Dead child's mom blames agency

Date: 2001-06-26

Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Albuquerque Tribune

The biological mother of a 3-year-old girl who died while in foster care said she repeatedly warned social workers that her daughter was in danger, filing many of the 20 referrals she said have been logged against the foster mom in the past six months.

But a spokeswoman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department said only one referral against the foster mom has ever been filed, and that one an allegation of spanking was unsubstantiated.

The girl, Rochelle Lemajeur, died early Sunday morning in the home of her foster mother in the 2000 block of Altez Street Southeast. Albuquerque police say the girl had been wrapped tightly in a blanket, possibly as a way to soothe the child, but do not know whether the restrictive wrapping contributed to her death. An autopsy performed Monday on the girl found no evidence of physical trauma and no obvious answers to how she died, said Tim Stepetic, director of operations for the state Office of the Medical Investigator.

Further testing is being conducted to provide those answers, Stepetic said. But it can take weeks to complete the tests and analyze the results to help determine whether the little girl's death was accidental, health-related or homicide.

Linda Lemajeur, the biological mother, said the state agency charged with the care of her daughter failed her. "I trusted them," she said. "They knew what was going on in that home but they didn't do anything about it."

Children, Youth and Families spokeswoman Romaine Serna said there was no indication that the foster mom was inappropriate with the child. Records show she had only one referral made against her in late March, by a child-care provider alleging that the foster mom had spanked a child, she said.

"It was accepted as a referral and investigated and was determined to be unfounded," Serna said.

The referral did not allege that the child had been injured because of the spanking, she said, but spanking is against foster parent rules set out by the state.

It is not unusual for biological parents to lash out at the foster parents caring for their children, Serna said. One way to do that is to accuse them of abusing their children, she said.

"Foster parents open their homes and their hearts to these children. But that leaves them wide open for risks of referrals, and that's not easy," Serna said. "But that just goes with the territory."

Confidentiality laws prohibit Serna from discussing the factors that led to Lemajeur losing her children. But Serna said the state worked with Lemajeur to keep her family united, providing her with in-home services for a year before the state was forced to remove the children.

"We really feel we tried our best to keep this family together," Serna said. "We handled that piece of the case appropriately."

The children were placed last December with the 40-year-old foster mom, who had been licensed as a foster care provider for less than a year, Serna said.

Paramedics were called to her home at 11:32 p.m. Saturday when the foster mom found the child unresponsive, Albuquerque police spokeswoman Officer Beth Baland said. The child had been awake and upset, but Baland said she could not release further information on the circumstances that led up to that.

Paramedics worked on the little girl for a long time, but she later died at an area hospital, Baland said.

The foster mom said she had wrapped the child snugly in the blanket to calm her down, but Serna said CYFD does not train its foster parents to use such a technique.

"I know that with drug-addicted babies there's a school of thought that advocates this as a method to comfort them, but that's not appropriate for a 3-year-old and it would only be appropriate for an infant under a doctor's or a highly trained expert's care," Serna said.

Lemajeur said her daughter suffered from asthma and the tight wrapping of the blanket may have exacerbated that.

Lemajeur's son has since been removed from the foster home and placed in another foster home, Serna said. The foster mom's own children remain in her care, she said.

Serna said the department is standing behind the foster mom and offering its support to her and other foster parents who may once again be feeling maligned, vulnerable and alone. The department's more open, more supportive stance is in contrast to its actions in February 1999 when a foster mom was charged in the death of a 10-month-old foster boy. Authorities at the time accused the foster mother of beating Alex Ganadonegro so hard that his stomach ruptured. The charges were eventually dismissed against the woman, but foster parents for months endured the fallout and felt the state agency had not supported the woman or provided enough training for its newer foster parents.

"When there's a death in a foster home, other foster parents get scared," Serna said. "We're trying to prevent that from happening. We want them to know we support them. They are critical to our children."

Lemajeur said the department is also attempting to be supportive of her, too, allowing her to plan her daughter's funeral and offering to provide her what she needs.

But it's too little, too late, she said. "They (social workers) couldn't even call me in time for me to be there when my baby died," she sobbed, adding that she was not notified of her daughter's death until about 9 a.m. Sunday when three police officers and a chaplain arrived at her home. "They could have notified me earlier, but they didn't."

Lemajeur said she plans to seek legal action against the department for her daughter's death. But for now she must prepare for her daughter's funeral, scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday at Redeemer Luthran-Missouri Synod Church. Rochelle, she said, will be buried in Sunset Memorial Park, near the gravesite of her other child, a son who died when he was 14 days old.

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