More children Washington State consistently ranks near the top in polls for places to live, work and raise a family. So how can it be that in one of the most important tests we face, keeping our children safe, Washington keeps getting worse?
In 2010 the KOMO 4 Problem Solvers pledged to stay on top of Child Protective Services after our investigation uncovered more than 100 troubling deaths. Now we learn the numbers are trending in the wrong direction.
When we first reported on little Ti-Ryn Vanderveur's death, we told you how at just four months old he lay in the hospital, hooked up to a respirator, his brain bleeding and swelling. Ti-Ryn had been a perfectly healthy and happy infant until Michael Vanderveur, the man who claimed to be Ti-Ryn's father, refused to return him to his mother, Rachel Emery. "I'm angry that my son wasn't protected the way he should have been," Emery told us.
Emery called the police; who called it a custody dispute. But when she received a photograph of bruises on Ti-Ryn's back she contacted Child Protective Services - CPS. "I'm outraged at CPS for not stepping in the way they should have to protect my son," Emery said, "he couldn't speak for himself he was only four months old."
Internal CPS documents obtained by the Problem Solvers indicate police told CPS the parents were having a custody dispute; CPS never investigated. Two days before Ti-Ryn was taken to the hospital a Head Start teacher also called CPS voicing concern about the infant's safety. The documents say that teacher "felt she was dismissed" by CPS. Emery is convinced, "If they would have at least taken my son into protective custody like I begged them to, then my son would still be here."
On October 5, 2010 Ti-Ryn was declared brain dead. Doctors removed life support. Emery says every day she misses her baby, "I'll never get the first birthday, I'll never get the first time he crawled, the first time he walks."
Michael Vanderveur admitted shaking Ti-Ryn and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. CPS conducted a fatality review and determined in general that their screeners acted appropriately because of the child custody issue and that the teacher's concerns over bruising had been previously reported.
Emery's attorney Tom Vertetis disagrees, "What you have here is a colossal breakdown in the system." Vertetis says the state had an obligation to investigate reports that Ti-Ryn was abused and he's filed a claim with the state on Emery's behalf. "It's sad," says Vertetis, "this is an outrageous case, but yet there are more cases that occur that are similar to this, something needs to be done."
That's what the Problem Solvers thought when our investigation three years ago discovered more than 136 children had died of abuse or neglect from 2002 to 2010. A federal review in 2011 confirmed that Washington doesn't do enough to protect children from abuse and neglect. This is what Denise Revels Robinson, the head of Children's Administration which oversees CPS, told us last year. "I think this is a public child welfare system that is showing progress and that is showing improvement."
But figures from the State Ombudsman's Office show something tragically different: In 2009, eight children died of abuse or neglect. In 2010, the number jumped to 17 kids. And in 2011, the last year for which numbers are available, 23 children died. In addition to fatalities, the Ombudsman report state that repeat, or recurrent, abuse was up by 15.6 percent. Attorney Vertetis: "People need to be held accountable and this needs to be stopped."
Since Revels Robinson retired last year - there have been two other directors of Children's Administration. Currently Jennifer Strus holds the position; she is the sixth Assistant Secretary in less than 12 years. Strus claims the number of deaths are going down this year though they're far from finalized. "We're working hard, we are working fast, to get the system in a much better place." One of the things Strus has already implemented is a work group to focus on cases like Ti-Ryn's, children zero to three, who have little to no voice and seem to be most at risk. "And I think that what we'll find is that there are a number of things that we can do with this age range that are going to make a significant difference."
But for Ti-Ryn and dozens of other victims of abuse and neglect, the promise of change is too late.
Assistant Secretary Strus adds that previous administrations have a history, "of over-reacting and putting in place practices and models that really haven't proven very - they haven't changed outcomes." So she adds that any changes from her zero to three work group won't be implemented before late next year.