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Anchorage Daily News

The foster mother who was supposed to provide a safe home for 10-year-old Steven G. Murray killed him with blows to the head and told her two other foster sons to lie and say that Steven had hurt himself, Anchorage police said.Melissa Falgoust, 34, was arrested and charged with manslaughter Thursday, more than seven months after Steven's death. Police said the investigation took so long because of the conflicting statements and complicated medical evidence. Police initially said Steven may have caused the fatal injuries by banging his head on the floor.

The state Division of Family and Youth Services licensed Melissa and Doug Falgoust's foster home and placed emotionally disturbed children like Steven in their care. Steven joined the family in June 1998. It was his 11th foster home.

DFYS had had warnings of trouble in the Falgoust home, including an incident in April in which Steven ran away and said Melissa Falgoust had beaten him.

Other violence in the home wasn't known to DFYS. In June, Melissa Falgoust struck her husband with a baseball bat. She pleaded no contest to misdemeanor domestic violence assault the week before police say she killed Steven.

"The state let us down by not protecting our son," Steven's father, Steve Murray, said Thursday. "Now it's too late. He should have been out of that home."

DFYS officials said they had investigated 17 reports that Steven was at risk with his own family, starting when he was 5 weeks old, with most incidents related to alcohol and domestic violence. At the time he died, his parents were fighting the state's attempt to take him away permanently.

State Medical Examiner Michael Propst found numerous defensive wounds on Steven's arms, apparently from trying to ward off blows, police allege in the charging document. Steven's forehead, right cheek and ear, and right rear of his head were bruised. Small, round older bruises covered his chest. At some point, possibly from banging his leg against a metal railing, he suffered a leg fracture, which prosecutor Adrienne Bachman said healed without treatment.

Steven lapsed into a coma and died July 29 from a combination of head injuries and a failure to get him to the hospital promptly, Propst concluded.

The day Steven was fatally injured, Falgoust called 911 and said Steven was "in crisis all day. He's been beating himself -- he just rammed his head into the wall, and now he's flopping on the floor and getting stiff." She later said he had banged his head on the floor. She said the bruises on his chest were from pounding himself while playing Tarzan.

The first stories from the other two foster children didn't contradict that. They initially told police that their foster mother had not hurt Steven. They said they loved her. One, identified in the charging document only as Boy No. 1, showed a detective his new blanket, a treasured memento that he said was very expensive.

Detectives found the foster home to be "immaculate to the point of being eerie," the charging document said. Even though three foster boys and the Falgousts' son, ages 9 to 11, lived there, not a single toy, shoe or article of clothing was out of place.

About two weeks after Steven died, the investigation changed course. Boy No. 1 told a nurse at Charter North Hospital, where he was being treated, that he didn't want to go back to Melissa Falgoust, the charging document said. The child said now that Steven was gone, he "would be the worst kid in the house and she would pick on him. The boy was afraid that he was next," the charging document said.

The boy told detectives that Steven got into trouble July 27 because he failed to complete his morning tasks, according to the charging document. Falgoust ordered Steven to do jumping jacks. Exercise was a common punishment in the home, the foster child said. But Steven was lethargic that morning.

"When the boy did not perform well, Melissa Falgoust pushed him and struck him with her fists," the charging document said. She then lifted him and struck the back of his head on the carpeted floor, the document said. She also kicked him and punched him in the stomach, the child told police.

Falgoust told Boy No. 1 and the other foster child that she was going to call their caseworker and that they were to run into the room and yell "Mom, Mom, Steven's hurting himself" while she was on the phone, the charging document said. She called a worker at Alternatives Community Mental Health Center Inc., who heard the boys in the background. Alternatives provided a 35-hour-a-week activity therapist to work with Steven and possibly the other boys.

DFYS had had previous reports of abuse in the foster home. A school nurse in 1998 reported emotional abuse and excessive discipline of one of the other children. In April of last year, Steven ran away from the home and was found to have belt marks on his buttocks. He said Falgoust "had strapped him to punish him," the charging document said. He initially was taken away. But then he said he had hurt himself and after 10 days was put back into the home. The investigation into his death found he couldn't have caused the belt marks.

In July, Falgoust was sentenced to probation and ordered into a batterers' program for the domestic violence incident with her husband. Her attorney at the time, Stuart Ross, told the judge she was in an emotional crisis, reacting to her own childhood sexual and physical abuse.

"My concern is the possibility exists it will happen again unless you can confront your own psychological problems," District Court Judge Sigurd Murphy told her.

DFYS didn't know about the incident. As a result, it is now putting in place a system to get instant alerts whenever its foster parents get in trouble with police.

Steven's death marks the second time in two years that police have accused an Anchorage foster parent of killing a foster child. Two-year-old Janessa Aguirre was tortured to death in December 1997. Her foster mother is serving 75 years in prison.

Most foster homes are safe, DFYS officials said.

"We trust them with the lives of our children, and in this case, Melissa failed Steven, failed the foster care system and failed the foster children," said Ed Sheridan, a staff manager for the DFYS office in Anchorage.

Reporter Lisa Demer can be reached at ldemer@adn.com and 257-4390.

2000 Mar 10