Lapses Seen in Monitoring Bronx Girls in Foster Care

Relates to:
Date: 1992-02-20
Source: nytimes.com

IAN FISHER

Child welfare workers visited a Bronx foster mother 26 times and saw no indication that the children were being abused before last Saturday night, when one child in her care was killed and the other was seriously injured, city officials said yesterday.

The city would release only sketchy information about its monitoring of the foster mother, Mary Ann Ayala, and the two children in her care, Millicent, 6, who died, and her sister, Stephanie, 4, who is hospitalized.

Ms. Ayala has been charged with murder and attempted murder in the case.

The officials, from the Human Resources Administration, which oversees the foster care system, would not say whether the visits were routine or involved allegations of abuse in the household. Several neighbors have said they reported Ms. Ayala to child welfare officials for abusing the children.

One official, Sheila Jack, an agency spokeswoman, saidthere had also been five telephone calls by caseworkers to the Bedford Park home and three medical examinations of the children, the most recent on Jan. 29, 1992. Another spokeswoman, Linda R. Fisher, said the 26 visits began in April 1990 and have been at least monthly ever since. "In the course of the contacts the records indicate that the children's health or safety wasn't in danger," Ms. Jack said.

Still, the information appeared to show that the city had failed to meet its own standard for monitoring foster families.

Caseworkers are required to visit the homes of foster families every month, and therefore should have visited the family at least 35 times, starting when Millicent was placed in Ms. Ayala's care in March 1989.

People close to the case said the Child Welfare Administration also failed to bring the family back to court a year later, for a mandatory review of the city's plans for the children's future. By missing that date, the children were technically out of the foster care system, child welfare advocates said.

Commenting on the case, Lenore Gittis, of the Legal Aid Society's juvenile rights division, said, "In a sense nobody was responsible for these kids because legally when the placement lapses, the legal responsibility for the kids went back to the parents."

The foster arrangement began after a neglect petition was filed in 1989 against the mother, Norma Zabala, for drug use. The father, Edward Ayala, had been in jail on a drug conviction since 1987 and was released just four weeks ago. Death by Hypothermia

Ms. Jack refused to comment on whether caseworkers had adequately monitored the family, nor would she provide any details about the children's legal status.

Ms. Jack said she could release certain details about the case because it involved abuse in a foster family, rather than a biological or adoptive family. Usually the agency refuses all comment on child-abuse investigations.

An autopsy concluded that Millicent died of hypothermia, the medical examiner's office said yesterday. The police said she had been immersed in a bathtub of cold water.

The police, who said that the girl's body temperature had dropped below 85 degrees, reported initially that she apparently died from a beating.

Stephanie, who also suffered from hypothermia, was reported in stable condition yesterday at Montefiore Medical Center.

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