Monday, January 14, 2013

Arizona child welfare: Warning signs, then a grave

Vanessa Martinez


It was five days before Christmas. Vanessa Martinez was moving in with her mom for the first time. She was 2 months old.

Three months later, investigators pulled her from a shallow desert grave off Interstate 10 near Eloy. She'd been there for two months. Nobody had reported her missing.

Vanessa was born on Oct. 21, 2011. At that time, doctors found traces of cocaine and methamphetamine in her body. They found enough cocaine in her mother, 20-year-old Olivia Martinez, and father, Jonathan Kesterson, 26, to suggest regular use.

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Arizona's Child Protective Services placed Vanessa and her older sister in foster care. Martinez and Kesterson agreed to go to therapy, a parenting class and drug counseling and to take drug tests. Throughout November, the couple visited the girls twice a week.

Vanessa was quiet, slept a lot and was slow to respond to stimulation. But doctors were sure she had no signs of withdrawal from the drugs her mom had passed to her in the womb. She was healthy, and the visits went well. At times, she was "clingy" to her parents. Caseworkers noted a good bond with her sister and a caring, loving relationship among the entire family.

But there were warning signs, too.

CPS records document the couple's personal struggles. They also document shifting, sometimes conflicting stories.

Both parents had fled bad situations in New Mexico. Both grew up with alcoholic parents.

Martinez had been abused and forced to take meth as a child. She got pregnant, didn't tell her boyfriend and faked an abortion. She worked at a strip club and made good money, but cocaine and meth were available every night. She wanted to shake the habit, but couldn't.

Kesterson was a former heroin dealer and gang member. He got occasional jobs hanging drywall or pruning palms. They moved in to a trailer together in the Tucson area. He signed the birth certificates of both girls, becoming their legal father.

After Vanessa's birth, Kesterson and Martinez told CPS of their plans, which kept changing. At one point, CPS reports describe Kesterson as the breadwinner, at other times Martinez.

For two months they passed drug tests and routinely attended church. Caseworkers described Kesterson as a hard worker and someone who wanted to be a good dad.

By early December, the state discussed reuniting the family by Christmas, and it donated presents when the couple asked.

As Christmas approached, the pair complained that the group therapy wasn't much help. They were eager to get the family back together because they wanted to move back to New Mexico.

The kids came home on Dec. 20. The next day, Kesterson asked CPS to close the case, and the state complied -- 30 days earlier than planned. After a meeting the next day, the state never heard from them again.

"It is unfortunate that her CPS caseworker moved so fast that this writer was advised of services ending without being able to have closure with this client," the drug counselor at Arizona Families FIRST wrote in a Jan. 12 report.

By then, Vanessa was already dead.

On April 12, San Diego sheriff's deputies arrested Kesterson on unrelated charges and learned that he'd made comments about Vanessa's death in January.

Kesterson told Pima County investigators he went jogging on Jan. 8 and came back to find Vanessa dead. Martinez told them she was working at a club that night when Kesterson told her the baby was having a hard time breathing.

Martinez later changed her story, saying her boyfriend squeezed Vanessa's ribs, then beat her after her fussiness had kept him awake. He'd beaten her before, she said.

Kesterson stuck to his original account.

The pair said they didn't report Vanessa's death because they didn't want to lose the older girl. She's now in foster care again.

Martinez and Kesterson face charges of first-degree murder, child abuse and concealing a body. They are in jail awaiting trial in Tucson.

Pima County cadaver dogs found Vanessa under 2 feet of soil beneath a mesquite tree.

Name: Vanessa Martinez.

Age: 2 months.

Date of death: January.

Cause of death: Under investigation. The indictment accuses parents Olivia Martinez and Jonathan Kesterson of breaking Vanessa's ribs and bruising her brain.

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