Children Abused, Dying Under State Protection
Children still being abused, dying under state's protection
By Tracy Vedder Story Updated: May 17, 2012
SEATTLE -- In spite of state watchdogs and federal oversight, children are still being abused and dying under the state's protection. And the state could face more than a million and a half dollar penalty as a result.
Two years ago a KOMO 4 Problem Solver investigation revealed shocking news that more than 100 children had died of abuse or neglect while under the state's watch. At that time new Department of Social and Health Services leaders promised change and accountability. Now, we found that in terms of the most vulnerable, little appears to have changed.
"I didn't want to believe it was my son." Just four and a half months old and strapped down in a hospital bed. "It didn't look like him at all." Little Ti-Ryn's mother Rachael Emery couldn't believe that was her baby connected to all the wires and tubes. "I didn't recognize him - that's how bad the injuries were."
Ti-Ryn had been a happy, healthy infant, doted on by his mother and older brother Max. But according to documents obtained by the Problem Solvers, in September of 2010 former boyfriend Michael Vanderveur, who claimed to be Ti-Ryn's father, took the boy and refused to give him back.
When Emery received a picture of bruises on Ti-Ryn, she contacted both police and CPS. "I was afraid for my son, I told the caseworker that I talked to on the phone that I was afraid for my son's well-being."
These internal CPS documents indicate police told CPS the parents were having a custody dispute so CPS never investigated in spite of Emery's pleas. "I begged her to at least put him in CPS care until it played out in court."
Two days before Ti-Ryn wound up in the hospital, a Head Start teacher also called, voicing concern about the infant. The documents say the Head Start worker, "felt that she was dismissed," by CPS. Then Oct. 5, 2010, Ti-Ryn was declared brain dead and the doctors took him off life support. "I was holding my son when they took him off," says Emery, "and his heart stopped."
Vanderveur admitted he caused Ti-Ryn's injuries and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. CPS closed its case. Emery says CPS failed to protect her son, "if they did he'd still be here."
Ti-Ryn is just one of hundreds of children who have died while under the state's watch. We reviewed over 700 child death reports from 2002 through 2010. During that time, at least 136 children have died of abuse or neglect.
In 2010 alone, the last full year for which records are available, the state's records show 12 children like Ti-Ryn who died at the hands of caretakers. But we found another five deaths in that year where we believe abuse or neglect is the likely cause.
Seventeen children dead, and in each case, the state had an opportunity to intervene.
"It's disturbing because it's not changing," said attorney Michael Pfau.
Pfau has won numerous cases against the state for clients who've lost children or lost their childhoods due to CPS mistakes. He says in his 20 years of local practice, he hasn't seen CPS getting any better. "But you see the same problems, the same problems with oversight, the same problems with mistakes being made," he said.
"We all get fatigued over the same recommendations," says State Ombudsman Mary Meinig. Meinig is the governor's watchdog, trouble-shooting problems and solutions within Children's Administration and CPS. Meinig believes the department has changed and improved, but she still sees troubling patterns -- including delays in child abuse investigations. "Will we ever reach a day where we have no child abuse? Great - but we've got a ways to go," she said.
The latest federal review of Washington's system also found several improvements over the past decade. But for child safety, the review found Washington still falls short and could face a minimum $1.5 million penalty for not doing enough to protect children from abuse and neglect.
The Assistant Secretary in charge of Children's Administration, Denise Revels Robinson, says, "I think this is a public child welfare system that is showing progress, and that is showing improvement." Revels Robinson is the fourth head of Children's Administration in less than 10 years. She left her last post in Wisconsin under a cloud after a high-profile death of a child in the system.
The Problem Solvers asked about recent state and federal reviews that find her agency has on-going problems completing child safety investigations and keeping kids safe. We mentioned these are among the same concerns when she started her tenure in Washington. "I understand what you're asking and what I would say is that there clearly is more of a focus on the safety of infants and younger children, they are the most vulnerable."
If that's true, that added focus didn't help Rachael Emery and her son. "As much as you're supposed to be able to trust the system - you really can't." She begged CPS to protect her son Ti-Ryn. "I shouldn't had to have buried my son."
Revels Robinson also told us she plans to retire after this year, meaning the revolving door at the top of DSHS and Children's Administration will continue with yet another new leader to hold accountable.