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Category Archives: California CPS

Infant’s death rekindles scrutiny of L.A. County child services agency


Authorities deemed Diamond Hillman’s mother fit to care for her, even though the woman’s two other children had been removed from her home. Four months later, Diamond was dead.,0,7229655.story

Five months before Diamond Hillman was born last July, her two half siblings were removed from their mother’s home.

Social workers found that she had spanked her 6-year-old daughter with a belt, scrubbed her face so hard it left welts and sent her to school in diapers.

Despite that finding, and a resulting court order that the 28-year-old mother have only monitored visits with the two older children, child welfare authorities deemed her fit to care for Diamond.

The child lived just four months. She died Nov. 22, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather, a convicted batterer with whom the mother had left the baby, according to court records and a confidential child-fatality report obtained by The Times.

Her death comes amid growing public scrutiny of suspected abuse and neglect fatalities among children whose families at some point were under the supervision of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

There were 14 such deaths in 2008 and at least that many this year, though some remain under investigation, according to department officials and records recently made public under California law.

Diamond’s death is being investigated by the department, Santa Monica police and the L.A. County coroner’s office.

Many of those deaths occurred after children left the department’s watch — to return to their families after a stint in foster care or to enter the criminal justice system, records show.

But Diamond’s case calls the department’s vigilance into greater question, because she was still under its direct supervision when she was killed.

Donald Renald Hillman Jr., 33, a resident of Santa Monica and her mother’s estranged husband, has pleaded not guilty to murder and child abuse.

He is being held in lieu of $1-million bail.

The mother was not identified in the child-fatality report and has not been charged. She did not respond to a phone message left with a man at her last known address.

Shortly after Diamond’s birth, her mother told Hillman that he was not the girl’s father, “but he accepted Diamond as his child,” the report states. Although separated from Hillman, the mother left Diamond with him Oct. 4 while she met with a friend.

Hillman, who is 6 foot 1 and weighs 245 pounds, allegedly shook the infant so hard that day that she suffered retinal hemorrhaging and a traumatic brain injury.

When he brought her to a hospital emergency room in full cardiac arrest and not breathing, he told doctors the injuries were accidental.

“According to Diamond’s stepfather, Diamond was asleep in her bassinet when her two-year-old half-sibling ran into the room and somehow fell over the bassinet,” the report states.

The attending physician said that explanation didn’t jibe with the baby’s injuries, which “appeared to be the result of being shaken,” the report notes.

Doctors twice resuscitated the infant and placed her on a ventilator, Santa Monica police said. She spent the next six weeks on life support, which was removed Nov. 22, police said.

An autopsy supported the shaken-baby diagnosis and Hillman was arrested Dec. 7 after he attended Diamond’s funeral, police said.

The cause of death has been deferred pending further investigation by the coroner’s office.

“As a result of the circumstances surrounding Diamond’s death, the Department will perform a comprehensive review and analysis of our prior involvement with Diamond and her family,” the report said in part.

Social workers are trained to give extra consideration to the cases of children who are age 2 and younger, because they are considered the most vulnerable and the least likely to be observed by people outside the home.

Trish Ploehn, who heads the child welfare agency, would not say if social workers had been disciplined for their handling of Diamond’s case, but noted that such action is taken when warranted. Social worker error was a factor in 10 of the 14 deaths in 2008 among children with prior involvement with her department, Ploehn said earlier this year.

She declined to comment on circumstances surrounding Diamond’s death, which she called “a tragedy for our entire county.”

“The safety and the well-being of all children in Los Angeles County remains our highest priority,” Ploehn said in a statement.

One of the key issues under review, according to the internal report, is whether the department acted appropriately in keeping Diamond with her mother, who was still subject to monitored visitation with the older children, then 2 and 6.

Also under scrutiny is a decision by the department last February to place the 2-year-old with Hillman despite his criminal history, the report said. Hillman is the child’s biological father.

A search of Los Angeles County Superior Court records for Hillman turned up convictions for burglary, drug abuse and battery dating to 1998.

In 2005, he was charged with felony domestic violence but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of battery, court records show.

A marijuana possession charge was dismissed.

The court file did not identify the battery victim, although the original felony charge was based on the alleged infliction of injury upon a “spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, former cohabitant, or the mother or father of his or her child.”

Hillman was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years’ probation, and ordered to undergo domestic violence counseling, including anger management.

In 2006, he was kicked out of a “batterers treatment program” after missing four of six meetings, court records show.

The county report states that Diamond’s family had been the subject of six prior abuse and neglect complaints since 2004, when the oldest child, then 18 months old, was alleged to be hungry and living with her mother in a motel with no cooking facilities.

When a social worker could not find them, that allegation was deemed inconclusive .

Subsequent allegations of general neglect, sexual abuse and physical abuse in 2006, 2007 and 2008 involving the oldest child were all deemed inconclusive or unfounded, the report states.

In late January 2009, social workers substantiated allegations that the girl, then 6, had been physically and emotionally abused by her mother.

Besides striking her with a belt, the woman also had interfered with the girl’s relationship with her father, who was not Hillman, and had created “a detrimental environment” that caused her to act out aggressively.

The girl and her younger sibling were then taken from their mother and placed with their biological fathers.

When Diamond was born, the woman was “actively participating in court-ordered services and had nearly completed the required case plan activities,” the report noted.

So she was permitted to sign onto a “family maintenance plan” that allowed her to keep her new daughter at home, the report said.

“That agreement remained in place at the time that Diamond suffered the injuries that resulted in her death,” the report said.

Times staff writer Garrett Therolf and researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

Man gets 25 years to life for murder of Dae’von Bailey, 6,0,741489.story

By Hector Becerra

Marcas Catrell Fisher, 36, pleaded guilty to beating his ex-girlfriend’s son in South L.A. as his 5-year-old daughter watched from the corner of a room, unable to scream.

One month after pleading guilty, a South Los Angeles man was sentenced Tuesday to 25 years to life in prison for beating his ex-girlfriend’s 6-year-old son to death.

Compton Superior Court Judge John Cheroske sentenced Marcas Catrell Fisher, 36, to the maximum term for first-degree murder.

Fisher killed Dae’von Bailey on July 23 in South Los Angeles as the boy’s 5-year-old half sister — who was Fisher’s daughter — watched from the corner of a room, unable to scream. The girl would later tell social workers that she had seen her brother tied up in the hallway, crying, as her father beat him.

Later, she said, Fisher put Dae’von in the shower and told him to “wake up” before dragging him to the bedroom. Fisher eventually fled, leaving his daughter behind with her dead brother.

For almost a month, he eluded a police dragnet before being tracked to an apartment in North Las Vegas.

A convicted rapist, Fisher had agreed to care for Dae’von and his daughter after their mother, Tylette Davis, put five of her six children in other people’s care. The boy and his siblings had been the subject of 10 child abuse or neglect investigations since 1999 by the time he came under Fisher’s care.

In the last three months before his death, Dae’von twice told authorities that he had been physically abused by Fisher, but both times he was left with the man who eventually killed him.

Los Angeles Police Department detectives said that the boy’s body bore bruises in different stages of healing, indicating that he had been abused for an extended period of time.

On Tuesday, a bespectacled Fisher apologized from behind a pane of glass at the Compton courthouse for killing the boy.

Before he was sentenced, Majella Maas, the boy’s kindergarten teacher at Lakewood’s Riley Elementary School, told the court that Dae’von’s death left not only his family grief-stricken. Later, Maas said the boy was the most affection-hungry child she had encountered in 28 years of teaching, always asking for hugs.

After the sentencing, she went to his grave site in a Compton cemetery. It bears no marker, she said, but a cemetery worker knew where it was and led her there.

He had made a makeshift marker for Dae’von’s grave, Maas said.

“He said, ‘Oh, the baby?’ I’ll show you where he is,’ ” she said. “He knew his name instantly.”

Family Of Drowned Girl Had History With CPS


Sacramento Mother Accused Of Homicide

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The husband of a woman accused of drowning her daughter was earlier investigated by Child Protective Services after an abuse allegation, but the results were inconclusive.

Anul Ram, 31, was arrested on Nov. 15 on suspicion of killing her 3-year-old daughter, Divya, in an apartment in Sacramento’s Greenhaven neighborhood. The mother is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday on suspicion on homicide.

Documents obtained by KCRA 3 show that a social worker visited the family in June 2008.

The children’s father, Dinesh Ram, was accused of physically abusing his then 5-year-old son. CPS later closed the case.

CPS then responded again, after the apparent drowning.

A report by the on-call social worker stated that according to Dinesh Ram, Anul Ram was “not acting right” and had some kind of writing on her face when she came by to pick up their children from his residence.

Dinesh Ram later called police to request a welfare check.

Police were tied up on other calls, at the time, including a shooting death and another shooting.

At 1:50 a.m., Dinesh Ram called back with additional information that led him to believe his wife may have killed the girl, police said.

Other records suggest Anul Ram had a history of allegedly being abused by her husband and had filed for bankruptcy.

According to Sacramento County court records, it appears that Anul Ram, who is from Fiji, was paired in an arranged marriage with her husband.

Documents allege that Dinesh Ram verbally and physically abused Anul Ram for years. Court proceedings started to grant their divorce, according to records, but were stopped.

A temporary restraining against Dinesh Ram was issued in February 2008, records show.

Court records allege a 10-year history of abuse, saying Anul Ram’s husband “physically chased her with a fireplace poker pushed her” and told a close friend “that he has purchased a gun and is going to kill me.”

Dinesh Ram claims there was no history of domestic violence in their relationship and that his estranged wife was on medication. He wouldn’t explain what type of medication she was on or for what type of condition she was being treated.

SB police officer accused of violating rights

Stacia Glenn, Staff Writer

Posted: 11/21/2009 07:24:50 AM PST

SAN BERNARDINO – Wylena Andrews landed in jail, she says, because police wanted her brother for burglarizing a sergeant’s house.

When they couldn’t find him, they took Andrews as a bargaining chip and threatened to haul her siblings off to Child Protective Services unless her brother turned himself in.

“I kept saying I hadn’t done anything, but they put me in the cell and that’s where I stayed,” Andrews, 30, recalled of the day San Bernardino police charged into her family’s Fontana home in 2006. “I fell asleep crying. I was just devastated. They basically played me and acted like it was all a big joke.”

Andrews claims that in holding her against her will without probable cause, police violated her civil rights. She blames San Bernardino police Sgt. Brad Lawrence, whose tumultuous career has landed him in the middle of several internal and criminal investigations over the years.

Criminologist William Schneid, who was hired by San Bernardino Police Chief Keith Kilmer to investigate allegations of misconduct in the department, confirmed Andrews’ case was part of his probe but declined to comment on his findings.

Sources close to the investigation say a portion of the findings have been turned over to the District Attorney’s Office for consideration of criminal charges.

In an e-mail, Kilmer also declined to discuss specifics of the investigation.

“First, it may impact the process by our department or any other agencythat may be involved or become involved,” Kilmer wrote. “Secondly, internal personnel information cannot be discussed outside of a court ordered process.”

Lawrence was placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 4.

Almost immediately after taking over the department in June, Kilmer hired Schneid to review an Internal Affairs probe into past allegations that Lawrence and his former narcotics team illegally detained people without probable cause, a practice commonly known as keeping someone “on ice.”

That investigation uncovered claims that money went missing from a department fund used to pay informants and buy drugs for undercover operations. Lawrence, who at that time supervised a narcotics team, is being investigated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department for misappropriation of funds, sources say.

Reached by phone, Lawrence said he was not told why he was put on leave and said he doesn’t remember Andrews.

He declined to comment further.

He also declined to have his attorney speak on his behalf.

Lawrence has worked as a patrol sergeant since March, when he returned to duty after a seven-month leave that ended when former Chief Michael Billdt declared past “on ice” allegations to be unfounded.

It is unclear whether Andrews’ ordeal was included in investigations handled by Billdt’s administration.

Andrews’ mother, Minerva Santana, filed a complaint after San Bernardino police took Andrews from her home Jan. 18, 2006. The family says investigators never followed up on the complaint or interviewed them until recently, when Schneid took their statements.

“This was swept under the table,” Andrews said. “Cops act like they can uproot people and do what they want. That’s wrong. They’re supposed to be protecting us, not incriminating us.”

Andrews has served time for burglary, forgery, theft and possession of narcotics.

But her past, Andrews says, does not give law enforcement the right to violate her civil rights and essentially hold her hostage because of a case involving her brother, Wiley Andrews.

Police wanted to question Wiley Andrews, 29, about the burglary of a sergeant’s San Bernardino home on Jan. 17, 2006. His fingerprint was reportedly found on a doorknob inside the sergeant’s house.

Wiley Andrews was on probation after being convicted of receiving stolen property, which enabled police to quickly identify him in their system.

Police couldn’t find an address for Wiley Andrews so they decided to go speak to Santana, who at the time was letting both Wylena and Wiley live in her Fontana condominium.

A boy, 14, and girl, 11, were the only ones home when Lawrence and his narcotics team arrived. The family claims they forced their way into the house and kept their hands on their guns while yelling for Wiley Andrews to come out.

An officer then called Santana and allegedly told her that she needed to come home immediately or they would call Child Protective Services. Since Santana could not leave work on such short notice, she asked Wylena Andrews to meet with the officers.

Wylena Andrews did not know where her brother was, but Lawrence eventually tracked him down on his cell phone.

“They said, `We’ve got your mom, we’ve got your sister and we’re taking them to jail,” Wiley Andrews said in an interview. “It was basically a deal with me that they’d let my family go if I turned myself in.”

Wiley Andrews told police he was in Las Vegas and would turn himself in the next morning.

Lawrence allegedly ordered Wylena Andrews to be taken to the city’s jail for a parole violation. Her parole agent would later tell authorities that she had not violated her parole and police never contacted him about Wylena Andrews, sources say.

Wylena Andrews spent nearly 24 hours in the Police Department’s jail cell. She was taken out only once to be grilled about her brother’s whereabouts.

When Wiley Andrews arrived at the station the following evening, his sister was immediately released.

Wylena Andrews was never charged with a parole violation. Her brother pleaded guilty to the burglary, though he says he did so only for his family’s safety.

Internal Affairs detectives interviewed the family last week and showed them several photographs, asking them to identify any officers they remembered.

Wylena Andrews says she remembers Lawrence’s face “like it was yesterday” but did not see him in the line-up of photographs.

She has not retained an attorney and said she only wants justice “so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

History of controversy:

Brad Lawrence joined the San Bernardino Police Department in 1984.

– In 1989, a school officer reported that Lawrence had threatened to tie an uncooperative suspect to the trunk of his car during a field interrogation. Lawrence was charged by the District Attorney’s Office and fired but was rehired after the trial ended with a hung jury.

– On July 2, 2008, Sgt. Mike Desrochers accused Lawrence of illegally detaining two men driving in a car.

– In August 2008, another officer lodged a complaint against Lawrence for allegedly overstepping the boundaries of a search warrant while raiding a San Bernardino motel.

– On Sept. 19, 2008, a booking log shows that a man named Greg Parker was “on ice” in the police jail. Parker’s attorney claims Lawrence kidnapped his client and later searched his home without a search warrant.


Accused killer of woman, 17-month-old boy had previous violent history

By Chris Metinko

Oakland Tribune

Posted: 11/17/2009 04:45:15 PM PST

Updated: 11/17/2009 06:12:12 PM PST

The Oakland man accused of killing his girlfriend and her 17-month-old son and dumping the bodies in Berkeley had several run-ins with the law before his court appearance Tuesday.

Curtis Martin, who is charged with murder in the deaths of Zoelina Williams, 23, and her 17-month-old son, Jashon, also has faced charges in the past dealing stemming from firearm possession and the death of a 3-year-old child of a former girlfriend.

In 1992, Martin was convicted of possession of an assault weapon after he threw a Tec-9-styled firearm from a car fleeing police in East Oakland. He was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Less than two years later, he found himself in legal trouble again — this time, even more serious. He was accused of killing 3-year-old Devin Brewer in Oakland in 1994.

Devin had been admitted to Children’s Hospital Oakland with multiple head wounds and hemorrhaging. Martin and the child’s mother, who were romantically involved at the time, said Devin had fallen off playground equipment at a park. An autopsy, however, revealed that he had suffered multiple blows to the head, which led to his death.

In court filings, Devin’s mother related several stories of being slapped and abused by Martin and Martin’s abuse toward Devin, usually because the child would urinate in bed at night.

Due to issues of proof during the trial, the District Attorney’s Office and Martin’s defense attorney — now Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jon Rolefson — agreed to a plea deal for a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Martin was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

During the sentencing, Judge Larry Goodman said it was disconcerting to see a lack of remorse from Martin and said he had a hard time looking at a picture of his own young daughter before he came out of his chambers to impose the sentence.

“As I said to you in chambers,” Goodman told the defense, “as I am not normal to say on the record, if it was my daughter who had been killed, I would be a raving maniac, and I would probably try to kill Mr. Martin myself.

“Now that is not very judicial, but that is a human response,” he added.

Martin was released from prison on parole in October 2000.

Foster parent charged with child endangerment



Chester — Kenneth Oboyski, 45, of Chester was arrested on Sept. 30 and charged with endangering the welfare of a child.

The Village of Chester Police said their investigation began three months ago, after one of two 15-year-old male foster children accused Oboyski of touching them inappropriately over several years.

The children were removed from the Oboyski home in June, after the investigation began, according to the police report. Computers were seized from the home “that yielded an abundance of digital images,” the report said.

The police charged Oboyski with three counts of endangering the welfare of a child and three counts of forcible touching, all misdemeanors.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Computer Forensic Unit assisted the village police in the investigation.

Oboyski was arraigned before village Justice Steven Hunter and remanded to the Orange County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bail. He was scheduled to appear in the Village of Chester Court at 5 p.m. on Oct. 8.


Why do the children keep dying?,0,4314089,full.column


James Rainey


Gail Helms told me how she happened on the pictures and the headline on the front page of Sunday’s Times: “Flawed County System Lets Children Die Invisibly.”

The tears came to her eyes. She put the paper aside for a while.

Reading about two teenagers dying in foster care would be painful for anyone, but doubly so for Helms. The stories served up another reminder of the anger and despair she felt 14 years ago, when her grandson Lance was beaten to death after a judge returned the boy to his violent, drug-plagued father.

“These cases are so difficult,” Helms, 66, said quietly, on the phone from her home in Hemet. “You can’t help but think: Has anything changed? Has anything changed?”

It’s trite and inadequate to say all of us have failed, but I’m going to say it anyway because I think it’s true.

The L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services needs to do more to keep better tabs on children. The county supervisors who oversee the agency need to do a lot of things better — starting with breaking the years-long logjam that has kept county departments from sharing information about children at risk. And the media, including The Times, need to more consistently pursue an issue that won’t go away any time soon.

I’ve had a particular interest in the issue since I met Gail Helms in the dark days after 2 1/2 -year-old Lance’s death in North Hollywood.

Little I’ve written in nearly 30 years of newspapering has generated as much response as that 1995 story. A picture of the adorable, sandy-haired toddler appeared on Page 1, along with the description of how he’d been hit so hard his internal organs burst.

The phone calls and mail arrived in waves. Eventually, the state Legislature passed reforms.

It all seemed so important then. It all seems so inadequate now.

My article touched only one of the system’s horrific failures, but barely hinted at how kids fall into danger and, more important, what helps keep them safe.

I like to think I got to some of those deeper issues as I wrote about foster care over the next couple of years. But the problems seemed so big — an army of incompetent parents overwhelming a small rank of protectors — it was hard not to get depressed.

Every few years, The Times would go full throttle after another child death or mount a series of stories, but then move on to other things.

“On the general topic of staying on a subject year after year, I think that’s fair criticism on a lot of subjects,” said David Lauter, the Times’ assistant managing editor who oversees local coverage. “News organizations have a tendency to focus attention on a subject for a while, then move on to the next subject. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does work against consistency.”

I could see how the paper would focus its attention elsewhere. There are so many other subjects, people and places in the county that cry out for coverage. Even one activist who has dedicated much of her life to child welfare issues told me confidentially: “You get to a point that your eyes glaze over and you move on.”

Still, if abused and neglected children don’t fall under the old journalism admonition — comfort the afflicted — then who does?

Since taking over local coverage more than a year ago, Lauter said, he has asked his reporters for more coverage. And my colleague Garrett Therolf has joined the battle. He’s detailed children’s deaths, ridden along with a social worker, raised the question of how a county supervisor could be “shocked” at the number of fatalities, when the lawmakers receive regular reports of same and noted how Los Angeles’ many bureaucracies have failed, repeatedly, to figure out a way to share information about endangered kids.

Therolf and veteran investigative reporter Kim Christensen wrote the Sunday pieces about Miguel Padilla and Lazhanae Harris that had Gail Helms near tears.

The stories raised questions about county oversight but also suggested a long-running dilemma of a system “in which choices sometimes boil down to leaving children with families that can’t or won’t care for them, or placing them in foster homes that are no better — and are sometimes worse.”

What hasn’t changed since I left the child welfare beat?

* The need to provide as many services as possible — drug rehab, parenting classes, day care and the like — to troubled families to help them keep children at home. It’s tempting to want to wish a pox on deadbeat parents, but evidence shows it’s cheaper, and works better, to give them a hand. The alternative often is the long-term costs and abysmal outcomes that come with foster homes and, often, the probation camps and prisons that follow.

Trish Ploehn, director of the family services department, tells me an arrangement with federal officials has allowed more money to be spent on such services. The 14 kids in the system who died of abuse or neglect last year was higher than any of us should accept. But when the county was pulling many more children from homes a decade ago, foster care deaths peaked at 20 in one year.

* Promises that the county social workers will get more information — from probation, mental health, sheriff’s deputies and others — to give them more clues when children might be in danger. The supervisors are stumbling along, more than a decade later, on the most recent fix. It’s not a panacea, but more information can only make for better decisions.

* Fights over public records. Our reporters still struggle to learn more about what happened to the kids who died. Despite passage last year of yet another “transparency” law, reports on child deaths often have many key facts blacked out. Ostensibly, the redactions protect siblings, but they seem more likely to protect adults who need to be held accountable.

Finally, I think we could use more notice — like the article Therolf wrote in March about a “ride-along” with one caseworker — about the huge challenges social workers face every day.

As with many other subjects, the media focus more on foster care problems than solutions. News outlets need to do both when it comes to the most daunting work I can imagine.

It’s hard to comprehend the many losses Gail Helms has suffered. After Lance died, her son, David, went to prison for delivering the fatal blow. Daughter Ayn died of lupus, after a long fight to keep custody of Lance and for foster care reforms.

Now 66 and retired from a career in insurance, Gail Helms remains resilient. She laughs about her fading memory and still brings herself to read about foster care horrors, wondering when the system will get better.

In the meantime, Helms said, people can feel better if they help just one child. They can sign on with the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a group of volunteers who help judges make the right decisions for foster children. Or they can give money to the Alliance for Children’s Rights, another nonprofit that intervenes when foster kids aren’t getting what they need.

“Even now, after all these years, it’s like most people don’t know what to do,” Helms said. “I think people need something they can do.”

Charges will be filed against child welfare worker accused of molestation

Special to the Valley News

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009.

Issue 41, Volume 9.

RIVERSIDE – Charges will be filed within the next day or so against a Riverside County child welfare worker accused of taking a teenage boy to his apartment and molesting him, the District Attorney’s Office announced today.

Sean Lamont Birdsong, 37, has been put on administrative leave and will face one count each of false imprisonment, sexual assault with intent to rape, lewd acts on a minor and child endangerment, according to D.A.’s office spokesman John Hall.

The suspect was arrested Sept. 22 and released after posting $50,000 bail, according to jail records. He is expected to be arraigned before the end of the month, Hall said.

Riverside police began investigating Birdsong after a 15-year-old boy alleged that the county Department of Child Protective Services employee had touched him inappropriately and tried to get him drunk, according to Hall.

Birdsong had been assigned to the teen’s case and was involved in placing him in a Rubidoux foster home, Hall said.

The suspect allegedly contacted the boy a day later, saying “he had found (him) a better placement home,” the spokesman said.

“Birdsong instructed the boy to sneak out of the foster home and meet him down the street, which he did,” Hall said. “Birdsong drove to a liquor store, where he purchased a bottle of Bacardi 151, then headed to his (Riverside) apartment.”

Once inside, Birdsong pressed the victim to drink the alcohol, and when the boy resisted, Birdsong told him he was armed and “he had better drink with him,” Hall alleged.

The boy complied, later telling police that as the two were together, Birdsong had his hands on him and tried to pin him against a wall, according to Hall. The boy told his alleged captor that “he was scared and … needed to go outside for a cigarette,” Hall said.

When he stepped outside the apartment, the boy approached another resident of the complex, asking her for help, Hall said.

Riverside police officers arrived a short time later and, after questioning the boy and Birdsong, placed the latter under arrest.

Flawed county system lets children die invisibly


Miguel Padilla, mistreated and abandoned, killed himself at 17,0,4795548.story?page=1

By Kim Christensen and Garrett Therolf


October 11, 2009

Miguel Padilla ran away from a licensed group home in April 2008, but he didn’t go far.

Unknown to anyone at the time, the 17-year-old amputee made his way to a stand of trees near the main driveway. Using his one arm, he climbed into the branches, tied a makeshift noose to a limb and hanged himself.

Nine days passed before a staffer found his body at the sprawling LeRoy Haynes Center in LaVerne, coroner’s records show — and then only by chance.

“To our knowledge there was no search by LeRoy’s or any other authority,” said Dave Rentz, the boy’s minister.

Miguel Padilla died much as he had lived: alone and out of sight, his suicide the final step in a failed journey through Los Angeles County’s child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

At least 268 children who had passed through the child welfare system died from January 2008 through early August 2009, according to internal county records obtained by The Times. They show that 213 were by unnatural or undetermined causes, including 76 homicides, 35 accidents and 16 suicides.

Eighteen of the fatalities were deemed the direct result of abuse or neglect by a caregiver, subjecting them to public disclosure under a recent state law aimed at prevention.

But Miguel and many others perished all but invisibly, their deaths attracting little or no public scrutiny.

Through interviews and previously confidential records, The Times examined his death and that of Lazhanae Harris, a 13-year-old girl slain in March. Both underscore systemic failings, particularly the risks of losing track of abused kids as they commit crimes and “cross over” to the justice system, or as they move through multiple state-licensed homes.

Together, they also illustrate the range of flaws in a system in which choices sometimes boil down to leaving children with families that can’t or won’t care for them, or placing them in foster homes that are no better — and are sometimes worse.

Trish Ploehn, director of the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services, said such deaths, though horrific, do not represent the vast majority of the thousands of cases her agency handles each year.

“The tragic lives and deaths of Miguel and Lazhanae only begin to scratch the surface of the extremely difficult, complex and complicated family circumstances that DCFS social workers are faced with every day,” Ploehn said.

“It is very rare for a child to die of abuse or neglect while in the care or under the supervision of DCFS,” she added, “and we consistently work to perfect our performance to help keep children safe, even after they leave our protection and supervision.”

Ploehn said efforts are under way to improve collaboration between juvenile justice and child welfare officials and to intervene swiftly in the lives of troubled families.

By almost any measure, Miguel’s life would fit the definition of mistreatment: He was abandoned by his mother, largely neglected by his father and left to struggle with untreated medical problems and depression most of his life.

By the time he died, however, he’d broken the law and moved from the care of the county’s children’s services department to that of its Probation Department, which oversees 20,000 juvenile offenders.

Up to half have a history with the child welfare agency, Probation Department Director Robert Taylor said. Ploehn said the proportion was far lower.

In Miguel’s case, interviews and records show, the county failed him time and again — not finding him a stable home, not addressing emotional problems that contributed to his delinquency, not even looking for him when he disappeared.

When the County Children’s Commission, a panel appointed by the Board of Supervisors, took the extraordinary step of reviewing Miguel’s death and four others among abused children on probation last year, it found “serious and consistent deficiencies” in their care. Four were suicides and one died of disease.

“Had the system met its responsibilities, the committee believes that some of these suicidal youth might have made healthier choices and the fifth might have had his health complaints acted upon more timely,” the commission said in a confidential draft report prepared for county supervisors and obtained by The Times.

The draft was never issued in final form.

Abandoned at 10

Miguel Angel Padilla Jr. was born in February 1991 at a Sylmar hospital and later moved with his family to Mexico, where he had two accidents that would shape his life.

When he was about 9, he touched a metal rod to a power line while playing on an apartment building rooftop. He was seriously burned and lost his right arm below the elbow. He later lost the sight in his left eye when a firecracker shattered a pop bottle in his face.

At age 10, he lost his mother, who took his three siblings to Texas and started a new life without him, according to interviews and child welfare records obtained through a court petition.

“Minor’s mother left him when he was little and has never made any attempt to visit or call,” a social worker’s report noted in August 2004.

Shortly after Miguel’s mother left, the boy and his father, Miguel Padilla Sr., moved back to Southern California, to the Santa Clarita Valley community of Newhall.

The father worked odd jobs and spent much of his time in Mexico. The boy was raised mainly by his elderly paternal great-grandmother, Maria Arriaga Hernandez, who by all accounts, including her own, was ill-equipped to care for him.

“She had no real control,” said Rentz, a minister who was close to the family, “but she provided the best she could.”

The family first came to the attention of the children’s services department in April 2003, when social workers substantiated allegations that Miguel’s father had neglected the 12-year-old’s medical, dental and emotional needs.

Their report cited the father’s “lack of cooperation,” poverty and limited job skills. Records also noted Miguel’s suicidal tendencies, which his father attributed to ridicule from other children about his disability.

“Miguel sometimes seems to have a hard time processing information,” a follow-up report stated, adding that he used poor judgment and seemed depressed.

Records show that Arriaga, then in her late 80s, went to Mexico with his father for long stretches, leaving the boy with friends or relatives.

Although social workers visited regularly and drafted a mandatory action plan, even its clearest goals — to get Miguel to school regularly and to get him a prosthetic arm — were never achieved, documents show.

Arriaga told social workers repeatedly that she had trouble comprehending what they said, even though they spoke Spanish. On the signature line of the parenting plan, she scratched an X.

Even so, there is no evidence that the children’s services department tried to remove the boy and find him a more stable environment.

When a reporter visited Arriaga recently at her apartment in Newhall, she referred questions to Miguel Sr., 45.

In an interview, he acknowledged that he lives much of the time in Mexico, where he has two other children. He was unable to drive Miguel to his appointments, he said, because he’d lost his license and was jailed for driving under the influence.

But he denied that he neglected his son or that the boy was emotionally troubled. He suspects foul play in the death, not suicide.

“My son didn’t have no problems,” Padilla said. “He was just a fighter, that’s all, and when I wasn’t around for a while he got away from his grandma. She’s old and she couldn’t handle him too good.”

Child welfare records paint a bleaker portrait, saying Miguel sometimes refused to eat and locked himself in the bathroom for hours, crying. At school, he’d skip recess.

“He said at school he stays in the classroom because he can’t make friends, except for the second or third graders because they are nicer to him,” a social worker wrote in June 2004, when he was 13.

That spring, Miguel was measured for a prosthetic arm he desperately wanted. Months later, he had to be re-measured; he’d missed so many appointments his size had changed.

Meanwhile, he wore a down jacket to hide his disability, said Denise Tomey, executive director of the Carousel Ranch in Santa Clarita, where he spent six months in a riding program for disabled kids.

“He had no self esteem,” Tomey said in an interview. “He walked with his head down and he wore that heavy jacket, even if it was 105 degrees out. He thought people judged him because he was missing an arm.”

Tomey and Rentz both remembered the boy showing a softer side, such as when he helped other kids at the ranch learn to ride and groom horses.

“I have a heart,” he told a probation officer in March 2006. “I care about people. When I have opportunity to do something really bad I think about it.”

But he also had a penchant for trouble: He faced charges for allegedly threatening and assaulting a teacher. He also was accused of burglarizing a home, vandalizing cars and tagging a fence with gang graffiti.

Cumulatively the charges were enough to land Miguel in the care of the Probation Department and in a succession of juvenile hall and group home placements.

Along the way, probation reports show, he joined a Newhall gang; picked up the nicknames “Little Shadow” and “Lefty”; and told authorities he used marijuana and alcohol. He liked school but was “not that smart,” he said, and during one stretch of heavy absenteeism he pulled straight Fs.

By May 2006, his great-grandmother was overwhelmed. “I cannot take him,” she told probation officials. “He is not well. He asks me to make him well. . . . He yells out loud to me, ‘Cure me.’ “

Miguel spent the last two years of his life in multiple placements, running away at least once before going to the Haynes Center. One probation report called him “a continual behavior problem.”

While Miguel was in juvenile detention, psychiatrist Saul Niedorf concluded that the boy’s impulse control had been impaired by brain damage from the electrocution. Until then, apparently, no one had considered that possibility.

Niedorf recommended a “structured, therapeutic setting” for Miguel, and he was sent to the Haynes Center, which is licensed to house 72 boys, in January 2008.

The day after his last court hearing that month, his father and great-grandmother left for Mexico, asking a social worker to visit him in their absence. In a March 2008 letter seeking official permission to stop by, the social worker said Miguel had had no weekend visitors for two months.

“I have been informed that the minor has been struggling lately and I believe he may benefit from the interaction,” she wrote.

A month later he hanged himself.

Taylor, the county’s probation chief, defended his department’s handling of the case but acknowledged that the death highlighted the need to better understand why so many children who pass through the child welfare system end up in the care of his agency.

In hindsight, Taylor said, it might have been better if Miguel at a much earlier age had been placed with someone other than his elderly great-grandmother.

“Finding someone who would have been a better caregiver might have resulted in a different outcome,” he said. “You just don’t know.”

As for youngsters who go AWOL from Probation, Taylor said, about 300 were missing at the time Miguel disappeared and he doesn’t have the staff to track them down.

Dan Maydeck, president and chief executive of the LeRoy Haynes Center, declined to comment, citing legal and contractual restrictions.

Miguel’s death signifies a much broader problem, said Miriam Long, a Los Angeles deputy mayor who worked on children’s issues as an aide to former county Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke.

“A lot of these kids have mental health problems that should have been addressed much earlier in their lives,” she said. “Without sounding too much like a bleeding heart liberal, because I’m not one, they could have been redeemed.”

But Long said they can be difficult, and many adults would rather not deal with them.

“The teachers were happy when they were finally washed out and gone,” Long said. “DCFS was happy when they were gone to Probation, and Probation was glad they were gone and went AWOL.”

Before her retirement last year, Burke got board approval to have Probation search for AWOL children and report any deaths confidentially to supervisors.

Seeing no action, her successor, Mark Ridley-Thomas, got the board last month to reiterate Burke’s order.

“They don’t get it,” he said of the department.

Tomey, the ranch director, knows only that children like Miguel can be helped.

“He really was one of those kids that, if he’d been in the right situation, he would have ended up being a totally different person,” she said.

“His life could have turned out OK, or not. Tragically, it did not.”

Times database editor Doug Smith contributed to this report.

Father sues Fresno Co. over son’s death


He says Child Protective Services failed boy, 10, who was fatally beaten.

By John Ellis / The Fresno Bee

The father of Seth Ireland, the 10-year-old boy who police said died after he was repeatedly punched, kicked and stomped by his mother’s boyfriend, has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Fresno County.

Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian filed the suit Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court on behalf of Joe Hudson.

The bare-bones suit is four pages long and makes several allegations of negligence against Fresno County’s Child Protective Services.

Paboojian declined to comment on the lawsuit, and Catherine Huerta, director of Fresno County Children and Family Services, declined to comment because she has not seen the suit.

Besides Fresno County, the suit also names Rena Ireland, Seth’s mother, but she is not being sued and her inclusion is because wrongful-death lawsuits must include all known heirs.

Crime and courts coverage Seth Ireland died Jan. 6, which police say was eight days after he was beaten and kicked inside his southwest Fresno home.

Rena Ireland, 41, has been charged with child abuse. Her 33-year-old boyfriend, LeBaron Vaughn, who has confessed to beating Seth, has been charged with murder. They are both in Fresno County Jail.

Hudson’s lawsuit says that Seth was a client of Child Protective Services. It says agency officials received “repeated reports of abuse and were given evidence of abuse” of Seth. But, the suit says, the county failed to protect the child and did not remove him from the home and away from Vaughn.

The reported instances of abuse occurred between June 1, 2008, and Seth’s death.

The suit also says the county “intentionally and/or negligently failed to allow [Hudson] to see his dying son in the hospital for an extended period of time after the fatal beating and before the child’s death.”

At the time of Seth’s death, Huerta said her office began looking at the family at the end of August. Hudson had expressed concerns that his son was being beaten, she said at the time.

Police also said Rena Ireland watched the beatings.

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6320.


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