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Records show gaps in child welfare oversight before Jazzmin's death
Agency took trust over proof
By John Simerman and Hilary Costa
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 11/29/2008 02:59:26 PM PST
The child welfare worker overseeing an Antioch foster child who police say was tortured for 15 months and starved to death by her foster mother violated state regulations that require regular reports from doctors, therapists and others.
She also did not verify that Jazzmin Davis had enrolled for her freshman year in high school, when police say she was isolated and abused in her Antioch home.
The head of the San Francisco Human Services Agency acknowledged last week that the social worker trusted Jazzmin's paternal aunt and foster mother, Shemeeka Davis, to the point of failing to seek required proof of her long-overdue medical care.
Agency Executive Director Trent Rhorer said the case notes, which the Times obtained through a court petition, raise "questions about the medical documentation and the comfort the child welfare worker had with the caretaker (Davis), and whether that obfuscated her objective assessment of the case."
It also has prompted an internal review of the agency's practice of seeking exemptions that allow social workers to visit some foster families every six months, instead of monthly, Rhorer said.
The agency oversaw the care of Jazzmin and her twin brother from their placement as infants with Davis, until she was awarded guardianship six days before Jazzmin's Sept. 2 death.
The agency followed that biannual schedule with the twins for more than a decade — despite Jazzmin's reported history of
behavior problems at school and home; repeated complaints Davis made about Jazzmin's behavior and her own ability to parent her; and Davis' years-long pattern of losing or avoiding contact with social workers, to the point that they sent telegrams to reach her.
Rhorer said a lack of crisis line calls about the twins, and no evidence of abuse in the case file, help prove the veteran child welfare worker, Ann Marie Smith, had little cause to doubt Shemeeka Davis' honesty.
"A placement that's as stable as this, for as long as this — there was no reason to believe Shemeeka would be hiding anything, or Jazzmin hiding anything," said Rhorer. "There were no cues."
Davis, 38, now sits in a Richmond jail in lieu of $1.5 million bail, facing charges of murder in Jazzmin's death and torture and abuse of both twins. She has declined interview requests.
Before her arrest, Shemeeka "ingested a handful of pills," then told police she hit Jazzmin with a wooden dowel and a belt that day "because she continually defies her and cut her holes in her jeans," according to a search warrant affidavit.
Jazzmin's case file shows no sign that Smith — who started with the agency nearly 30 years ago — sought to verify the aunt's assertions in the past several years, including one in 2006 that Jazzmin was undergoing regular therapy for behavior problems.
Meanwhile, Smith steered the family toward legal guardianship as police say Davis intensified her abuse, sometimes locking the twins in a small bedroom closet for up to 10 hours.
In July, 2007, after struggling to reach Davis, Smith wrote her a letter suggesting that a lower-level social worker, whose job it was to annually run down a checklist on the home's condition, could conduct the next child welfare visit.
"If the kids are home, then she can see them and I won't have to come out again," Smith wrote in the letter, where she also suggested a move to guardianship that would end the county's oversight. Neither Davis nor the twins appeared at the Aug. 27 court hearing that finalized Davis' guardianship.
Attempts to reach Smith by phone, e-mail and at her home were unsuccessful. Rhorer said she is on leave. He said he couldn't explain Smith's letter but that the agency is pushing its social workers to seek guardianship and adoption.
One child welfare advocate, told of the contents of the letter and the foster care notes, cited several red flags that warranted more scrutiny. Among them:
Smith was alerted to a live-in boyfriend, Jackie Turner, with a recent criminal drug history. She told Davis he needed to leave. Police now say he never left.
A near-total dearth of records of doctor's visits for Jazzmin, and none since 2003, despite regulations requiring periodic checkups.
No evidence to verify Davis' claim that Jazzmin was obtaining therapy after a diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder and years of trouble in school and at home.
"There was fundamentally insufficient monitoring of the case," said William Grimm, senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, who has led challenges to child welfare practices in several states. "The practice of asking the foster mother or father, they telling you something and taking it as gospel — it's just not the way investigations and monitoring of a child's placement can be done."
State regulations direct that social workers "shall have contact with other professionals working with the child, parents/guardians, and out-of-home care provider ..." Among the professionals specified in the regulations are physicians and therapists. The social worker "shall request written reports from the professionals ..." and "shall ensure that such reports are received and documented in the case record," they state.
Smith's notes from June 2006 say that Antioch therapist Nanette Kappl had requested a medication evaluation for Jazzmin. "Jazzmin ... is so out of control at home that her caretaker thought about giving her up but has changed her mind," Smith wrote.
A month later, Smith reports after a phone call with Davis that both twins "are doing well."
Kappl told the Times she treated Jazzmin "at most four times." She said Jazzmin did not appear physically unhealthy, but that mentally, "there was a prevailing sadness there."
School officials are not specifically listed among the child's "collateral contacts" who social workers should consult, but it should be standard practice, said Grimm.
"That's just sort of one of the fundamental things you check out with children is, are they going to school, how are they doing in school, are they skipping class, how are their grades," he said. "Basic things you ask about your own child."
The infrequent home visits, he said, would have made it easier for Davis to put on what police call a "good show," fixing up the house and prepping the twins for home visits.
Also living there were Turner, Davis' two teenage sons and a 7-year-old daughter. Police said her other three children weren't physically abused. Her rental of the four-bedroom house, in a newer Antioch neighborhood, was subsidized by $1,700 per month from Section 8 housing funds. Davis also received more than $13,100 per year for the twins' care.
Among the state criteria for exemptions to monthly visits is that the child "has no serious emotional problems caused or aggravated by the placement." Rhorer said the agency seeks the exemption in a few hundred cases and is reviewing them all as a result of Jazzmin's death.
The last recorded home visit for the twins came March 12, the case log shows. Like other recent entries from Smith, it is brief and upbeat.
"The twins are in the ninth grade and have improved their grades ... Jazzmin has C's which is great for her. The twins appear to be very content — there are no more problems and issues with Jazzmin ... Both children were friendly, talkative, and appeared to be very health (sic)."
Smith maintains she visited in person, and Rhorer said she described it in detail to police. Still, Antioch police Lt. Leonard Orman said he's not completely certain, given the signs of abuse.
The autopsy report describes a 15-year-old body weighing only 78 pounds and laden with scars and burn marks old and new, and five broken teeth.
Police seized an array of suspected weapons, including a clothes iron, belts, a carpet tack strip, a lamp base and a workout weight.
Jazzmin's brother was enrolled in school, but police say he suffered similar abuse.
"He's just a sweet, sweet boy. His attitude was, 'If I had been better, this wouldn't have happened,'" Antioch police Sgt. Diane Aguinaga said. "It's so involved and so tragic and so sad. Normal people, I think, can't understand it."
A social worker assigned to such a long-term and supposedly stable foster placement wouldn't have searched beneath the kids' clothes for injuries without reports of abuse, said Rhorer. He said there were no apparent clues.
Still, said Antioch police Lt. Leonard Orman, "Even if you missed the abuse, to look at those kids in the last year and think they were healthy would have been — they didn't look healthy."
The log for the final home visit also mentions a recent visit by the children's court-appointed advocate, Tali Soltz, who said she couldn't comment on the visit. "I feel like everyone did their jobs, as best as I can tell," she said. "I feel like this is a tragedy for all of us."
Rhorer suggested a communitywide failure, noting that Jazzmin's old school friends said they saw her scarred and bruised, and that no teachers reported it. No neighbors came forward either.
Police say Davis had a charm that calmed suspicions. She put off welfare visits to make her home "look as right as she could," Orman said, and may have doctored a report card found on the refrigerator.
"She ran the show," Orman said. "The people in that house, you did what she said or things were not pleasant."