Foster mom opposed adoption
Before she was adopted, Brittany Legler lived with a foster family for 15 months. The family never wanted the adoption to happen.
The foster mother said she told child-welfare officials that she would have rather seen Legler remain in foster care, and that she had qualms about Legler being adopted by Lisa M. Iarussi.
Iarussi adopted Legler on Jan. 1, 2001. More than three years later, police on May 19 arrested Iarussi on charges that she regularly beat Legler in the 17 months prior to the 15-year-old's death on May 9.
The foster mother said she never saw any signs that Iarussi abused Legler. But she said she expressed concerns about "the level of supervision" that Legler would receive under Iarussi's care. The foster mother said Legler needed particular attention to keep her focused on her schoolwork. Legler was enrolled in special-education classes at Millcreek's McDowell Intermediate High School, according to court records.
The foster mother described Legler as mentally "slow" and physically clumsy but a teen who was intellectually curious, physically active and "the most loveable, trusting child you could have known."
"Brittany needed to be protected in a supervised environment," the foster mother said.
"Special-needs children are hard to place and maybe they are the ones that need to stay in foster care for a little bit longer, maybe forever.
"The foster mother said Iarussi "didn't seem to get that, that this was what Brittany was about, of what was involved.
"The foster mother said she did not advocate that Legler remain in foster care specifically with her, though she said she was willing to remain Legler's foster mother. She said she made her concerns about Iarussi known to people involved in the adoption. The foster mother said Legler lived with her family for 15 months, ending in mid-2000.
Iarussi knew Legler because Iarussi was a childhood friend of Legler's natural mother, Rose Pollard, according to Legler's paternal grandmother. Iarussi's friends told the Erie Times-News that Pollard dropped off Legler to stay with Iarussi at times. Those visits occurred long before Iarussi adopted Legler, the friends said.
The foster mother said she knew of Iarussi's involvement through the adoption placement process. The foster mother asked that the Erie Times-News not use her name because the prosecution against Iarussi is pending. The foster mother said she and her husband took in foster children for more than two decades, including other children with learning disabilities as well as children with mental retardation. The foster mother said child-welfare workers asked for her input on adoptions of children that had been in foster care with her.
The foster mother also declined to say which child-welfare agencies she alerted over Legler's adoption. One of the agencies involved in Legler's case was the Erie County Office of Children and Youth, or OCY, according to court records, interviews and other information in the Legler case.
OCY is conducting an investigation into how caseworkers handled Legler's case. State law requires that the investigation be kept secret. Legler's adoption records are also closed to the public, as is typical of adoption records in Pennsylvania. OCY's solicitor, Michael Cauley, has declined to comment on the Legler case, citing the confidentiality rules.
According to the arrest warrant for Iarussi, Millcreek school officials repeatedly complained to OCY about suspected abuse of Legler. Iarussi, who faces charges of aggravated assault and two child-endangerment counts, is accused of abusing Legler from Jan. 1, 2003, until Legler's death on May 9.
In addition to school officials, other people knew of the suspected abuse, according to a search warrant in the case. Police in the warrant said five women, including Iarussi's housemate, Linda Fisher, gave statements to investigators in which they said "regular abuse was observed of Brittany Legler by her adoptive mother, Lisa Iarussi.
"The foster mother said she is not involved in the criminal investigation of Iarussi. The foster mother said she hopes Legler's case leads to changes in the county's child-welfare system, whatever happens with Iarussi's prosecution,"I feel Brittany needed a voice," the foster mother said of her decision to speak out. "She needs her side to be told."I do not want to point a finger at any one agency, but I want people to learn from this lesson," the foster mother said. "There were numerous agencies involved in this child's life. Each person who came in contact with her had a chance to change what has been a tragic ending to a beautiful life.
"Some people chose to look the other way, others to ignore what seemed to be apparent. This child was crying for help — maybe from her friends, maybe from her neighbors, maybe from her relatives. During the last three years, I am sure there have been other people who could have changed the course of this story.
"It may be too late for her, but it isn't too late for the next child — and we know there are more."
ED PALATTELLA, can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.