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State must find out why system failed dead teen


Daniel Borenstein


The death of Jazzmin Davis, the 15-year-old police say was tortured for 15 months and starved to death by her foster mother in their Antioch home, should serve as a catalyst for state and court investigations into the bureaucratic breakdowns that lead to such tragedies.

Social workers, school officials, judges and attorneys involved in the case should all be grilled to determine how they missed the countless warning signs that preceded Jazzmin's Sept. 2 death.

Attorney Tali Soltz, who served as the court-appointed advocate for Jazzmin and her twin brother, told MediaNews reporters, "I feel like everyone did their jobs, as best as I can tell." That's hard to believe. But if it's true, then the entire foster care system is broken and must be repaired.

Child welfare attorney William Grimm of Oakland has examined numerous cases of foster care deaths. Usually, he says, it's not one single failure in the system that led to the fatality. In every case, there are warning signs that were ignored. What this case presents is an opportunity to see what went wrong.

"For every Jazzmin Davis," Grimm says, "there are many, many children who have suffered because of the practices of the agencies and they are hidden from public review."

For now, the twins' aunt, Shemeeka Davis, 38, sits in a Richmond jail in lieu of $1.5 million bail, facing charges of murder in Jazzmin's death and torture and abuse of both twins.


Davis served as the twins' foster parent from their infancy until she was awarded guardianship just six days before Jazzmin's death.

It was a troubling 15 years with many issues that should have set off alarm bells. Jazzmin had a history of behavior problems at home and school. Davis complained repeatedly about Jazzmin's behavior and her own ability to parent her. Davis repeatedly lost or avoided contact with social workers. She had a live-in boyfriend with a recent criminal drug history. There was a dearth of records substantiating required doctor visits for Jazzmin. There were no records to substantiate Davis' claim that Jazzmin was getting needed therapy. The list goes on.

But rather than increase the oversight of Jazzmin, social workers from San Francisco Human Services Agency — which was responsible for the case because that's where the twins were originally placed in foster care — reduced their visits from the normal monthly intervals to once every six months. School officials were not regularly contacted. Corroborating documentation was not sought to verify that Jazzmin was, for example, attending school, receiving medical care and seeing a therapist.

Instead, the San Francisco agency encouraged Shemeeka Davis to obtain the legal guardianship, which was approved even though neither Davis nor the twins showed up for the Aug. 27 court hearing.

How did Ann Marie Smith, the veteran child welfare worker, so badly drop the ball? What about her supervisors? Why were visits reduced from monthly to every six months? Why didn't school officials notice when Jazzmin failed to show up for school after summer vacation? And what about the judge who approved the guardianship without seeing Davis or the twins?

There are just too many unanswered questions. The state Department of Social Services must conduct a thorough investigation of the conduct of the San Francisco Human Services Agency. The San Francisco Juvenile Court system must review its procedures for awarding guardianships. School officials across the state must change their procedures for checking on students, especially foster kids, who fail to show up for class after summer vacations.

A teenage girl is dead. The system failed her. If those responsible for overseeing her care don't learn from their mistakes, more will die.

2008 Dec 20