Sunday, April 25, 2004

Spokane

Missed opportunities
Before many of the region's youngest abuse victims died, there were warning signs of trouble _ and chances to save their lives

Benjamin Shors
Staff writer

Death did not come quickly for 2-year-old Anthony Mitchell.

Over the course of three hours, his mother's boyfriend punched, slapped and shook Anthony in Spirit Lake on a fall day in 1996.

Ralph J. Reyes, then 21, beat the child so hard that his own hand turned red and swollen. Anthony's head was cut and bruised, his ribs broken in five spots. His liver was torn, and bruises covered his lungs and heart.

When Reyes finally called Anthony's aunt, Theresa Smith, she frantically
tried to revive the boy, even as the situation grew more desperate. After Anthony's death that day, Smith sat down with her own toddler and tried to explain what happened.

"How do you explain to a 2-year-old that his best friend is dead?" she testified at Reyes' sentencing. "I tried to explain the concept of him going to heaven, but my 2-year-old didn't understand that. He doesn't know what heaven is."

Reyes went to an Idaho prison for life. And Anthony Mitchell joined a tragic list.

In the past decade, at least 16 infants and toddlers in Eastern Washington and North Idaho died of abuse at the hands of caregivers including baby sitters, relatives and mothers and fathers. That doesn't include deaths from neglect.

A review of hundreds of pages of internal state reports and court documents shows missed opportunities by parents, social workers and medical staff to safeguard the children. Yet often the children died without a warning to Child Protective Services -- no calls from family friends who noticed bruises or worried relatives.

Social workers left children with parents despite documented broken bones, warnings from doctors and nurses, and signs of chronic neglect. Single mothers ignored the threats of their boyfriends, some of whom blatantly threatened to kill the children, then followed through.

The deaths offered the states a chance to learn from mistakes. But often, internal child fatality reviews in Washington and Idaho yielded tepid results, if any. From 1999 to 2003, Idaho reviewed 13 child fatalities from a variety of causes. Those reviews resulted in a single recommendation. It has yet to be implemented.

State reports in Idaho and Washington criticized sloppy investigations at child death scenes, particularly in cases with no obvious cause of death. Determining the cause of death was often up to coroners, who are not required to have any medical training.

In the past year, Idaho and Washington failed federal reviews of their child welfare systems. The reviews found the state systems slow to respond to threats to children and threatened fines of at least $1 million if improvements aren't made. All 41 states tested so far have failed.

"We shouldn't have to wait for a fatality to create change," said Jon Gould, deputy director of Children's Alliance, a Washington advocacy group. "In a child welfare system that isn't meeting federal standards for safety and protection of children, there is much room for change."

The federal reviews offer wake-up calls to states and the chance to institute sweeping reforms, said Uma Ahluwalia, Washington's child-welfare director.

"We can't do this alone," Ahluwalia said. "We need to build partnerships. We need advocates, providers, neighbors and the community in this work with us."

The threat at home

In Idaho's and Washington's vast child-welfare systems -- which collectively receive nearly 100,000 calls of abuse and neglect each year -- the deaths are a tiny fraction of the children abused and neglected.

In Spokane County, social workers investigated 3,500 cases last year involving 5,100 children. In that time, two Spokane children died after alleged abuse.

Nationwide, nearly 900,000 children suffered abuse and neglect in 2002, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of those, 1,390 children died.

The deaths, however rare, offer valuable insights into Idaho's and Washington's child welfare systems.

All too often, the greatest threat slept in the next room. At least eight male caregivers have been convicted in the fatal abuse of a young child in the Inland Northwest in the past 10 years.

Currently, two boyfriends and a father are awaiting trial in Spokane County on charges of beating children to death.

Last summer, 2-year-old Gage Roberts died after being left in the care of Michael Emerson, his mother's 25-year-old fiance. Emerson told police he struck Gage on the head "with a closed fist in a hammer fashion" when the boy wouldn't take a nap. Emerson has pleaded innocent.

In the parlance of social workers, the men were often "unbonded males" -- boyfriends or baby sitters who were not related to the child in their care.

Robert Doney, a 28-year-old man suspected in the death of his girlfriend's daughter in December, had 10 convictions in Spokane County. Police reports detail accounts in which Doney allegedly stabbed his brother, bashed a woman in the head by swinging a table lamp, and beat a cousin unconscious for asking for a light for his cigarette.

According to court documents, Doney threatened to kill Victoria Ramon Richards, 2, after moving in with her mother last fall. On the day after Christmas, police found the girl unconscious with trauma to her head and genitals. She died later that day. Doney has pleaded innocent.

Time and again, the children were left in the care of abusive, violent men, including some who already had felony records for injuring children.

Kenneth Galloway told his girlfriend that he'd been in prison, but didn't divulge the nature of the crimes: He'd been convicted of killing his infant son and abusing twin sons in Pierce County in 1990.

In 1995, seven months after his release from Airway Heights Corrections Center, Galloway baby-sat 2-year-old Devin Erb and, while his mother went to a softball game, beat him to death. Galloway is now serving a 24-year prison sentence on a second-degree murder conviction.

Sara Erb said the Department of Corrections never told her why Galloway served time previously. DOC officials, who knew Galloway was living with Erb, said at the time that they did inform the mother and warned her not to leave her son alone with Galloway.

Rex Alan Lawton III, age 26, was already a familiar name in the criminal justice system before his arrest last month in Kootenai County.

In 1997, police arrested Lawton on the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation after his 6-week-old daughter was brought to a hospital with fractures to her skull, shin, ribs and collarbone. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of lying to federal agents about how the child was hurt. A federal judge sentenced Lawton to 30 months in jail.

His probation prohibited him from living with a child unless approved by a probation officer. In March, sheriff's deputies arrested Lawton after his daughter suffered a skull fracture and bleeding on the brain.

A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons said she could not comment on the case without a court order.

Missing the warnings

Frequently in the fatal cases, warning signs abounded.

In several cases, social workers in both states identified children as endangered, yet they failed to take the next crucial step -- removing them from harm's way.

Wayne Rounsville, executive director of Children's Home Society, a nonprofit community support group, said overworked social workers and a lack of community resources were failures of the system, not individuals.

"At that point, it's almost inevitable we're going to miss someone," Rounsville said. "We don't have the resources and the money to respond to every situation. That's a problem of the system."

Social workers are often forced to make a heart-breaking choice -- preserving the family or protecting the child.

In 1997, infant Rebekkah Pettit arrived at a Moscow, Idaho, hospital with a broken leg.

The state removed the child from her parents' home, suspecting abuse. But when the parents refused to discuss the injury, a social worker concluded that, despite the broken leg, she lacked the evidence to prove abuse.

Two months after being returned to her home, Rebekkah was rushed across the border to a Washington hospital with head trauma. Physicians found broken bones in her chest, spine and shoulder. Her father, David Pettit, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. An Idaho judge sentenced him to up to 40 years in prison.

In Spokane, social workers worried about chronic neglect in the life of Serenity Rudd, 2.

"The mother appeared more interested in doing crossword puzzles than interacting with the child," according to the first complaint received by the state in 2000, more than two years before Serenity's death.

A string of allegations followed: Melissa Rudd, then 21, nearly suffocated her daughter on the bus, wrapping her tightly in a blanket. Serenity's ear infection went untreated for weeks, Melissa made her daughter fall, and was uncooperative, according to state records.

Of the five complaints investigated, the state ruled three were unfounded.

On April 30, 2002, a CPS social worker found the neglect to be chronic and suggested the state might file a dependency petition to remove Serenity from the home.

Three weeks later, Rudd left Serenity with friends for six days.

On May 21, Serenity arrived at a Spokane hospital with cigarette burns on her feet, a broken collarbone and a body temperature of 87 degrees.

Kenneth C. Brian, an acquaintance of Rudd's, told police he threw Serenity against a wall to stop her crying. He is serving a 24-year prison term.

An internal CPS review praised the social workers' documentation of the case.

"Reviews look at whether policy was followed," said Kathy Spears, a CPS spokeswoman for Washington. "It could be a situation where nothing we could have done would have made the difference."

A chance to learn

Some death reviews in Washington led to sweeping policy changes affecting the care of children across the state.

Others found nothing.

In the past five years, Idaho's CPS fatality teams produced one recommendation.

Shirley Alexander, Idaho's child welfare program manager, defended the state's evaluations.

"A recommendation for a change in policy and procedures is just one part of the review process," Alexander said.

Idaho officials denied a public records request for the fatality reviews, but did release the recommendation.

The solitary change suggested was simple and similar to changes enacted by Washington just a year earlier.

The recommendation stemmed from the 2002 death of Elizabeth "Lizzy" Goodwin, a 6-year-old autistic girl who drowned after her guardians left her unattended in a bathtub in Coeur d'Alene, according to court documents.

A background check would have revealed that the guardian, Denise Whittle, had a criminal history including domestic battery, misdemeanor battery and passing bad checks. Whittle, who is now charged with involuntary manslaughter, had also been charged in Nevada with child abuse and endangerment in 1993.

The team investigating Elizabeth's death recommended that the state adopt background checks for guardians. The recommendation was sent to a state subcommittee, where it remains under review.

In Washington, CPS reviews the cases of children who received services in the year before their death. A new state law will require CPS to review all deaths of children referred to the agency.

A Spokane fatality review team convened after the death of infant Angela Lynn Biotti in December 2002.

The state had little time to intervene in Angela's life. She lived just 35 days.

But it had a chance.

Five days before Angela's death in 2002, a nurse dialed a state hotline and warned of her father's temper.

Angela's 14-year-old mother, Tasha Jones, feared leaving the child with Casey Biotti, 18, who "hits the wall" when the baby cried, the nurse reported.

There were other red flags. Social workers had received complaints concerning the families of both parents.

The state also had a file on Biotti's father, Jeff Richards, with whom the young family was living.

Richards said he gave up parental rights to two older children from a previous marriage because he was caring for too many children.

Despite the family history, the state coded the report "information only." That meant CPS did not investigate the claims but kept them on record in case more complaints were received.

On Dec. 8, in the early morning hours, Casey Biotti climbed out of bed, awakened by Angela's crying. According to Biotti's statement to police, he slammed Angela's head against a windowsill, then laid her back in her crib.

She died of blunt force injuries to her head and neck.

After her death, the state discovered that chest X-rays showing Angela's broken ribs were taken weeks before she died. They weren't read by a radiologist until three weeks after her death.

The fatality review offered few answers.

State officials say they don't remember why a radiologist didn't read the X-rays, even though they spoke with Angela's pediatrician. They say no record was kept of the conversation.

The review recommended that the details of the complaints "should be accurately reflected in the referral."

Mary Meinig, Washington's ombudsman for children and families, has pushed for more reviews and for more consistency from one review to the next.

"We should be able to learn from every child's death," Meinig said. "It behooves everyone for the agency and the people who are involved to conduct a critical review."

Washington currently does not have a clearinghouse of the regional reviews and their recommendations where they can be examined by other regions.

Ahluwalia, director of child welfare in Washington, said the state plans to overhaul its child fatality review teams in the wake of the federal review. The new system will consolidate fatality reviews and try to create more accountability.

A statewide practice assessment team will critique the regional offices' work, Ahluwalia said.

Idaho officials said they have plans to improve the review system through internal reviews and through outside reviews of the deaths. A statewide committee will review the findings of each regional death review.

`I'll never get over this'

As the states try to improve the child welfare systems, families struggle to reconstruct shattered lives.

In a quiet subdivision in Post Falls, a civil engineering technician named Don Buss Jr. lives each day with the memory of his son, Alex, who died nearly nine years ago.

"I'll never get over this," Buss said, staring at pictures of Alex that still hang on the walls of his home. "I don't think you ever come through it."

By his father's recollection, Alexander Buss was an energetic 2-year-old who loved toy trucks and tools. When Don and his wife separated, Alex split time between their homes.

On a summer day in 1995, Alex was left in the care of his mother's boyfriend, a man distressed by his role as a baby sitter, according to court records. Despite police investigations and a lengthy trial, what happened that day remains unclear.

Kevin Merwin, the boyfriend, said the boy fainted and fell from a bed. At Merwin's trial, a pediatrician testified Alex would have had to fall 30 feet to suffer the injuries that killed him.

Alex died after his brain swelled. Blood vessels in his eyes burst. Bruises covered his lips, stomach and back.

Merwin went to an Idaho prison for two years for felony injury to a child. He has since been released.

Alex went to a grassy cemetery along a busy street, where his father fusses over the flowers on his grave.

Benjamin Shors can be reached at

(509) 459-5484 or by e-mail at benjamins@spokesman.com.


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