Anchorage Daily News
Alaska's child protection agency is revamping its foster care system to address flaws that became apparent after a 2-year-old was murdered by her foster mother in December 1997.An internal review of the death of Janessa Aguirre by the state Division of Family and Youth Services found that a string of workers had vague uneasiness about foster parents Marcias and Michael Reinhold.
The assessment, released last week, acknowledges failings in the agency's care of Janessa but says DFYS had no way to predict the extreme violence in the home or prevent her death.
The report echos what foster parents and others have identified as systemic weaknesses in Alaska foster care. Among the gaps: poor communication among workers, state caseloads too high to monitor the safety of children, and a reliance on foster parents ill-equipped for the job.
"There was cause for some concern but not real good cause to act or remove the child," said Russ Webb, deputy commissioner of health and social services, who oversees DFYS.
At prosecutors' request, DFYS withheld the internal review until the criminal case was resolved. It was released Jan. 15 after Marcias Reinhold was sentenced to 75 years in prison for second-degree murder. Michael Reinhold pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide last year and served eight months in jail.
DFYS is still recovering from what Webb said is the first murder he can recall by a foster parent in Alaska.
"Our staff all feel unbelievably guilt-ridden about the death of this child," Webb said.
While a rebuilt foster care system won't guarantee children's safety, it should bring about better lives for many, said Karen Perdue, commissioner of health and social services.
Foster children become wards of the state after their parents beat them or burn them or abandon them. The traditional idea of foster parents as people who want to do good and take in a child or two doesn't hold anymore, Perdue said. Children increasingly have serious emotional or physical problems and end up bounced from foster home to foster home because they are too much to handle.
"My overall concern is that we ask our foster parents to take on too much given the severity of the kids we have," she said.
During the coming year, DFYS plans to recruit 100 additional foster families in a campaign it has dubbed Foster a Future, to better match children with foster parents. It wants more intensive training for foster parents, many of whom don't fulfill the minimum requirements now. It hopes to hire more caseworkers to give more watch over the children.
And for the first time, it intends to pay foster parents based on the needs of the individual children in their care. A foster parent responsible for an emotionally disturbed teen, for instance, needs more training and has a more difficult task than one watching over a healthy 4-year-old. Under a draft proposal, rates would range from $20 a day for children without special needs to $85 or more for those who need "intensive therapeutic foster care."
The number of children in foster care in Alaska has grown dramatically in the past two years. As of Jan. 1, DFYS was responsible for nearly 1,850 children through foster care, relative placements or residential group homes. That number has grown by almost 500 since August 1997, when the state's failures to protect children began to draw widespread public criticism. Perdue said the agency now more readily takes children into custody.
Perdue's department wants to add $20.6 million in expanded child protection programs this year. Some of the money would come from Alaska's share of the settlement with tobacco companies, but Perdue said she knows any increase will be hard to get past lawmakers because of the projected $1 billion budget shortfall.
Some of the fixes began last year. The state Legislature rewrote Alaska's child protection law and, counting federal money, approved about $10 million in increased spending.
DFYS considers foster parents its trusted partners in the mission to protect children. In the case of the Reinholds, managers found no cause to take Janessa away from a couple who hoped to adopt her.
The Reinholds received their foster care license in July 1995 to take in a friend's daughter. Over the next 21/2 years, about 20 children passed through their home.
They couldn't have children of their own and were intent on adopting a baby through DFYS, according to their foster care file. And DFYS was desperate for places to put children. "We are in a placement crisis," a supervisor wrote in their file. One child ended up with the Reinholds after waiting two days in a DFYS office.
A neighbor who served as a reference described them to DFYS as "solid and down to earth." But the neighbor, Jean Hilbish, also noted that Marcias Reinhold didn't know much about children and couldn't handle any who were especially difficult.
"Marcias is too concerned about keeping a clean house," Hilbish wrote, and "not real familiar with kids' development."
Janessa, a sickly baby born with cocaine in her system, came to them in March 1996 after another foster family rejected her. She was 5 months old. Her biological family was well-known to DFYS. Her siblings had been reported as abused or neglected 14 times, according to the DFYS internal review.
Much of the feedback on the Reinhold family was good. The Citizens Foster Care Review Panel, made up of volunteers who assess care of children in custody, praised the Reinholds for their commitment to Janessa in its three reviews of the case.
But some at DFYS had misgivings, and none of the professionals involved had the full picture of the family.
For instance, DFYS didn't know that the Reinholds were under financial pressure, said Webb, the deputy commissioner. The family looked to be doing well when they moved in 1996 from a trailer to a new home in South Anchorage. Marcias Reinhold kept it immaculate.
But by the next year, the family's financial problems were mounting, according to court records in the murder case. Besides the new house, they had bought a new car. Michael Reinhold was unable to get the number of hours he expected in his cook's job and was facing a layoff. They were using their mortgage money to cover bounced checks at the bingo parlor.
Workers also were unaware, Webb said, of Marcias' reliance on prescription narcotics. She was taking Demerol and drinking a bottle or two of NyQuil a day for pain from an injured wrist, court records say.
Theresa Tanoury, who oversees family services for DFYS, said the agency collects only limited personal information on foster parents. It used to conduct intensive interviews just as it does with prospective adoptive parents, probing finances, medical issues and family histories. Because that drained too much staff time, it switched to a form more akin to a checklist. With foster parents often adopting children, it might need to switch back, she said. DFYS does require criminal background checks.
For long stretches, Webb said, no one from the agency checked up on Janessa. One caseworker took extended sick leave, and others filled in when they could.
In June 1997, she got a new caseworker, Deborah Allen, who visited four times, two more than required despite a caseload of about 60 children. The Child Welfare League of America recommends a caseworker watch over no more than 15 foster children.
Allen saw the Reinholds as loving, caring parents. But during that summer and fall, at least four other state workers or helpers sent from agencies had problems with the Reinholds, according to the internal review and the foster care file.
The couple seemed odd, perhaps unbalanced at times. During a routine inspection in June 1997, they acted confused and unable to understand simple questions, and they kept talking over each other, wrote Catherine Petkoff, a DFYS licensing specialist. The licensing office wanted the couple to undergo psychological examinations, but a manager, Anita Stevens, didn't see grounds to require such an unusual step.
Marcias didn't drive, and Janessa missed many appointments with specialists from a nonprofit infant learning program to help her catch up developmentally.
In August, the Reinholds would not allow one of the specialists to enter the living area of their home, confining her to the foyer to work with another foster child. Marcias later explained that her home had new carpet and she was worried the baby boy would throw up on it. He usually played in the foyer, she said.
A social worker later took him away from the Reinholds because they wouldn't cooperate with his court-appointed advocate or help him visit his father.
A DFYS aide who took children to the home suspected domestic violence that fall after Marcias suffered a broken wrist, broken ribs and other injuries and claimed they resulted from falls down the stairs. The aide reported her concerns to a caseworker, a licensing worker and a court-appointed guardian. Allen later discounted the worries because in her view Marcias was a controlling spouse. Michael Reinhold's lawyer, Cynthia Strout, said there was no evidence he had ever hurt Marcias.
The last time caseworker Allen visited, on Oct. 22, 1997, the adoption paperwork was nearly complete and the family celebrated.
"It was almost a partylike atmosphere," Allen told a grand jury investigating Janessa's death.
Not long after that, DFYS decided the Reinholds should not care for any other young children. But no one put the restriction in writing. It was a mistake, DFYS says in the internal review, when a worker unaware of the limitation took a fussy, sick baby to the Reinholds on Dec. 12, 1997.
Over that December weekend, Marcias Reinhold -- stressed from the baby boy, under pressure financially, in pain because of her injured wrist -- repeatedly lashed out at her small foster daughter.
On Dec. 16, Janessa died from an injury to her head, a day after Marcias slammed her to the floor, according to the police. Her body was covered in bruises in various stages of healing. Her face was branded with burns from a hair dryer. Her heel had been pinched with a tool, perhaps pliers. One injury, a broken arm, occurred weeks if not months earlier.
After paramedics rushed Janessa to the hospital, Marcias Reinhold was strangely calm, police later said. She began to clean the house and changed the water for her pet bird, police said.
Prosecutor Roger Rom said his review of the case shows a disturbed family who hid it well from DFYS. For instance, he said, Janessa's arm was probably broken in September, in between Allen's visits. He doesn't blame the agency.
"How much do you expect them to do to intrude into people's lives?" Rom said. "They are stuck in a difficult situation of trying to find foster parents and foster homes."
Strout, the defense attorney, said DFYS tried to keep tabs on Janessa
"It wasn't like they dumped this girl and never ever looked back," she said.
The problem, Webb said, was that no one put together all the information about Janessa
"We'd all like to find ways to make damn sure nothing like this ever occurs again," he said. "Are we going to be 100 percent successful? Nope. You won't catch them all. But maybe we could have caught more about this particular family."
Reporter Lisa Demer can be reached at 257-4390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.