Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Would You Still Have a Job?

When I was a teenager my first job was as a ‘bagger’ at the neighborhood grocery store. When I wasn’t asking ‘paper or plastic’, I was busy gathering carts from the parking lot. This was a very important job. A wayward cart could cause untold damage back in the day before cart corrals. I was vigilant about keeping the lot free. One of my work buddies did not share the same enthusiasm. On his watch, a runaway cart slammed into a parked car. There were serious dents involved and management was not happy. The second time it happened management was furious. Although I wasn’t sure it was really my buddy’s fault, he was the one in charge of the parking lot when the transgressions occurred. I don’t think they fired him. They just kind of reduced his hours to nothing and let him drift away. I think of that from time to time when I see or hear of magistrates or judges making horrendous decisions about the lives of children despite the evidence of risk before them. Good decisions about foster children are made every day across the country. Unfortunately, bad ones are too.

Vyctorya (Tori) Sandoval was eighteen months old when she was returned from foster care to the home of her biological parents. Their family history included domestic violence and physical abuse. A restraining order was issued preventing her mom and dad from being together. They had lost custody of eight other children and disappeared after Tori was placed in foster care. They resurfaced months later and wanted her back.

The court (Commissioner Marilyn Mackel) gave her back. Even though they lived together despite the history of violence and restraining order. Even though they never engaged in or completed services to address the domestic violence between them. Even though they hadn’t retained custody of their eight older children. Even though Tori (at age 15 months) tried to run and hide from them at visits. Even though she sobbed uncontrollably after visits, cried in her sleep, and wanted to be held by her foster parents all the time. Even though she returned from overnight visits emotionless with only a fixed stare. Even though she came home from visits and stuffed food into her little mouth with the frenzy of a starving child. Even though her loving foster parents wanted to adopt her. Commissioner Mackel returned Tori to her biological parents and did not order any post-reunification supervision of the case.

Linda Kontis, director of the foster care agency who had overseen Tori’s foster placement, wrote this letter of grave concern and requested a full review of Tori’s case. The court
(Judge Michael Nash) reviewed it. Nothing changed.

Tori died seven months later.

Full cardiopulmonary arrest. Severe anemia. Acute renal failure. Severe hypothermia. Severe hypocalcaemia. Displaced fracture to the right ninth rib. Multiple bruises to face and body. Large bruise and laceration to the forehead, right eye, chest, abdomen and legs.

Commissioner Mackel took a medical leave of absence after the LA Times exposed the letter and Tori’s case yet returned to the bench months later. Judge Nash continues presiding today.

Tori’s biological parents’ arraignment is scheduled for later this week. They are ultimately allegedly responsible for her death. However, when we fail to hold courts accountable for their decisions or at least question how the courts arrived at such decisions then we further rob vulnerable children of a chance to be heard. We are also more likely to fail children in the future.

If a local grocery store manager holds a sixteen-year-old accountable for not keeping a watchful eye on the cart situation in a parking lot, surely we can hold accountable the people who fail to keep a watchful eye on defenseless babies who truly have no voice.

Especially when these kids pay for it with their lives.