Thursday, February 26, 2015

Child welfare reforms failing to save Pima kids

February 14, 2015 7:03 pm  •  

After the first full year of extensive reform to Arizona’s child welfare system, Pima County continues to trail state averages for hiring new staff workers and investigating abuse allegations, with more than 200 calls receiving no response last year.
And since early last March, when 3-year-old Roman Barreras’ skeletal remains were found in an abandoned toy chest here, at least eight more children have died or nearly died of abuse or neglect in Pima County. Amelise Beatrice Telles-Lopez and Jacob Patrick Mathewsdied, and another child suffered significant brain injuries, despite their cases being recently known to Arizona’s Department of Child Safety.
Statewide reform efforts started in December 2013 after the agency acknowledged failing to investigate more than 6,000 cases of suspected child abuse since 2009. Caseworkers at that time were seriously overburdened, often handling 75 to 80 percent more cases than state and federal guidelines suggested they should.
In Pima County, that trend appears to have continued. Of 4,575 calls made between April and September 2014, 221 received no response, DCS records show. Maricopa County, by comparison, failed to respond to 32 of 14,680 calls made during the same period. The uninvestigated calls here, which account for 73 percent of all investigated allegations statewide, were in cases where a child was not believed to be in current or imminent danger.
At the start of the six-month reporting period beginning in April 2014, DCS was authorized to employ 293 Pima County caseworkers and specialists, but had 60 vacancies, a DCS financial report shows. That staffing shortage was even larger than it was in July 2013, when the county had 40 vacancies. DCS did not respond to requests for more recent data on Pima County’s vacancies.
On Tuesday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey fired Charles Flanagan, who was charged with turning the agency around after being hired as director one year ago. He replaced Flanagan with Greg McKay, who previously worked at the Phoenix Police Department before becoming head of the Office of Child Welfare Investigations in 2012. As head of that office, McKay discovered the thousands of uninvestigated reports.
McKay declined interview requests last week. He steps into the job at a time when more than 17,000 Arizona children are in out-of-home care — an increase of 13.3 percent from last year — and as Arizona is facing a class-action federal lawsuit recently filed on behalf of 10 foster children from Maricopa and Pima counties. The lawsuit alleges Arizona’s treatment of foster children is so bad it puts them at greater risk than staying home.
Amelise Beatrice Telles-Lopez was 3 years old on April 26, when she reportedly angered her caregiver, Alberto Rene Robles, because she’d “soiled herself,” court records show.
Robles, the boyfriend of Amelise’s mother, said he put the child into a bathtub with the water running and the shower on, and left her there. When he returned, he told authorities, Amelise was limp in the water. He speculated that she “must have fallen,” and then waited 45 minutes to call for help. During much of that time, he was on the phone with Amelise’s mother, Linda Telles, records show.
After Amelise died at a hospital on May 1, the Pima County Medical Examiner performed an autopsy and listed her cause of death as asphyxia.
Relatives told investigators the couple frequently punished Amelise by locking her in the closet for hours at a time. They also said Telles had previously had an older child, a son, removed from her care, but Amelise’s DCS records had no details about that.
What DCS records do show is that the agency had received three calls on Amelise, including one on March 30 — just a few weeks before she died — about bruising on her face and around her eye, as well as scratch marks on her face. The second call, around the same time but apparently from a different person, reported Telles giving Amelise dangerously high doses of Benadryl.
The third, from February 2013, said Amelise, then 2, had been found twice in one week wandering alone around the apartment complex where she lived. The report was not investigated at the time and remained unchecked until December 2013, when a response team under Flanagan reopened it. It was still being investigated when the more recent calls came in.
All three reports were found to be unsubstantiated before Amelise died. The family, records show, was “provided with information on available community resources.”
Telles knew her daughter was terrified of Robles, case records show, and had reportedly considered getting a restraining order against him, but never followed through. Robles was indicted in August on one count of failure to seek medical attention and one count of first-degree murder. Telles’ charges are for failing to protect her child. Their cases are pending.
Amelise’s online obituary, which is accompanied by 273 photos detailing her short life, shows a vibrant child described as a jokester and a “ray of sunshine.”
“Amelise was a strong angel who was full of laughter, who was smart, loving, and caring,” her obituary reads. “Her smile would light up a room. She was loved by all who met her, and will be greatly missed.”
Susan Mathews’ 12-year-old son was significantly disabled and unable to save himself when his 6-year-old brother started a fire last September in the room they shared. Neighbors ran intoJacob Patrick Mathews’ room and pulled him from his bunk bed. He died a short time later at University Medical Center.
The DCS investigation that followed shows Susan Mathews knew of the risk to Patrick because of his brother’s history of starting fires. She was indicted Jan. 29 on one count of negligent homicide.
There were four previous reports, two of them substantiated, alleging neglect of Patrick by his mother, back to 2011. The allegations included her failure to provide him with adequate clothing and care, and overall neglect of Patrick and their home. Mathews had adopted both boys.
In June 2011, Patrick was removed from the home while services were put in place to help the family. He eventually returned home, and the family was reportedly still receiving services when two more calls were made, in June and July, about the condition of the home and the neglect of Patrick’s “most basic needs.” Both allegations were unsubstantiated, but services were reportedly continuing when the fire occurred in September.
Another boy, whom the Star is not identifying to protect his privacy since he survived, wasn’t quite 2 years old when a hospital CT scan last March showed he had severe head injuries, with blood pooling around his brain. Both of his retinas were damaged and bleeding, and he had several fractures that were healing.
The suspected abuser was his foster mother, Griselda Coronado-Badilla, who was arrested March 18 and indicted on one count of child abuse. Her case is pending.
DCS declined to comment on Coronado-Badilla’s history and training as a foster mother. The boy’s parents filed a civil suit against DCS in November. Neither could be reached for comment last week, and their attorneys did not respond to interview requests.
In the most recent DCS semiannual report, detailing the period from April to September, former director Flanagan told then-Gov. Jan Brewer that hiring is proving to be “a significant challenge to the Department.” As new staff are hired, he wrote, the “challenge to retain them will become even greater.”
That admission comes as no surprise to Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson.
“What continues to be misunderstood at different levels is the depth and breadth of the challenges he was facing,” Bradley said of Flanagan’s tenure. “It took many, many years to get where we are, and to think he could undo it in six or seven months was not realistic from the get-go.”
While hiring continues to be challenging, there have also been improvements over the last year, DCS records show:
  • The number of hotline calls abandoned before a report is made is down from 28 percent in January 2014 to 2.35 percent in December. Calls are also being answered at a much faster rate, with 87.1 percent being taken in 60 seconds or less compared to a previous average of 45 minutes;
  • The number of children failing to receive regular visits by a caseworker while in foster care dropped to 12.6 percent from a high of 26.3 percent in 2012;
  • The number of foster children adopted into permanent homes was 1,552, compared to 1,215 during the same period of the previous year.
  • A response team created to deal with the uninvestigated cases saw 12,879 children. Of them, 582 children were removed from their homes.
Bradley said the number of children in out-of-home care will continue to rise until there are enough resources to provide prevention services. When there are few or no resources to bring to the family, he said, the caseworker will be more likely to remove the child just to be safe.
“There’s never been a glorious time in child welfare in Arizona and there’s never going to be, because of the problems we face,” Bradley said. “It’s hard to get people to work in this job.”
Contact reporter Patty Machelor at or 806-7754.

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