'Three Strikes' for Abusive Parents Proposed

Gary M. said he was trying to give Sirita Sotelo, a foster child in his care for more than a year, a second chance at having a loving family, but the little girl kept being returned to members of her troubled biological family.

In January, several months after Sirita left Gary's home and moved in with her biological father, she wound up dead. She was just a few weeks shy of her fifth birthday.

Sirita was a victim of what police called "homicidal trauma." No one has been charged in her death.

"We lost something special a month ago. I lost a daughter and so did you," said Gary, who asked that his last name not be used out of respect for the other foster children currently in his care.

He was the first witness to offer testimony Tuesday night in support of a bill being considered by the Washington state legislature. "Sirita's Law" would limit the time a child can spend in foster care and limit the time biological parents have to get their act together.

As proposed, the bill would terminate parental rights when the child has been removed three times for abuse or neglect, when the problems that led to the child's removal have not been corrected or solved within a 15-month period, and when the biological parents have had no contact with the child for one year. After that time an approved foster family would be given permanent custody.

In an interview with ABCNews.com, Gary said that what he hopes the bill will do is get children in settled situations more quickly, whether it is with an adoptive family or their biological family. He recalled how Sirita reacted when she was told she was going to live with her biological father.

"She was excited that she was going to go some place where she could stay 'forever and ever' -- those were her words," he said. "She just wanted a place to call home."

The bill's supporters say that's what it would do -- make life easier for children of troubled parents by getting them more quickly into a permanent home where they can feel secure.

"When there's not stability, when there's a pattern of abuse, when there's habitual abuse -- what are we doing? We're just creating problems for the future," state Rep. Bill Hinkle, a Republican from Cle Elum who is a co-sponsor of the bill, told ABCNews.com.

Opponents of the bill, including a representative of the American Family Rights Association of Washington, said new legislation is not needed. If existing laws were more strictly enforced, they said, children would not spend so much time being shuttled back and forth between their biological families and foster care.

There have been problems with the state's Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the child welfare system. A federal review released in February 2004 found the state failed 21 of 23 standards in providing for the safety and well-being of children in foster care.

The DSHS responded in May with a plan to address the problems, proposing to cut child welfare investigators' caseloads and increase the department's budget by up to $50 million.

'Too Many Caught in System'

Among the speakers who testified in support of the bill at the hearing before the House Children and Family Services Committee in Olympia, Wash., were foster parents who said they have seen children who had been in their care fall victim to fatal abuse and people who spent their youth bouncing back and forth between biological parents and foster homes.

Gary's testimony brought tears to the eyes of several of the committee members.

Sirita was born to a drug-addicted mother who has spent most of the last four years in prison. Sirita spent almost all of her life in and out of foster homes with several failed attempts to return her to her biological family. Her death in January, ruled homicide by abuse, came months after she had been returned to her biological father.

"It is too late for my little girl," said Gary, who was Sirita's foster father for nearly a full year in 2003. "But there are many more just like her caught in the system. If my daughter's death is what it takes to get this law changed ... the price was too high."

Sirita was born with cocaine in her system, her mother told ABC News affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle in January, and state officials revealed the little girl was checked a number of times as a potential abuse or neglect victim before being returned to her family.

Kathy Spears, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Health Services, could not say how many referrals the state received on the child, but described the record as "voluminous ... a very big file."

Child Protective Services investigators are reviewing the agency's handling of the case, Spears said.

'Drugs Took My Daughter Away'

In January, deputies from the Snohomish County sheriff's office responded to a 911 call from a woman who said her niece was unconscious and not breathing. They found Sirita dead at a house in Lake Stevens tbat she shared with her father, John Clifford Ewell, 30, and stepmother, Heather Ewell, 25.

Two boys and three girls, ages 11 months to 8 years, one of them the dead girl's cousin and the others her half siblings, were immediately removed from the house as a safety precaution, although none appeared to be harmed, said Rich Niebusch, a spokesman in the sheriff's office.

A few days earlier, a woman who identified herself as an aunt had called the state poison control hotline and said Sirita might have ingested some gun cleaner and had a mild stomachache, said Kevin Prentiss, chief of investigators in the sheriff's office.

"She sounded very reasonable," said Dr. Bill Robertson, the poison center's medical director. "You couldn't suspect anything suspicious in the phone call."

Robertson said the caller was advised to give the child milk or ice cream, adding that no one answered when someone from the agency called back a couple of hours later.

The girl's mother, Patricia Sotelo, 40, who is serving a term at the county jail for a drug conviction, told KOMO-TV she had been addicted to cocaine from the time she was a teenager but had been cleaned up for three years and completed a court-sponsored program for substance abusers to try to get her daughter back.

"Drugs took my daughter away," she said.

The girl's death is still under investigation, and there is no one in custody, Snohomish County sheriff's office spokesman Dave Hayes told ABCNews.com on Wednesday.

Born Addicted to Cocaine

Sirita's story was not the only one told at the committee meeting. Denise Griffith traveled to Olympia from her home in Royal City, nearly 200 miles away, to share her story.

She said she still grieves, a year and a half after the death of her foster son, Raphael Gomez, who she called Raffy.

Griffith became Raffy's foster mom when he was just 3 days old. He was born in Ephrata addicted to cocaine. Each time the state tried to return him to his biological family he suffered progressively worse injuries: a broken shinbone, burns to his hands, burns to his tongue, a broken thighbone, a skull fracture.

"His shoulders were nearly ripped out of their sockets and he had a second skull fracture," Griffith said in her testimony.

Six months after being returned to his biological mom a fourth and final time, the child died of blunt force trauma to the head. It was Sept. 10, 2003. Raffy was 25 months old. His death was ruled homicide by abuse. His mother, Maribel Gomez, was charged with first-degree manslaughter and the trial is pending.

"I can only hope with God's speed that this law will pass and no more children will have to go through what Sirita and Raffy did," said Griffith.

A Broken System?

A former foster child testified, too, saying Sirita's Law is one she wished had been in place when she was a child.

Crystal Connor testified she was returned numerous times to her drug-addicted mother, that she was forced to testify against her mother in court at a custody trial, and that experts questioned her "love" for her mother when she told them she was scared at the prospect of being returned to the woman again.

"You can have all your experts, your attorneys and your child psychologists and everything else," Connor said. "But unless you've walked that road and been that child, you don't know. You just don't know."

Hinkle, co-sponsor of the bill, said it's clear something has to be done to help children in this plight.

"We can come up with all kinds of excuses why not to do this thing," Hinkle said. "The reality is the system's not working now and we have to address that."

Hinkle said he believes Sirita's Law will be addressed by the full Legislature this session with bipartisan support.

"The great thing to me was there seems to be a shift on both sides of the aisle to an awareness that we have to support the parents, but we have to make the parents accountable," he said.

Opponents, however, say despite what happened to Sirita and Raffy, parental rights should be closely guarded.

The bill passed review by the House Children and Family Services committee on Wednesday, and if it is approved by the appropriations committee it will be considered by the full House.

ABCNews.com's Dean Schabner and ABC News affiliate KOMO-TV in Seattle contributed to this report.