Monday, April 26, 2004

Spokane

Long odds shorten lives
Prevalence of violence taking toll on region's Native American children

Benjamin Shors
Staff writer

With the year coming to a close and the skies threatening snow, Victoria Ramon Richards' family set about the task of laying the 2-year-old to rest.

Her family held a two-day vigil over the tiny casket. In keeping with tribal traditions, they sang songs and whispered prayers over her bruised body. They remembered the little girl who loved pickles and Elmo. The girl who blessed her mother's every sneeze.

The night before Victoria's burial, her family sat up with the casket. They wa
nted to be sure that when her spirit left her body, Victoria wouldn't be alone.

The death of Victoria is only the most recent tear in the fabric of Spokane's Native American community. At least seven American Indian children have died from abuse or neglect since 2000. They have been shot, drugged and burned, and beaten to death.

"We never have time to heal," said Toni Lodge, director of the NATIVE Project, which offers counseling and health services. "Every time a child dies in our community, those wounds reopen."

Victoria died on the day after Christmas last year in a burst of violence, according to police reports. But in her short, tragic life, there were warnings.

A cancer in the community

Victoria Ramon was born on Aug. 30, 2001, the daughter of a Colville Indian woman and an 18-year-old Mexican immigrant with a ninth-grade education.

In pictures, Victoria bounces gleefully on playground equipment, hugs her cousin, celebrates a birthday. Her smile is wide and bright, her hair dark black and neatly parted.

From birth, she faced long odds. In Spokane County, half of Native Americans live in poverty. They suffer more health problems, unemployment and crime than the rest of the population, according to county and federal statistics.

Violent deaths have sprouted like a cancer in the community. In Spokane, Native Americans are three times more likely to be murdered than the general population, according to a study released last month by the Seattle Indian Health Board, a community health center. Their lives are six times more likely to end in an alcohol-related death. Nationwide, homicides among American Indians and Alaska Natives grew 20 percent from 1988 to 1998, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For decades, state and federal officials have worked to improve communications between social workers and tribal leaders.

In 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act gave tribes jurisdiction over their own children. Prior to that, Native American children in dangerous homes were placed in foster care and, all too often, ties to their tribes were severed.

A Department of Social and Health Services manual requires social workers to notify tribes "at the earliest possible point prior to and during any child abuse or neglect investigation involving a Washington state Indian child."

Victoria first came to the attention of Washington's Child Protective Services two years before her death.

But social workers never forwarded Victoria's case to tribal leaders.

Information only

CPS, charged with protecting vulnerable children and removing them from their homes if needed, first learned of Victoria Ramon when they got a phone call one day after her birth to Joni Richards and Victor Ramon, according to records obtained this month under the state's Open Records Act.

Much of the content of that call was blacked out by state officials because it pertained to Richards' other children. Those two children now live in South Dakota, according to family members.

The referral contains a denial of wrongdoing by Richards, but state officials blacked out the allegation against her.

In January 2002, CPS received another referral. The person said police regularly visited Victoria's home, and Richards had a restraining order against Victor Ramon.

A state worker recorded the call as "information only," which meant the state did not investigate.

A simple check of court records would have verified many of the caller's concerns.

On Dec. 14, 2001, three months after Victoria's birth, police responded to a domestic violence call at a Spokane apartment. Police reports say Richards' right eye was black and swollen and that she was intoxicated. Witnesses said they watched Ramon punch her; he would need a Spanish translator to understand the charges against him.

Police returned one month later. Richards said Ramon struck her three times in the face, police reports said.

In July 2002, police responded to a call for help.

Richards, who had a restraining order against Ramon, told police that he had banged on the apartment's door and windows, before breaking a window with a stick. She told police she feared Ramon would kill her.

Eventually, Ramon disappeared from Joni and Victoria's lives. Richards' family said he was deported to Mexico.

No contact with tribe

Six months before Victoria's death, CPS received another referral. This time, a caller reported that Joni Richards was drinking, providing beer to teenagers, and then leaving Victoria in their care, according to CPS reports.

Victoria roamed the house dragging a beer bottle, according to the report. Mouse feces covered the floor. There was no food in the home, no running water, no heat, according to a caller.

In an interview this month, Kathy Richards, Victoria's aunt, vehemently denied the allegations.

"It's all lies," Richards said. "I was at the house every day. If (Victoria) was without food, I would have stepped in immediately."

A social worker tried to visit Joni Richards at home several times, but no one answered the door. Joni Richards returned a phone call to CPS but reached an answering machine at the state's offices. When they called, she was gone.

Ten days after receiving the referral, CPS officials closed the case without ever speaking to Joni Richards, or laying eyes on Victoria Ramon.

"You would like to be able to contact the family and observe them," said Tim Abbey, a CPS administrator for the Spokane region. "You would like to close up the loose ends if you can."

But, he said, "It can be a very mobile population that we're dealing with."

Abbey defended the social worker's handling of the case, pointing out the repeated attempts to locate the family; however, he acknowledged that the state failed to contact the tribe.

"It would be preferred that the worker contact the tribe in that instance," Abbey said.

If CPS had contacted the tribe, they almost certainly could have found Joni Richards. Richards' aunt, Toni Innis, is head of Indian child welfare programs at the American Indian Community Center in Spokane.

Abbey pointed out that Victoria's family had contact with both the community center and a tribal health program and that neither raised any concerns about her care in the months before her death.

On Dec. 26, 2003, CPS received one last call on Victoria Ramon. This time, it came from the medical examiner.

A trail of violence

In the fall of 2003, Joni and Victoria moved into a rundown apartment in north Spokane with Robert Lee Doney Jr.

Just 28 years old, Doney's criminal record already stretched back more than a decade. Police records show 10 convictions. From 1996 to 2002, police booked him into the Spokane County Jail seven times.

A descendant of the Gros Ventre Tribe, Doney stood 5-foot-11 and weighed 260 pounds at the time of his arrest.

Police reports detail a history of violent assaults.

At a house party in April 1994, Doney allegedly beat a woman by swinging a table lamp by its electrical cord. When she fell to the ground, he continued the attack, according to police reports. Prosecutors dropped the second-degree assault charge when witnesses were unable to testify.

In August 2000, police arrested Doney for reportedly stabbing his brother. Police reports say family members hid the knife from a police officer. The officer later found the knife covered with blood in the basement. Those charges also were dismissed.

Two years later, police responded to a call in north Spokane and found Doney standing over his cousin, holding a bloody shirt. Gregory Brockie's right eye was swollen shut, his lip split and several teeth broken, according to police records. He was unable to speak and fading in and out of consciousness.

He told police he walked to Doney's apartment to ask for a light for his cigarette. The second-degree assault charge was dismissed when Doney pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Doney has refused interview requests. Members of his family all declined to discuss the case.

`Totally unexpected'

In an interview last month, Joni Richards said she met Doney eight years ago. They dated off and on before moving in together.

She said he worked at a car wash. When he drank, she said, he became violent.

Richards refused to discuss the violence in their relationship.

She told police Doney hated Victoria, in part because she wasn't his child. Doney had a child of his own, a son born in 1999.

In November 2003, after drinking whiskey, Doney grabbed Richards by the neck, according to her statement to police. He threatened to kill Victoria, she said. Richards told police that Doney was jealous of the attention she gave Victoria, and that he told her, "Don't let her be too close to you."

On Christmas Day, the couple argued. According to court documents, Richards said Doney became jealous when Richards' friends telephoned her.

Joni's sister, Kathy Richards, said Doney had prevented her from seeing Victoria.

"I didn't know it was this bad," Kathy said earlier this month. "This was totally unexpected."

Around 9:30 a.m., Richards gave Victoria a bath, wrapped her in a blanket and placed her on the living room floor so she could watch television, court records show. When Doney awoke around 10:30 a.m., the couple again began arguing.

Richards went outside and yelled for help. Doney stuck his head out of the apartment window and said, "I'm going to kill your daughter," according to court records.

From the street, Richards heard "what sounded like a tornado." As she raced upstairs, Doney ran from the apartment.

Richards found Victoria and began screaming.

In the apartment, police and medics found Victoria dressed in a pink and red-striped short sleeve shirt but nothing else.

Dark purple bruises covered the left side of her head, near her ear. She bled from the ear and nose. Her eyes were open, but rolled back in her head.

Around 1 p.m., at a local hospital, Victoria stopped breathing. She died shortly thereafter.

Police found Robert Doney at the home of a relative, hiding in a crawl space in the basement. Self-inflicted knife wounds crisscrossed his neck and chest, according to court records.

He pleaded not guilty to the charge of first-degree murder. The prosecutor's office has hinted it may seek the death penalty.

Behind the reports

Of course, the official reports miss some details. They don't say that Victoria loved to feed the ducks in Riverfront Park. Or that she liked pickles. Or that she was shy.

Relatives say Victoria and Joni were inseparable.

"All she ever talked about was her baby," said Crystal Bordeaux, Joni's aunt. "She was the most important thing in her life."

On the day after CPS finished Victoria Ramon's fatality review, the Spokane region put in place a new recommendation for social workers. When the state is unable to locate Native American families, staff are encouraged to contact Indian child welfare workers.

Last week, Joni Richards shared her memories of her daughter in a letter. Victoria liked "Sesame Street" and her toy cash register and the red wagon slide at Riverfront Park.

"Victoria always said, `Love you, miss you,"' her mother wrote. "She was a very smart baby."

She was 2 years old, Joni wrote, and she loved everyone.

Benjamin Shors can be reached at

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


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