The foster mother of a severely disabled 8-year-old girl told the police yesterday that when the girl died she panicked and left her body in a garbage bag on an Upper East Side sidewalk, officials said. After hours of searching, the police found the girl's tiny body -- just 28 pounds -- inside a garbage truck.
The police were questioning the foster mother, Renee Johnson, 50, of Queens, late yesterday. They said that Ms. Johnson would be charged with unlawful disposition of a body and that any other charges would depend on the results of a medical examiner's report and an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney's office.
The dead girl, Stephanie Ramos, spent her entire life in foster care, city officials said. They said she was mentally retarded, blind and diabetic and had difficulty keeping down food. Her body was prone to seizures, and she needed a gastrointestinal feeding tube and a wheelchair. She had the limbs and torso of a much younger child, the officials said, but her low weight was not in itself a sign of abuse.
Ms. Johnson cared for two other children, who are brother and sister. One has now been placed in another home, and the other is undergoing a medical evaluation and awaiting placement. Ms. Johnson received her assignments from a foster care agency that was on a city list of those most in need of improvement.
Ms. Johnson reported Stephanie missing on Tuesday evening from the Variety/Cody Gifford House for Children With Special Needs on East 91st Street, where she claimed to have dropped her off earlier with the other children. During questioning, however, the police said, detectives became suspicious of her story because they did not believe the girl could get around by herself. Ms. Johnson eventually changed her story, saying that the child had died and that she had placed her in a garbage bag on a sidewalk, the police said.
That prompted a nine-hour search. Bloodhounds and officers fanned out in three boroughs, concentrating on an area in Manhattan bordered by East 96th Street, East 86th Street, Fifth Avenue and the East River. Throughout the morning, officers could be seen picking through garbage bags and Dumpsters. By tracing garbage trucks that had served the East Side early in the morning, the police concentrated their search on a Bronx waste transfer station, where the body was found in a truck at 2 p.m. yesterday.
Stephanie had been placed with Ms. Johnson through the Variety/Cody Gifford House, by the Association to Benefit Children, a nonprofit group that trains and recruits foster parents under a contract with the city. The association was ranked 38th by the city out of 45 such agencies in 2000, and its ranking fell to 40th out of 42 in 2001, the most recent year for which data were available. It was on the city's list of four foster care agencies needing improvement.
''There were corrective action plans put in place,'' said Joseph Cardieri, general counsel for the city's Administration for Children's Services, though he added that in the area of home certification of foster parents, the association had a near-perfect score. ''Everyone has said that the kids' needs were well met, they were well cared for,'' Mr. Cardieri said.
Leslye Schneider, director of Variety -- the Children's Charity, which finances the Variety/Cody Gifford House, said it was unthinkable for a child to be harmed under the care of the Variety/Cody Gifford House.
Ms. Johnson was previously employed by the Richard Allen Center on Life, a foster care agency, which closed. She joined the association in 2000, taking an 8-to-10-week training course, but it was unclear whether she had received special training to care for disabled children.
The association placed a total of six children, several with special needs, with Ms. Johnson, who is a registered nurse. A boy, 7, and a girl, 8, brother and sister, were under her care until yesterday.
Officials with the Administration for Children's Services said there had never been a call to complain about Ms. Johnson. They said she has no biological children, though neighbors said that she had raised a daughter who now works in the medical profession in Boston. ''At all points leading up to this moment,'' said MacLean Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the administration, ''this foster parent has continually been looked to as an appropriate resource for special needs children.''
The city paid $1,500 a month for the care of Stephanie, who was classified as an exceptional needs child, and $1,500 for the other girl, also classified as special needs, and a lower rate for the brother, who was not classified as special needs. Under city rules, a foster home can house as many as six children, but the licensing agency must weigh factors like special needs.
The three children lived with Ms. Johnson in a well-kept house at 146-39 220th Street in Springfield Gardens, Queens.
Neighbors, including Elovee Allen, who watched Stephanie for a few hours once a week while Ms. Johnson ran errands, said Ms. Johnson dressed the children in expensive-looking clothes and appeared to dote on them. She waited for the school bus to drop off her other two foster children in the afternoons and played with them in the yard, they said.
''It's shocking,'' said Ms. Allen, a nurse's assistant at a nursing home. ''She's humble. She's honest. She takes care of those kids very good. She loved those kids dearly.''
Another neighbor, Stephanie Drayton, said she had last seen Ms. Johnson around 4:15 p.m. on Tuesday, when she climbed into a white livery cab, cradling Stephanie in her arms. A police investigator said that the livery cab driver had told the police that he never saw Stephanie's face but had assumed she was in the car.
The police also questioned the brother and sister, the investigator said. ''The other two children were not afraid of her,'' the investigator said. ''They seemed to like her, and they both sort of implied that she treated the other child well.''
George F. Brown, chief of detectives, said Ms. Johnson dropped the brother and sister off at the center to meet their biological father at 4:45 p.m. on Tuesday. About two and a half hours later, Ms. Johnson contacted the police, saying she had also dropped Stephanie off at the center and that the girl was now missing, Chief Brown said. Under questioning, she changed her story around 5 a.m. yesterday, he said.
According to Chief Brown, Ms. Johnson then said that she had taken the girl into the Variety/Cody Gifford House, though it was unclear whether the girl was alive. Ms. Johnson told the police she went upstairs to a bathroom on the second floor, put the girl's body in a nylon bag, then walked out to a park on 91st Street, where she put the body in a black garbage bag before leaving it on a sidewalk at Second Avenue and East 89th Street, the chief said. Staff members at the center recalled seeing her walk in with a bundle covered by a blanket and then leave with the nylon bag, he said.
The chief said Ms. Johnson told the police that Stephanie had been ill and that she wanted to take the girl to see a doctor. Asked about Ms. Johnson's state of mind during the police interview, he said only, ''She seemed indifferent in her conversation.''
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