the state’s Child Protective Services. What we’ve discovered is both startling and heartbreaking.
Three-year-old Kekoa Ravenell’s future sparkled. He sang. He golfed. He loved his baby sister, Chelsea, and his papa, Michael.
But Kekoa’s future was stolen. He was beaten and choked to death by his mother’s boyfriend.
“I wish he was still with us here,” said his father, Michael Ravenell, sobbing.
Take the anguish of Kekoa’s death and multiply it by dozens. You can’t forget their names. Sirita Sotelo was beaten to death by her stepmother. Justice and Raiden Robinson died of starvation and dehydration while their mother was passed out amidst 300 empty beer cans. Summer Phelps was killed by her father and stepmother. The list seems unending. Each child died while under the watch of the state’s Children’s Administration.
And as in Kekoa’s case, there were warning signs.
“There was no doubt,” said Michael Ravenell. “He (Kekoa) just came out and said, ‘He hit me. Noah hit me.”‘
Ravenell called Child Protective Service, not once but several times.
“Something’s wrong. There’s something wrong. She’s not, the case worker wasn’t doing her job,” he said.
What he didn’t know and what the social workers didn’t check, was that the mother’s boyfriend, Noah Thomas, had a prior conviction for abusing his own children. But Ravenell’s pleas for help fell on deaf ears.
“Bottom line: the system failed me,” he said.
Similar cases lost in the files
It took more than two years, but the Problem Solvers obtained the death reports of 595 children who had some contact with the state’s Children’s Administration and who died some time between 2002 and mid-2009. We wanted to find how many of those deaths might have been prevented.
Crunching the numbers, the state ruled at least 120 children died of abuse or neglect. That’s an average of 16 kids dying a year; more than one child died of abuse or neglect every single month.
And we found another 40 cases in which the state did not find abuse or neglect connected to the death, but the Problem Solvers dug up some horrifying facts. In one case, the social worker falsified documents and claimed treatment, which hadn’t been administered, had been given. The baby girl died.
In the case of a 2-year-old boy, the case worker decided there could be immediate harm and the child should be removed, yet the case was closed and the child died.
In a third case, the parents gave their kids Benadryl so they’d sleep. One died of an overdose. And in spite of the case worker reporting the surviving children lived in filth, with feces on the walls, the agency ruled the kids should stay in the home.
And in yet another case, a medical examiner ruled a 2 month old died of unexplained, natural causes. But the report concluded, “there was concerning CPS history on this family.” Part of that history includes allegations of abuse and neglect in the home. But most startling fact was that the family had had another baby girl die three years earlier.
And then there are another large group of files in which CPS was called five times, eight times, even 13 times. The agency was called to help a child, yet the child remained in the home and later died.
“There’s (sic) resources out there to help you, and I didn’t get any help at all,” said Ravenell.
‘I am the victim of the many years of abuse’
What we can’t even begin to calculate is the number of cases that don’t wind up in death, but still leave children physically and emotionally maimed.
Few will forget this girl’s horror story.
“I am the victim of the many years of abuse Rebecca Long put upon me until just last year,” she said. Because she is the victim of abuse, KOMO News has chosen not to identify her.
Found by law enforcement at age 14, she weighed just 48 pounds. Her stepmother and her father have both been convicted of criminal mistreatment for keeping the girl locked up in their Carnation home, and so severely limiting her food and water to the point that her teeth had nearly all rotted away.
But years earlier, a teacher had reported the family to CPS. She told the judge at her stepmother’s sentencing, “This is where I desperately wished that I could contact a social worker who came to our house that one afternoon.”
But after minimal investigation, CPS closed the case and the girl spent another three years in hell.
“I could not make contact, because that was when Rebecca began keeping me barricaded into a room all day,” she said.
Then there’s little P.T., whom KOMO News has chosen not to identify beyond her initials.
“I was hoping she would live,” said her godmother, Afua Ndiaye, last December. “She had cigarette burns under her eyes and all over her body.”
P.T. was just 2 years old at the time. The now 3 year old is partially blind and may have a brain injury.
“You could just see blood and scalp,” said Ndiaye as she gulped for air. “It was really bad.”
P.T.’s godmother says she repeatedly warned CPS about the little girl’s mother and her boyfriend, who had a criminal record.
“They did nothing. It was like another case, waiting on the side,” she said. “And while it waited on the side, she almost died.”
Sen. Stevens: ‘Why can’t we get this right?’
All of this has happened since 2005 when the state began adding 465 new workers for child welfare and protection. And last spring, Gov. Christine Gregoire hired a new head for the state Department of Social and Health Services — Susan Dreyfus, who, in turn, has brought in new blood to head up Children’s Administration.
“We have to be accountable. There is no worse day in this state when a child’s not safe in their own home,” Dreyfus said.
But we’ve heard these sentiments from state leaders for years. It appears things have only gotten worse, and some lawmakers are frankly fed up.
“How can we allow this to go on?” said Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee.
“Why can’t we get this right?” said Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington.
We went to state lawmakers with some of our research, and asked what’s being done to fix the problems. In fact, they’ve passed laws and given the agency millions to force them to do a better job of protecting kids.
During a 2004 gubernatorial debate, Gregoire talked of the need to overhaul the DSHS, which oversees Children’s Administration.
“And the track record is not stellar, and we have been ravaged here in Eastern Washington by some very tragic deaths,” she said.
Gregoire promised to make that agency a priority. But the instances of deaths and abuse have only gotten worse.
“Children are dying at the hands of people who are not able to take care of them,” said Stevens.
Stevens has worked for years to overhaul the system, in one effort even forcing the agency to seek national accreditation. After several years of working with the National Council on Accreditation, last year the COA set a deadline for Washington to meet its standards. Children’s Administration refused to comply, and dropped out of the accreditation process.
“It was a bill that we passed and they said, ‘We’re not going to do it,”‘ Stevens said. “But too often that’s what’s happening. They are thwarting the very laws that we are passing.”
Falling behind on the national scale
Records indicate Washington’s child welfare agency scores poorly in two different national evaluations. A review by U.S. Health and Human Services found 36 states were better than Washington at meeting children’s needs and keeping them safe.
And a review by the national organization Every Child Matters shows that between 2001 and 2007, the state’s per-capita number of kids who were abused or neglected have gone up, as has the number of deaths.
Washington’s Children’s Administration contends the rise may be partially due to a difference in the way they now determine deaths by abuse.
In 2004, then-candidate Gregoire said she wanted to make Children’s Administration directly answerable to the governor.
When asked why she hadn’t been able to follow through on those promises, Gregoire said, “Well, we’ve made good progress.” Now into her second term, Gregoire still hasn’t made Children’s a separate agency or directly accountable to her.
But last spring she hired Susan Dreyfus, who used to head up Wisconsin’s Division of Children and Families.
“It’s about being accountable, and it’s about being transparent and being very upfront with people (on) where we have weaknesses, what we have to do to change, and that we are changing,” Dreyfus said.
Dreyfus has many supporters across the country. Bt the state she comes from, Wisconsin, did even worse in both those national evaluations than Washington. We asked if that wasn’t a report card on her tenure there.
“I don’t believe so, no. I’m looking at outcomes, I’m looking at how many children are in care, our permanency record,” she said.
Dreyfus has now hired Denise Revels Robinson to head up Children’s. Revels Robinson also gets high marks across the country. But she left her last post – also in Wisconsin – under a cloud after a high-profile case of a child who died under her watch.
When asked if she bears some responsibility in that case, she said, “I think the head of the agency always bears some responsibility, because as we talked about earlier, accountability is key.”
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation of the county’s children’s services with Revels Robinson at its helm showed evidence that 22 children died of abuse or neglect under her watch.
We asked Dreyfus why she would you bring someone into our already-troubled state who has a history of running an agency that’s troubled.
“You know, it’s so funny, you’re responding to media,” Dreyfus said. “I’m not looking for media sensationalism in making my selection of who’s the right person on my team, but I am looking for someone that’s proven, passionate and has outcomes to prove it.”
But several legislators insist the only way to fix the system is to break it apart, making Children’s Administration more accountable to both the governor and, more importantly, to the citizens
“I think a lot of folks are to-the-point. They just want to get this thing fixed and start taking care of kids,” said Armstrong.
The Problem Solvers are not going to let this go. We’re taking the results of our investigation to key legislators. And we will be there when the legislative session begins next year to see if action is taken and CPS is held accountable.
DSHS death investigation reports:
Report from Every Child Matters: