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Infant Alex's death raises questions of foster system


Gutierrez Krueger

Albuquerque Tribune

Life never came easy for 10-month-old Alex.

Fetal alcohol syndrome, severe developmental delays and a mother dealing with her own issues made each day a struggle for survival. He was a chubby infant, sickly and prone to illnesses such as pneumonia, ear infections and respiratory ailments.

At age 4 months, he was taken away from his mother and placed into the state foster care system.

Six months later, he was dead.

His foster mother, Williette Ulmer, 29, is charged in his death, accused of dealing a blow to Alex's abdomen so severe that it ruptured his stomach.

It is the first time in recent history that a foster parent in New Mexico has been accused of killing a child, state Children, Youth and Families Department officials said.

But those who know Ulmer say the police must be mistaken, that something else must have occurred to cause Alex's death last Thursday, that Ulmer is incapable of such violence.

And other foster parents say that, whether or not she did what police allege she did, Alex's death is a signal that all is not right with the state's Protective Services Division -- how it sometimes overburdens its social workers, sometimes ignores its foster parents and, ultimately, sometimes fails its children.

"The foster care system is not going to go away," said Lynn Pedraza, a longtime foster parent. "But we can't keep damaging the kids this way. We need to look at the problems. We need to talk."

The baby's death

Last Wednesday, Williette Ulmer was one of several new foster parents to be honored at a reception put on by the state Children, Youth and Families Department, which oversees the Protective Services Division.

Baby Alex was with her.

"She loved that baby," said one foster mother, who declined to give her name. "Her and Jon (her husband) had worked really hard with him. He could sit up now. He could even pull himself up to stand. He wasn't able to do any of those things when they first got him, he was so severely delayed."

That would be the last time social workers would see Alex alive.

About 7:30 a.m. Thursday, Albuquerque Ambulance received a call from a home in the 800 block of Grace Northeast of a 10-month-old baby not breathing, ambulance spokesman Richard Fisher said.

Jon Ulmer, who had just come home from his night-shift job, made the 911 call after checking on Alex and discovering blood on the baby's lifeless face.

Alex was pronounced dead at the scene, Fisher said.

Initial police reports indicated that the baby's death was likely accidental or perhaps related to the baby's recent bout with pneumonia.

But Friday, the state Office of the Medical Investigator ruled the baby's death a homicide, the result of blunt trauma to the abdomen, which caused the stomach to rupture.

The force of the blow indicated it could have only been struck by an adult, Albuquerque Police Deputy Chief Sal Baragiola said.

Any ongoing or previous illness was not deemed a factor in the death, he said.

Williette Ulmer, who had been caring for the baby while her husband was at work, was booked into City-County Jail on one count of child abuse resulting in death.

Bail was set at $25,000. A jail officer said Sunday that Ulmer had already bonded out sometime over the weekend.

The Ulmers had been foster parents for six months. Alex had been with them for about as long, Baragiola said.

Those who know Williette Ulmer describe her as a woman who cared so much about Alex that she would often spend her lunch break from work with him at his day care center.

She was concerned, they said, about Alex's delays and his recent illnesses.

She was unhappy, they said, that Alex had to endure the arduous trips from his Far Northeast Heights day care to the requisite Peanut Butter and Jelly Therapeutic Preschool in the South Valley where his mother was learning how to parent him.

And she was worried, they said, that Alex would be returned to his mother, possibly as early as next month.

But a Metro Court criminal complaint paints a different picture of Williette Ulmer: It says she's a woman who used a belt to beat her son and a 4-year-old foster girl living in the home; who covered Alex's face with a blanket when he cried; and who spanked his hands with pens and combs to keep him from standing up in his crib.

On the night Alex died, the Ulmers' 9-year-old son said he heard Alex's crib shaking and the baby talking, the complaint states.

The baby was calling "Help me," he said.

Friends say the Ulmers are staying in a motel to escape TV news cameras. Their 4-year-old foster girl was moved to another foster home. The Ulmers' son was also removed from the home and placed on a 48-hour custody hold. The Children, Youth and Families Department would not release information about where he has been placed.

The vicious circle

Whatever the truth, some foster parents said that once again they must deal with the fallout.

"It's hard on foster parents when something like this happens," said Martha Caster, a foster parent since 1996. "It's guilt by association: We all must be abusers. And this stigma causes people not to want to be foster parents, so the few foster parents there are get overwhelmed. It's a vicious circle."

But Maryellen Strawniak, director of the state Protective Services Director, said statistics do not bear out the stigma.

"Reports of child maltreatment involving foster homes attract a great deal of attention and may create the perception that abuse is commonplace in foster care. However, this perception is out of line with reality," Strawniak said. "National substantiated accounts of abuse and neglect in day care, foster care or other institutional settings represent 2 or 3 percent of all confirmed cases."

Neither Strawniak nor her boss, Children, Youth and Families Secretary Debbie Hartz, could recall the last time a foster parent was charged in the death of a foster child.

Alex's death is prompting a review of the foster care system, including exploring a new foster parent risk instrument that would further screen out unacceptable people, Hartz said.

Currently, foster parents must undergo a rigorous process before being licensed to have children in their home. This includes:

  • Adequate income.

  • Enough room in the home for a child.

  • A home free of fire and health hazards.

  • Medical exams for every household member.

  • Five character references.

  • Police and FBI criminal records check.

  • Social worker home visits.

  • Twelve hours of preservice training and nine hours of additional training each year.

Caster, a foster parent since 1996, said, "I don't care how careful the screening is, the point is the system needs to support and keep in touch better with its foster parents so it really knows what's going on in our homes and with our kids.

"If I could wave a magic wand I would make sure there were an adequate number of social workers," Caster said. "Caseworkers are overloaded and burnout is high, but foster parents need to be able to communicate with somebody in the (CYFD) department. You can't get a phone call returned."

Pedraza, a foster parent since 1990, said last summer she recommended that social workers make weekly phone calls to foster parents just to make contact.

That recommendation never became reality.

Both Pedraza and Caster said they wonder how often anyone with Protective Services ever called Ulmer to see how she and the children were doing.

And they wonder whether new foster parents such as the Ulmers could have benefited with a mentoring system that would have paired them with seasoned foster parents. On Friday and Saturday, social workers were calling their foster families in Bernalillo County to ask them for suggestions on what could be done to improve the system.

"I learned more from other foster parents than I ever learned in any CYFD training," Caster said.

Hartz said suggestions like those from Pedraza and Caster, as well as those received as a result of the phone calls, will be considered.

Neither Hartz or Strawniak said they could discuss what might have happened to Alex had he lived.

But an attorney familiar with the case said Alex was expected to be returned home to his biological mother, who had turned her life around and was doing what she needed to do to provide a safe and nurturing home for her son.

"It was going to be a real success story," the attorney said.

But there is plenty of blame to go around for Alex's death.

"This isn't just one person's fault," Caster said. "It's the biological mom's for doing whatever she did to lose her child in the first place. It's the state. It's the department for overwhelming its social workers and ignoring its foster families. It's the caseworkers for not returning phone calls when we're stressed out with children that come to us with some pretty heavy emotional baggage. It's a society that has made people out there who hurt kids and who make it necessary for foster care in the first place."

1999 Feb 8