exposing the dark side of adoption
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Deadly adoptions


Two toddlers were adopted into a Fort Bragg family and within a year both were dead. It took more than three years but their adopted father, a Ft. Bragg soldier, is now facing murder charges. The ABC11 I-Team went inside the cases to find out how the systems in place to protect North Carolina children let the kids' lives and justice fall through the cracks. 

By: Samantha Kummerer

It was a normal January night at the Rivera household. The family’s four children were fed and put to bed, but within an hour one would be dead. “My daughter’s not breathing, she’s purple,” the mother told the Harnett County 911 operator. The family found their two-year-old daughter, Olivia, unresponsive in her crib. “She was laying down. All the kiddos were sleeping, we went to go check on them and my husband told me to call 911.. she was purple,” the mother repeated to the operator. Efforts to save the toddler failed. Her death came just two months after the family experienced an eerily similar situation. In mid-November 2017, the family’s three-year-old son, Michael, awoke from a nap, “pale, staring off and moaning.” The mother chooses to drive the boy to the emergency room. While driving, Michael become unresponsive and EMS was called to a parking lot in Fayetteville. “He’s not responsive at all,” the same distressed mother tells a Cumberland County 911 operator. “His eyes are like rolled back.”

When EMS arrived, they reported his pupils were fixed and dilated, he had no pulse, was cold to the touch with vomit on his clothes and face. The medical examiner’s investigation labeled both toddlers’ deaths as homicides from blunt force trauma.

Their autopsies detailed similar injuries from contusions and abrasions on the legs and face to severed backbones to healing fractures. More than four years later; no one is convicted for either death. The ABC11 I-Team uncovered what some call a series of missteps in how their cases were handled. “I find them appalling. They're out of the normal realm of how these cases are handled, and they're often not handled very well. This hardly seems to be handled at all,” said Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens, a child abuse advocate. She’s been involved with child abuse cases in North Carolina for decades. From practicing pediatrics at Duke to later heading the North Carolina Child Fatality Prevention Team, Herman-Giddens reviewed and testified in numerous child abuse cases. Despite all that experience, she called these cases the worst she’s seen. “It's almost like nothing happened the way it should have happened,” she said after reviewing the reports. “It's horrible. It's inexcusable.”

To add to the tragedy, the toddlers’ deaths came less than a year after they were adopted. In April 2017, Michael and Olivia joined the Rivera family. The family already had three sons and adopted the toddlers in Arizona that August. A month later, the family moved to Cameron, NC. The father, Anthony Rivera, is a warrant officer for the U.S. Army and stationed at Ft. Bragg. In the months that followed, both kids would be seen by doctors for ‘falling down the stairs,’ according to the medical examiner’s reports following their deaths. The reports also stated Michael, who was three years old, was seen for back pains and also may have been abused prior to adoption. “It’s not normal for three-year-olds to have all that back trouble,” Herman-Giddens said after reviewing the documents. Herman-Giddens believes the multiple encounters the children had with medical professionals prior to their deaths were missed opportunities. “They have two children that fell down the stairs and both subsequently showed up in medical practices and nobody seemed to put the dots together and make a report for child abuse or do anything is appalling,” she said. Documents from Harnett County stated they didn’t receive a complaint ‘alleging neglect due to injurious environment’ in the home until after Michael’s death. When the Harnett County’s Department of Social Services received the complaint they did conduct an investigative review to determine the safety of the other children in the home; following state protocol.

“If a child lives in a home where another child has died because of maltreatment, that child may also have been abused or neglected. It is critical that information regarding risk and safety be carefully gathered and evaluated to determine if the child has been harmed or if there is evidence or suspicion that the other children are being maltreated,” the NC Child Welfare Manual states. The details of the county’s investigation are shielded under the state’s public record law, so it’s unclear how thorough the investigation was or what the findings were. However, since Olivia died months later, it doesn’t appear any of the children were removed from the home; something Herman-Giddens believes should have been done based on Michael’s autopsy. “There's no reasonable explanation for the amount of blunt force trauma that both children had and obviously was sufficient to kill them,” she said. “It should have been enough suspicion to immediately remove the other children from the home and they should have been done where and in with the first death of the child, the first child and then the little girl would not have ended up being killed,” Herman-Giddens said. Harnett County DSS declined to comment on the cases, again citing privacy laws. The county’s Child Fatality Review Team aims to identify any “deficiencies in the delivery of services to children and families, and to recommend and implement changes that will prevent future child deaths.” 

The ten-page report the I-Team obtained is heavily redacted so it’s unclear what, if any, errors the team identified. Many of the nearly 100 findings and recommendations are blacked out. Details surrounding children’s death and the child welfare system’s involvement is often protected by privacy laws. However, details are made public if they are reviewed by the Child Fatality Review Team at the state level. Similar to the country teams, the team reviews cases where DSS was involved in the home prior to the incident and when the cause of death is attributed to maltreatment. These reports are public, however, neither Olivia’s nor Michael’s deaths were reviewed by the team, even though DSS was involved with the Riveras following Michael’s death. Reviewing these cases doesn’t impact police investigations or criminal charges but Herman-Giddens said there is still an impact by not reviewing them. “The whole point of creating the State Fatality Prevention Team is to close the holes, you know, close up the gaps. You see where mistakes happen and you fix it so that's not supposed to happen again,” she said. After the I-Team brought these cases to the attention of the state, the team said they plan on relooking into both deaths to consider reviewing them. A spokesperson for the teams also wrote, “It is important to note that since 2017/18, NCDHHS has taken great strides and continues to work toward improving North Carolina’s Child Fatality Review system, including processes to determine eligibility.” The local and state child welfare systems aren’t the only players who respond and can prevent child abuse. Police and courts also play a key role. The ABC11 I-Team found local police departments appeared confused by who investigated the first child’s death. The Fayetteville Police Department who first responded to the 911 call told the I-Team while they initially took the call, they handed the case over to the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office. However, the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office insisted it never investigated Michael’s death. Ft. Bragg eventually took over the case, but it’s unclear when. It’s unclear if anyone fully investigated Michael’s death before Olivia died two months later. The Harnett County Sheriff’s Office did investigate Olivia’s death. The agency said they handed the case over to the Harnett County District’s assistant district attorney Don Harrop ‘who declined to indict the case and referred it back to the military.’ The I-Team repeatedly reached out to Harrop who still works for the county, but he never responded with his decision to not press charges. 

The cases could have ended there, but three years after Olivia’s death, Ft. Bragg stepped in. Ft. Bragg issued a court-martial for Anthony Rivera for the murder of the two children. The court-martial was issued in 2021, and Rivera’s trial is scheduled for thisAugust. Rivera is not detained and is still assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. “A Commander’s decision whether to impose pretrial restraint and the type of restraint, including pretrial confinement, is made on a case-by-case basis,” a spokesperson for Ft. Bragg wrote to the I-Team. Ft. Bragg officials declined to offer any further comment on the case. Less than a month after Olivia’s death, the Harnett County Sheriff’s Office responded again to the Rivera’s address. The February 2018 report stated the call regarded assault on a child under 12-years-old where the victim had a fractured bone. The Riveras still had three children, but it’s unclear who either the victim or offender was. Harnett County DSS would also not provide details on when or if the other children were removed from the home. The I-Team did reach out to Rivera and his lawyer. Neither provided a comment.

In searching for answers to the Rivera siblings’ deaths, the I-Team uncovered they may not be the only children who may have died preventable deaths. The I-Team obtained five years’ worth of reviews by the State’s Child Fatality Review Team. These reports involve cases where child welfare workers were involved in the home prior to the death and where maltreatment might be suspected. The reviews aim to strengthen the systems protecting kids across the state. “In Child Protective Services, the last thing we want to find out was that a child that we touch has had a fatality,” said Kathy Stone, NC DSS Chief for safety and prevention Services. “We really are focused, on looking at that situation and figuring out what we could have done differently that would have improved that situation and lead to a different outcome for that child.” A review of more than 200 deaths since 2016 uncovered the state consistently identifies gaps in the systems in place to protect children. In some cases, the high turnover in staff has led to child welfare workers giving assessments without proper training and poor documentation. 

Difficulties sharing data, critical information withheld, lost records and improper case documentation were all issues identified in the reports. Lack of collaboration across and within county agencies, an issue within the Rivera case, also a finding in numerous other children’s deaths. Some cases specifically mention difficulties sharing data between Ft. Bragg and between Harnett and Cumberland County. “When two counties are simultaneously involved with providing protective services to children, communication breakdowns can occur. Children are best served when there is clear communication between jurisdictions,” one report found. One of the most consistent issues was individuals failing to report signs of child abuse. “This creates a missed opportunity to intervene timely to ensure child safety and places children at greater risk,” multiple reports stated. This is the same issue, Herman-Giddens believed could have made a big impact in the Riveras’ cases. Report after report found everyone from school officials to police to medical professionals failed to report suspicions of neglect and abuse. In North Carolina, it’s a misdemeanor to fail to report child abuse. The I-Team found despite the state constantly highlighting lack of reporting as an issue only around a dozen people have been charged with failing to report a child’s death and two dozen for failing to report or prevent child abuse since 2016. The reports often recommend increasing awareness of an individual’s duty to report or having county child welfare leaders meet with police or medical professionals about signs to look out for. The University of North Carolina UNC has a state-funded Child Medical Evaluation Program that provides a network of providers to assist with identifying, treating, and preventing child maltreatment statewide. “We're currently in the process of hiring seven regional abuse medical specialists and they're going to consult with Child Protective Services and bring together child care services and the doctors treating children with these kinds of injuries to make sure that they get the appropriate screening decision will work,” Stone explained. Other recommendations coming from these reviews over the years have included rolling out a statewide case management system, improving training and creating federal laws to require cross-state compliance in cases. “We do try to drive systems change and sometimes systems change can take a while,” Stone said. Still, these recommendations come with limits as they don’t impact criminal charges or directly mandate legislative change. 

Since 2016, the I-Team found around 4,300 faced criminal child abuse charges were filed. However, only 40% of the individuals were found guilty. A review of the deaths the state’s Child Fatality Review Team handled revealed even if the individual is found guilty

sentencing can range from life in prison to just a few months. “It’s so horrendous in these cases to think that the perpetrator that nothing happens so a lot of times if they did get sentenced and there was a trial or plea bargain or whatever they got an amazingly light sentence,” Herman-Giddens said. Tara Fish is the executive director of the Partnership for Children in Harnett County. She echoed that it is disheartening to see that parents sometimes have more rights than their children. She stressed in a lot of circumstances child welfare workers are limited in their ability due to state policy. “They are very limited in some capacities. And it's also about the interpretation of state policy. So one county may interpret one thing one way and another county may interpret it, completely opposite way,” she said.

She said one way to change state policy is through the recommendations the local and state child fatality review boards make. “Having more black and white situations is real easy, but a lot of these situations are in a gray area. And when that gray area falls down what the protocol is for that. So really advocating for good policy

“I really think that we cannot provide protection to children unless we learn that they are suffering."

that that doesn't protect the rights of parents over the rights of their children,” she said. She said in Harnett County, they are starting to see changes due to the recommendations from the local review board. Stone believes the best way to reduce these incidents statewide is to educate people on the signs of abuse and encourage any suspicious activity to be reported. “I really think that we cannot provide protection to children unless we learn that they are suffering some kind of maltreatment so I really believe that making sure that everybody understands their duty to report,” Stone said. For Herman-Giddens, a lot of it also comes down to awareness, but awareness that these incidents are even happening. “The data and the publicity is vital to the beginning of trying to do a better job because the standard prevention techniques, whatever is being done now are not having an effect,” Herman-Giddens said. Find out what common signs of child abuse include by visiting this website. Under North Carolina law, everyone is mandated to report suspected abuse or neglect. Individuals can contact their county’s Department of Social Services or the local police department.