States don't often share child-abuse records. And sometimes kids like Jeanette Maples die.
By Michelle Cole
October 27, 2012 / oregonlive.com
A 10-year-old girl is found dead in a footlocker in Arizona and police learn her family had been under investigation by child welfare authorities in Utah.
A teenager is murdered in Eugene, leaving a trail of questions from Sacramento to Salem about who failed to protect her.
A baby spends its vital first year with a stranger in Alabama foster care while relatives in Oregon wait for word that they can raise the child.
The fate of those three children and thousands more across the nation might have been different if only critical information had made it across state borders.
An investigation by The Oregonian finds child welfare workers in different states often fail to communicate about a family's history or a child's needs. Federal law directs states to cooperate in child abuse investigations, foster care placements and interstate adoptions.
But that doesn't always happen.
It's not because child welfare workers don't care. They do. And it's not because the problem can't be solved. It can.
But there are obstacles. And it's the children who suffer.
The federal government offers few deadlines and weak enforcement about what can and should be shared. There is no national database identifying proven child abuse cases, though Congress passed a law requiring that in 2006.
Many states, including Oregon, don't allow child welfare investigators easy access to records detailing arrests or criminal convictions outside the state.
Some child welfare offices don't have the staff or the technology to share information quickly and easily. In some states, no child welfare professionals are available to answer the phone after business hours. Others won't provide information over the phone, demanding a written request on official letterhead -- and often, payment-- before they cooperate with their counterparts in other states.
Frustrating? You bet, says Ida Sanders, who has worked the past five years as a supervisor for the state child abuse hotline in Portland.
"When we're calling, we want the information now. Really now," she says. "I have had serious cases where kids were in immediate danger. We can't wait."
Yet The Oregonian has found caseworkers do wait -- sometimes for months -- for information to come -- if it comes at all.
"It's been a long-standing problem that only gets worse the more mobile families are," says Linda Spears, vice president of policy and public affairs for the Child Welfare League of America.
Failure to communicate can keep a child from reuniting with family or being adopted into a loving home.
And sometimes children die.
"Still don't know what happened"
On Dec. 9, 2009, police responded to one of the worst cases of child torture and neglect on record in Oregon.
Friends and family had tried to get help for Jeanette Maples, saying the quiet, brown-haired teen appeared to be bruised and constantly hungry. Help came too late.
Pronounced dead at the hospital, medical examiners found the 15-year-old had an exposed femur, split lips and signs that she had endured prolonged starvation and beatings.
Jeanette's mother, Angela McAnulty, pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, becoming the first woman in Oregon to be sentenced to death since 1984. Jeanette's stepfather, Richard McAnulty, pleaded guilty to murder by abuse and is serving 25 years to life.
During the mother's trial, Oregon child welfare caseworker Sandra Alberts testified that she knew Jeanette had spent time in foster care in California but couldn't get a full picture of the family's history.
Court records show Alberts had met Maples three years earlier after the skinny sixth-grader said her parents wouldn't allow her dinner, forced her to balance on her knees for hours and, as extra punishment, eat raw habanero peppers.
Learning the family had moved to Oregon recently, Alberts called California. She found out that Jeannette had been taken into foster care in 1995, when she was 1 year old. The California official also told Alberts that Jeanette had left foster care in 2001. That was the only information in the computer, the official said.
Alberts made another call to California. A different worker told her that Jeanette's mother had a history of drug abuse as well as physical abuse of her children. She learned Jeanette's older brothers refused to go back to mom. In a third call, Alberts was told that Angela McAnulty had met the state's requirements for getting her daughter back -- including negative drug tests.
Alberts declined to be interviewed for this story, but court and agency records show she dropped her investigation.
Oregon child welfare managers who looked into the case after Jeanette was killed lamented the lack of information.
"We still don't know what happened in California," say minutes of a Dec. 28, 2009 meeting obtained by The Oregonian through the state's public records law.
The minutes also note that California asked for a copy of Oregon's case file to help with its own internal investigation. Ironically, Oregon officials refused California's request, until Erinn Kelley-Siel, head of Oregon's child welfare system, ordered her staff to share.
"Can you believe this?"
In 2006, Congress passed a law proposing to create a national registry of substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect so child welfare workers could check the records of parents or potential foster parents.
Six years later, there is no registry.
In a report to Congress late last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said a national registry would likely identify several thousand people who have committed child abuse in another state within the last five years. The report also noted that child welfare agencies received thousands of inquiries from other states over the last year. Managers surveyed from 35 states agreed that a national registry could save time and protect children.
The 2006 law also allowed child welfare investigators access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center databases. That has started in some states.
Washington state set up a child abuse and neglect background unit in Seattle, where trained staff run national criminal checks for any child welfare office in the state.
"It's not required for every single case," says Nicole Muller, who supervises the unit. "It is used if there are concerns."
Oregon has used the national crime database for years to check fingerprints of people seeking to become certified foster parents. But the state has not allowed child welfare investigators to run name and birth date checks for allegations of abuse.
Without fingerprints, there's no way to be 100 percent certain of the results. And under state rules, the agency must tell a person that a criminal background check was made.
In August, the state launched an experiment, giving two Portland caseworkers the ability to conduct national criminal checks. Last week, managers told The Oregonian they are reviewing whether to allow the checks in other offices.
For now, most Oregon workers investigating child abuse can only check criminal records in Oregon.
Child welfare investigators complain that a subject could be a "bad actor" across the Columbia River in Washington, and Oregon records wouldn't show it. In-state checks are also unlikely to flag registered sex offenders from other states.
Without national checks, caseworkers rely on their colleagues elsewhere to tell them what they need to know. Sometimes that depends on who answers the phone.
Last spring, Michael Simpson received an alert through the Oregon's child abuse hotline about kids in danger. The parents have a history of drug abuse and domestic violence, a caller said. Dad is in jail but getting out soon.
"We needed to find out soon what was going on," recalls Simpson, a Vietnam veteran who has spent 21 years working in child welfare.
Oregon had no records on the family, which had recently moved from Bakersfield, Calif. Unlike Oregon, which has a state-run system, California's child welfare offices are operated by its 58 counties. Simpson made several calls before he found the office that knew something about the family.
But they wouldn't share information over the phone. Fax your request on letterhead, he was told. Simpson did that and followed up with a call four hours later. No luck.
With little information, he assigned a caseworker to investigate while he kept checking with California.
He called again the next day only to be told to fax another request. On the third day, he received a response: It acknowledged that California officials had abuse reports about the family.
But Simpson could only get the details if he could provide five pieces of information, including the full name of the suspect and specific citations of state law.
"Requests that do not include ALL of the above must be denied," the California letter said.
"The rule is to be nice. So I was nice," says Simpson, a soft-spoken man who wears a U.S. Marine Corps cap over his graying head. He made another call. "When I got off the phone I screamed to my supervisor: 'Can you believe this?'"
Frank Mecca, executive director of the County Welfare Directors Association of California, says he's surprised that Oregon caseworkers' had trouble getting information.
But Mecca explained that in California, the juvenile courts, not the welfare offices, control access to a full child welfare case record. Anyone seeking in-depth information must petition a judge.
"The kid was the one who suffered"
All 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands signed an "Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children" in 1960 to ensure that children who are adopted or placed in foster care across state borders get a safe home quickly and continue to get support.
It doesn't always work.
Earlier this year, the "No Adoption Barriers Coalition," a national group of experts in adoption and foster care policy, reported that between 1998 and 2009, just 300 children per year were adopted from foster care across state lines. Meanwhile, thousands of children waited for permanent homes and hundreds of thousands of potential adoptive parents ran into roadblocks.
Another study found children in "temporary foster care," intended to last no more than 20 days, remain an average of three to nine months before they are sent to relatives or placed in a more permanent foster home in another state.
Sonya Sullivan, one of eight interstate placement specialists in Oregon, says it's often difficult to get what she needs from other jurisdictions. And sometimes, she admits, her workload is so heavy that she is part of the delay, too.
A 42-year-old single parent who proudly displays photos of her own child at her desk, Sullivan says she's still waiting for information to come from Alabama concerning a baby born almost a year ago. Relatives in Oregon are already raising the baby's sibling. They worry that critical bonding time is passing while the two states dally with the paperwork.
Closer to home, child welfare officials in Washington and Oregon signed a border agreement two years ago to make it easier for relatives to adopt or take in foster children when families live in Clark or Cowlitz counties and across the Columbia River in Portland metro counties.
The agreement has helped, Sullivan says. But not every time.
She tells the story of a teenager from Washington who was living with relatives in Oregon under an "emergency placement."
After Oregon criminal background checks came back clean, Sullivan remembers fingerprinting the male in the household and checking them in the national criminal database. The report showed arrests and convictions in other states that he hadn't disclosed and that Washington state officials didn't know about.
The teen, already uprooted from one home, had to be moved again.
"The kid," Sullivan says, "was the one who suffered."
"Children slipping through the cracks"
The federal government provides roughly half the money spent nationwide for child abuse investigations, foster care, family reunification and state adoptions. But child welfare programs look and act very differently from state to state. Even the laws defining child "abuse" or "neglect" vary.
There are 50 states, hundreds of counties and "exactly that many different ways of requesting information," says Jeff Akin, manager of the background check unit at Oregon's Department of Human Services.
The barriers to effective communication? Heavy workload. High staff turnover. Inconsistent records retention rules. Computers systems that do not talk to each other.
But the biggest barrier, many agree, is child welfare's culture of confidentiality.
"One worker says she can't share while another worker across the room is saying, 'Sure, I'll give you the information.' It's not being applied in a rigorous way and what you have is children slipping through the cracks," says Michael Petit, a former commissioner of Health and Human Services in Maine.
Petit, who now works with the national nonprofit "Every Child Matters," adds: "We have about 4,000 offices in the country that do child protective services -- it's one of those areas that badly needs federal supervision and direction."
Some parents take advantage of the poor communication between states when they flee from one to another to escape a child abuse investigation. Caseworkers aren't required to call another state about their concerns.
Jared Rounsville, the director of the protective services division in New Mexico, says his staff tries to alert other states if they can. And he knows that's true of others across the country.
"I won't say it works every time," he says. "But I believe lives of children are saved as a result of extra efforts child welfare workers go to -- to protect the children who move across state lines."
But sometimes the failure to communicate is tragic.
On July 12, 2011, 10-year-old Ame Deal's body was found padlocked in a small storage locker at her family's Phoenix home. Six relatives were arrested in connection with her death.
Teachers in Utah told authorities the girl had come to school dirty and with head lice. But they said they had no idea she was in mortal danger.
Later, police said Ame's relatives were being investigated in Utah before her family moved to Arizona.
Child welfare officials in both states declined comment on the case.