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A Ruling of Natural Death for a Foster Child



Stephanie Ramos, the severely disabled foster child whose 28-pound body was discarded in a trash bag by her foster mother in July, died of natural causes, the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, said yesterday.

An autopsy found that the 8-year-old child died of ''a severely underdeveloped brain with lesions, conditions that existed from the time of her birth.'' As a result, the foster mother, Renee Johnson, will not be criminally charged with her death.

However, Ms. Johnson, who reported the child missing and then admitted that she put her dead body in a garbage bag and left it on a Manhattan sidewalk, will still face charges of improper disposal of a body and falsely reporting an incident.

Mr. Brown said his office would continue to investigate what happened in the days and weeks before Stephanie died. Police investigators who visited Ms. Johnson's home in Springfield Gardens, Queens, where she cared for two other disabled foster children, described it as filthy and bug infested.

Ms. Johnson's lawyer, Murray Singer, said she was relieved by the autopsy finding. ''We always said Ms. Johnson was not responsible for Stephanie's death, and we are pleased that the medical examiner confirmed this.'' He added that his client was being evaluated by psychiatrists to determine whether she was mentally competent at the time.

In part because Stephanie was so disabled -- she was blind, diabetic and retarded -- and in part because her body was not recovered until after it had been crushed by a garbage truck, investigators never really expected to be able to specify the cause of her death.

Yesterday, the district attorney suggested that the precariousness of her health affected his ability to press charges. ''Stephanie was catastrophically disabled from the time of her birth and had a life expectancy at best into her teenage years,'' he said in a written statement. ''Therefore, there does not exist legally sufficient evidence to sustain the filing of criminal charges.''

Both the district attorney and the Administration for Children's Services, the city agency charged with protecting foster children, are continuing to examine the quality of care Stephanie received from her foster mother and from the Association to Benefit Children, the nonprofit agency that contracted with the city.

The police had described Ms. Johnson's home as covered with bags of clothing and clumps of hair. They also said Stephanie's feeding tube was caked with grime.

Susan Brune, a former federal prosecutor retained by the Association to Benefit Children to lead an in-house inquiry, said the organization was confident that the city investigation would confirm its finding ''that Stephanie Ramos received outstanding care throughout her life.''

2003 Sep 30