Too many Valley children slipping through cracks


Too many Valley children slipping through cracks
Fresno County has emerged as one of the state's worst on meeting child protection standards.
Saturday, Mar. 14, 2009
By Brad Branan / The Fresno Bee

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In the final beating of her life, 3-year-old Erianna Beltran was hit with an extension cord, bitten on the arm and left with so many bruises that doctors couldn't count them all.

Although her case has received little public attention, Erianna's death in January 2008 is part of a disturbing pattern in Fresno County -- the third time in about two years that a parent or guardian has been charged with killing a child after county social workers had already been warned about abuse or neglect.

In each case, relatives or lawyers have accused the county of failing to protect the children by not taking more decisive action before they were killed.
PDF: Comparing Fresno County CPS to other California counties

Statistics raise further concerns: Among California's 20 biggest counties, Fresno County is one of the worst when it comes to meeting standards for child protection, The Bee found in an analysis of state data. The county's Child Protective Services office is less likely to conduct timely investigations, and less likely to make required social work visits to children in the system. Fresno County is also far less likely to confirm allegations of mistreatment.

The statistics show the agency isn't protecting all children in the system, experts say.

Catherine Huerta, director of the department that includes Child Protective Services, says she lacks the social workers needed to meet every state requirement. By shifting workers to stay on top of the most pressing cases, other children may fall through the cracks, she concedes.

"I understand the risk," she said. "I can only work with what we have, and sometimes that has not been enough."

Huerta said Fresno County social workers have larger caseloads than do those in other big counties -- in part because Fresno County does not use much of its own money to supplement state funding. Neither she nor state officials were able to provide caseload statistics to confirm this.

The death of 10-year-old Seth Ireland in January led the county to create a task force to examine Child Protective Services.

Several reports of alleged abuse and neglect of Seth were made to the agency before his death.

County Supervisor Henry Perea, who led the call for reform after Seth's death, questions whether staffing levels are the sole reason for the agency's problems. The agency isn't going to receive additional employees anyway, considering the county's financial problems, he said.

Perea made the same plea following the alleged beating death of 3-month-old Roman Quiroz in November 2006. Roman's father, Robert, a U.S. Marine who served in the Middle East just before the death, is accused of killing Roman in a pending Fresno County Superior Court case.

Those aren't the only deaths involving Fresno County Child Protective Services. Since July 21, 2006, when such information became publicly available, three other children have been killed from suspected abuse or neglect when the agency had a prior case involving another family member.

The county's top administrator, John Navarrette, recently appointed a three-person task force to look at Child Protective Services. He expects the task force to return with recommendations within three months.

Perea is eager for answers. "The longer we wait, the more likely it becomes that someone else will die," he said.

A dysfunctional family

Erianna's case shows how generations of family dysfunction can rob a young child of a healthy life. The Bee reviewed Erianna's 6-inch-thick case file, obtained through a California Public Records Act request to Child Protective Services.
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