Oregon's investigation into foster child's death ends at state line

Date: 2009-03-16

Susan Goldsmith and Michelle Cole
The Oregonian

None of the teachers at Adrianna Romero Cram's small Mexican preschool will ever forget June 13, 2005.

That hot, sticky morning, Adrianna's uncle stopped by to let teachers know his niece was sick and he was taking her to the doctor. Two hours later, Principal Albina Cruz Gutierrez phoned the physician to see how the little American girl was doing.

The secretary at the doctor's office told her Adrianna was dead.

Cruz Gutierrez didn't need to hear the official cause. She knew Adrianna, the 4-year-old from Oregon, had been murdered by abuse.

When she died, the beautiful hazel-eyed girl was legally in the protective custody of the Oregon Department of Human Services, which had sent her to Mexico.

The agency did little to monitor Adrianna's well-being after sending her to live with relatives she'd never met. A state caseworker made occasional calls to Mexico, while welfare authorities there ignored repeated warnings about Adrianna's abuse and wrote positive reports about her life.

Four and a half years after Adrianna's murder, child welfare workers in Oregon still talk of how devastated they are by her death and how important it is to make sure no other Oregon child suffers a similar tragedy when sent to another country.

Yet the state's investigation and response following Adrianna's death stopped at the border. With no more monitoring than Adrianna had, the state has sent eight more children from foster care to live with relatives in Mexico.

Tableau of torture

A U.S. citizen, Adrianna was taken from her mother because of neglect and placed in Oregon state foster care when she was 1 year old. An Oregon court ordered her sent to Omealca, a village in the southern Mexico state of Veracuz, in the summer of 2004, just weeks before her fourth birthday. Once there, she was abused by the aunt and uncle the state of Oregon had selected as her new parents.

Teachers at Adrianna's preschool saw her bruises, cuts and burns and spent weeks badgering Mexican welfare officials to help her.

At the preschool that June morning, the principal and Jazmin Juarez Benitez, a music teacher who hunted for help for Adrianna for weeks, somberly gathered photos they'd taken of Adrianna's injuries and notes about her treatment and walked to the state prosecutor's office just a few doors down.

The women told prosecutors they were certain Adrianna died of abuse, handed over their evidence and gave sworn statements.

"I left that office so sad and frustrated, and with the heaviest of hearts," the principal, Cruz Gutierrez, said.

Adrianna's body was a tableau of torture. The coroner found "multiple contusions and hematomas in various degrees of maturity throughout her whole body." Her small body also revealed "signs of forced violence and defensive fighting."

Officially, the cause of death was "a deep contusion of the abdomen along with a brain hemorrhage" from injuries sustained two or three days earlier.

Weeks later, Adrianna's aunt and uncle, Elizabeth Romero Marin and Hector de Jesus Luna, were arrested and charged with aggravated murder. Both were convicted.

Adrianna's aunt received a 45-year sentence. Her uncle got only two years for the same crime. A judge decided the case in secret.

"I don't even know what happened," said prosecutor Roberto Sandoval Uribe. Both were equally responsible for Adrianna's murder, he said. "They had both abused and tortured her for months."

Painful lessons

In the days after Adrianna died, records show a flurry of e-mails and meetings at the Oregon Department of Human Services. Caseworkers were shocked and heartsick. There was also much bureaucratic scrambling.

"Everybody and their mother and their lawyer showed up," said Jerry Buzzard, then the state's child welfare manager in Hillsboro. There was a debate, Buzzard remembers, about whether Adrianna's biological mother, Tausha Cram, should be told of her death. Legally, the lawyers pointed out, she had no rights as a parent as she'd lost them because of neglect.

"Those of us who were social workers were talking about our ethical responsibility," he said.

Buzzard decided to tell Cram himself.

Cram, originally from Washington state, was abused herself as a child. She gave birth to Adrianna when she was 17, had been addicted to drugs and was still trying to pull her life together.

Cram asked to bring Adrianna's body home. The agency declined.

The little girl was buried in an Omealca cemetery surrounded by sugar cane fields. The tin plaque on her grave misspelled her name.

James Perillo, Adrianna's Oregon caseworker, insists he saw no red flags that would have prompted him to bring Adrianna back from Mexico before she died. Yet she taught him a painful lesson.

"What I do differently now is that I'm demanding things differently," he said. "And I'm pushing the consulate to help me by making sure I'm getting things and reports. Because, in a heartbeat, if things don't go right, I'm going to go and get a kid."

Others in the agency dealt with Adrianna's death less personally.

State officials consulted with the Mexican Consulate about what to say if reporters called. One note suggested wording for a news release: "It was a tragedy nobody anticipated."

When a child in the state's protective custody dies, a team reviews how the case was handled to see what lessons can be learned. The team investigated the state's own files and questioned how Adrianna's uncle and aunt in Mexico were selected in the first place.

But the state's investigation of Adrianna's abuse and death stopped at the Oregon border.

No one from Oregon talked to Adrianna's grandfather, who told the Mexican welfare agency that the girl was being abused six months before her death.

No one from Oregon talked to Adrianna's teachers, who documented her abuse and pleaded with Mexican officials for help.

And no one from Oregon talked to the prosecutor in Mexico, who investigated Adrianna's murder.

Without that information, the changes the state team recommended did little to ensure that other Oregon children sent to Mexico would have more vigilant monitoring. Instead, the team's report conceded, on out-of-country placements "mistakes and missteps are possible."

Even so, Erinn Kelley-Siel, named head of Oregon's child welfare division last year, said Adrianna's death "left a legacy" throughout the organization.

"Because of what she experienced -- which I wish she never had to experience -- because of it, kids are safer," she said.

Because of Adrianna, the state now pursues a much more thorough investigation of all adopting families, even if they are relatives, Kelley-Siel said. New caseworkers receive training on a new policy guiding international placements.

But when children are sent to other countries, the state still depends on welfare workers beyond U.S. borders to see the children and respond to any problems. In the case of Mexico, Oregon is depending on the same Mexican welfare agency that ignored repeated reports of Adrianna's abuse.

In an interview Feb. 27, Kelley-Siel said she saw no reason to stop sending Oregon foster children out of the country. "Just because someone lives in another state or another country," she said, "I can't say I'm not going to place a child there just on that basis."
Since Adrianna's death

In the four years since Adrianna Romero Cram was murdered, the Oregon Department of Human Services has added a more extensive home study of adopting relatives, training for new workers, and designated experts in out-of-country placements at its Salem headquarters. But there's still more to do. Here's what hasn't changed:

Caseworkers do not visit children awaiting adoption in other countries, even though they remain in state custody.

There are no safety contracts between Oregon and Mexico to require regular visits and reports for specific children, even though Oregon has agreements with other countries.

Nationally, there's no reliable tracking of the number of U.S. children sent by states to be adopted in Mexico or other countries.

A new international agreement provides a framework for protecting children sent outside their home countries. But most states, including Oregon, have not set up systems to comply with the agreement. Last week, Oregon temporarily stopped sending foster children out of the country while it talks with the U.S. State Department about what the state needs to do.

Yet in another interview 10 days later, Kelley-Siel announced a moratorium on sending Oregon foster children to other countries while the state works with the U.S. State Department on a plan to guarantee better protection for the children. The decision means five Oregon foster children scheduled to go to Mexico won't be going -- at least for now.

Remembering Adrianna

At Adrianna's preschool in Omealca, teachers honor her each November by hanging up her picture for the Day of the Dead celebration.

One teacher, Judith Caizero Aguilar, thought about naming her third child after the little American girl. But she decided it would be a mistake, she said, because "there was only one Adrianna."

Although the teachers try to keep Adrianna's memory alive, social workers at the Mexican welfare agency have tried to forget.

Last year, caseworkers at the Omealca branch of the agency feared Adrianna was haunting the office, so the agency director brought in a priest to exorcise Adrianna's spirit. Since then, workers have not heard her cries for help, said the director, Irene Barrientos de Sierra.

The agency's records of the 4-year-old American girl's case also disappeared, she said; previous administrators took them when they left two years ago.

In an interview with The Oregonian, Enrique Romero Cuevas, the consul of Mexico in Portland, expressed regret about Adrianna's death and pointed out that children in the United States die in foster care as well. He produced numerous news accounts of those cases.

"Systems fail even here," he said.

Romero Cuevas said the consulate has never received documents about Adrianna's case because the Mexican judiciary refuses to turn them over. "The file is restricted," he said, "and we have asked the judiciary for at least a summary of the case, and we have not received an answer yet."

He learned during the interview that Adrianna's teachers and principal repeatedly begged child welfare officials for help before her murder.

"That would establish clear responsibility," he said, "and should be investigated, and if need be, prosecuted."

A search for answers

In July, three years after her daughter's murder, Cram went to Omealca.

"I wanted to ask her forgiveness," she said.

But Cram also was propelled by a need for answers about what happened to Adrianna. And she wanted to bring her daughter's body home.

Cram went to the Mexican court and bought a copy of the case file on Adrianna's murder. The file tells the story of Adrianna's abuse during her year in Mexico. These are documents the Mexican Consulate says it has been unable to get, and Oregon state officials have not seen.

Cram also got permission to dig up her daughter's body and bring it home. She scoured the cemetery, looking for Adrianna's grave, wandering among the dozens of graves adorned with plastic flowers, balloons and statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She found it, in the middle of the graveyard, marked with a tin plaque. With a sledgehammer, she broke open the concrete tomb.

Adrianna was cremated in Mexico in July. Tausha Cram brought her ashes back to Oregon in a stone urn. On the front of the urn is a silver angel.

Susan Goldsmith: 503-294-5131; susangoldsmith@news.oregonian.com
Michelle Cole: 503-294-5143; michellecole@news.oregonian.com


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