A Child’s Death Reveals a System’s Tragic Flaw
Noam N. Levey
Corri Planck and Dianne Hardy-Garcia were overjoyed when they got the call.
Driven by a hope they might someday adopt a needy child, the Los Angeles couple had spent months training to become foster parents. Now, county welfare officials were looking for a safe home for Sarah Chavez, a 2-year-old girl.
Like giddy new parents, Planck and Hardy-Garcia rushed to buy furniture, toys and a stroller for the toddler. “We felt like, wow, what an amazing gift,” Hardy-Garcia said recently.
Over the next three months, the women took Sarah to the zoo and on long walks in the neighborhood, where the little girl waved at strangers. Sometimes they would stay up at night just watching Sarah sleep.
Then it all changed. On a Monday afternoon last April, the couple was told to pack up Sarah’s clothes because a court referee had ordered the toddler returned to her aunt and uncle, even though social workers had once suspected them of abusing her.
By fall the little girl with pigtails, who liked snails and dancing to show tunes, was dead – beaten, prosecutors now allege, by the same aunt and uncle. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Sarah’s death in October marked a grim episode in a gargantuan child welfare system that struggles each year to rescue thousands from abuse or neglect while still preserving families whenever possible. Deaths like hers are not unheard of, but they are rare.
But the tragedy highlighted what many say is a widespread, if sometimes overlooked, weakness in child welfare systems nationwide: As social workers, attorneys and judges look to reunite children with their parents or relatives, they too often ignore the voices of the foster parents who have been tucking the children into bed every night.
Local child welfare officials acknowledge they must do more to reach out to foster parents like Planck and Hardy-Garcia.
“It’s really critical that we have information from them,” said David Sanders, director of the county Department of Children and Family Services. “They spend 24 hours a day with the children, while our social workers spend maybe two or three hours a month.
“Unfortunately, our system is not at that ideal,” said Sanders, who added that since Sarah’s death, he has begun working on ways to ensure more involvement by foster parents.
For Planck and Hardy-Garcia, joy quickly turned to heartache, followed by agonizing months of frustration over a system they believe repeatedly let Sarah down.
The couple said that they saw signs of abuse from the moment Sarah arrived at their door and that they begged child welfare officials to investigate more fully.
They couldn’t find out when Sarah’s case was in dependency court. They never were given a standard court form designed to solicit the opinions of foster parents.
And Sarah’s court-appointed attorney didn’t call until the day she told them to have Sarah ready to be picked up by the relatives now accused of killing her.
“It was sickening,” Planck said. “This little girl was precious and amazing and spectacular and deserved so much better.”
An internal county investigation has faulted social workers for numerous oversights, including failing to adequately investigate Sarah’s injuries when she entered foster care. And Sanders, as well as the head of a nonprofit agency that represents most foster children in court, both say they are reviewing their internal procedures.
Sarah entered the Los Angeles County foster care system on New Year’s Day 2005.
That morning, Sarah’s mother had called 911 after delivering a stillborn baby into the toilet of her grandmother’s home on Los Angeles’ Eastside, according to case reports.
At the time, Sarah, who had just turned 2, was staying with her aunt and uncle in nearby Alhambra. When social workers went to see her, they found the little girl with a cut on her nose and bruises under both eyes.
Sarah’s aunt, Frances Abundis, told welfare officials that Sarah had fallen on a toy firetruck.
Records indicate that social workers and police were concerned about Sarah’s injuries and investigators worried that the aunt and uncle, who had denied knowing her mother was pregnant, were trying to avoid giving Sarah up.
Sarah was removed from her aunt’s house and placed in an emergency foster home. Within days, her case was before a court referee in Los Angeles County’s Children’s Court, the epicenter of a system undergoing a revolutionary change.
Officials once were quick to remove children from their families, but today there is a new emphasis on helping families repair themselves so once-abused children can be reunited with their parents or with other relatives.
Experts say children do better when living with relatives instead of strangers. Rob Geen, a child welfare specialist at the Urban Institute, based in Washington, D.C., said the results speak for themselves.
“Abuse of children in foster care is declining nationwide,” he said.
The new approach, enshrined in law and widely endorsed by child advocates, is credited with dramatically reducing the number of children in foster care in big systems like Los Angeles County’s. Since 2002, the county said, the number of children in its foster care program has dropped about 22%, to 21,248 as of December.
But child welfare officials agree that in some cases, reunification may not be possible. And they now sometimes turn to people like Planck and Hardy-Garcia.
The couple, both professional women in their 30s, had signed up to be not just temporary caregivers but “foster adopt” parents looking for the chance to raise a child.
When Hardy-Garcia went to pick up Sarah at the Department of Children and Family Services with a teddy bear and bottle in hand, she and Planck had no idea the little girl was on a fast track to return to her aunt and uncle.
Hardy-Garcia said the moment she saw Sarah, she fell in love with the little girl with chocolate on her face.
“My biggest fear was that she would be crying in terror, that she would be scared. But it wasn’t like that at all,” Hardy-Garcia said. “Sarah jumped into my arms.”
When the two got home, Hardy-Garcia e-mailed photos to Planck, who was out of town on a business trip. “I cried and I cried,” Planck said. “I felt so lucky.”
That night, Hardy-Garcia put on a video of “Mary Poppins” for Sarah (because Sarah didn’t like cartoons), and Sarah danced in the living room to “Supercallifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Over the next weeks and months, Sarah flourished in the couple’s care, according to reports from social workers, who noted that the child’s vocabulary increased, she was eating well and she “appeared to be an active, healthy and happy girl.”
Planck and Hardy-Garcia saw several things in Sarah that did worry them.
Sarah would curse and try to choke her foster parents when she got upset, the couple told social workers, reports show. Sometimes, she would place things between her legs in a way that made Planck and Hardy-Garcia worry that she might have been sexually abused.
The women said that when they raised their concerns with social workers, they were told not to worry, that Sarah would not be sent back to her relatives.
What Planck and Hardy-Garcia did not know was that while they were wondering if their concerns about Sarah were being taken seriously, court officials and attorneys at the Children’s Court were working to reunite her with the aunt and uncle.
Thirteen days after Sarah was taken from the Abundis’ home with bruises, court referee Joan Carney said that she was “satisfied
Carney, who declined to discuss the case, changed her mind when a county attorney objected that social workers had serious concerns about the aunt.
But Frances Abundis continued to go to court to push for custody.
Sarah’s court-appointed attorney also urged a swift check of the aunt to get Sarah back with her relatives, court transcripts show.
As the court proceedings dragged on for months – there were ultimately 12 court dates between January and May – Planck and Hardy-Garcia said, they were left in the dark.
“It would take days to find out if [a hearing] had happened and then sometimes days more to find out if anything had happened at all,” Planck said. “It was maddening.”
Planck and Hardy-Garcia said they pleaded with social workers to do a medical evaluation of Sarah to establish if she had indeed been abused, as they suspected.
It never happened, documents show, in part because the social worker assigned to the case said she got lost on the way to the clinic and never rescheduled.
Planck and Hardy-Garcia said they asked social workers at the county and a private foster care agency they worked with if they should contact Sarah’s court-appointed attorney or go to court themselves to voice their concerns.
The couple said they were told that might only antagonize the people who would ultimately have to decide if they could adopt Sarah.
Meanwhile, the couple never heard from Josephanie Ackman, Sarah’s court-appointed attorney from the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles. Ackman declined to comment.
Ackman’s supervisor, Lisa Mandel, said she did not know why Ackman had not called the foster parents, although there was no requirement that she do so.
But Mandel noted that Ackman had relied on the advice of a county social worker, who apparently changed her recommendation and urged that Sarah be returned to her aunt and uncle. “This case shakes us to the core,” Mandel said. “It’s devastating.”
Advocates across the country say foster parents are often the last people consulted about what is best for the children placed in their care.
“We hear this story every day,” said Karen Jorgenson, executive director of the National Foster Parent Assn.
California lawmakers and courts have taken several steps in recent years to encourage more involvement by foster parents. And both Sanders and Judge Michael Nash, who presides over the children’s court, say they welcome it.
But most regulations do not require that foster parents be notified of court dates or told how to get involved in the decision-making until much later in the process.
Nationwide, studies show that frustration over being ignored is a leading reason why foster parents decide to stop taking abused and neglected children, even as demand for foster parents remains extremely high.
Planck and Hardy-Garcia lost custody of Sarah on the morning of April 25, when the court referee ordered Sarah returned to her aunt and uncle after attorneys in the case reported that the social worker assigned to investigate had lifted her objections for reasons that documents in the case do not explain.
Later that Monday, Planck and Hardy-Garcia said, they received a call from Sarah’s court-appointed attorney, ordering them to get Sarah ready to be picked up in two hours by her relatives.
The women packed Sarah’s things while the little girl cried and tried to put her clothes back in her dresser.
“It was heartbreaking,” Hardy-Garcia said. “We knew we were sending her back to someplace unsafe.”
The couple’s worst fears soon were realized.
In the months after Sarah was returned to the Abundis’ home, she stopped talking, had trouble sleeping and began punching and picking at herself, case records show. Examinations by physicians in May and July found the girl had behavioral problems and abrasions on her neck, face and forehead.
But social workers assigned to the case took no action to remove Sarah again, according to the case file.
And when Sarah’s aunt took her to Garfield Medical Center for treatment of a severely broken arm on the night of Oct. 10 and then took her home over the objections of medical staff, no one at the hospital called to report abuse. A subsequent state investigation concluded that hospital staff should have done so.
The next morning, the Alhambra Fire Department found Sarah dead at the Abundises’ home, killed by a severe blow to her abdomen, according to the preliminary coroner’s investigation.
Today, Frances and her husband, Armando Abundis, await trial on murder charges. Local child welfare officials say they are continuing to review their procedures to prevent another tragedy.
Planck and Hardy-Garcia, meanwhile, say they are haunted by what happened to the little girl they fell in love with last year.
“We’re painfully aware that there is nothing that will bring Sarah back,” Planck said. “But this did not have to happen.”