Foster Parents Say System Failed Sarah Chavez

ByABC News
June 9, 2006, 3:31 PM

June 9, 2006 — -- As darkness fell on a late October evening last year in Los Angeles, tragedy brewed. An injured 2-year-old girl entered Garfield Medical Center in the arms of a woman who claimed to be her mother, according to nurses.

The toddler, named Sarah Chavez, rested uncomfortably under a towel in a waiting room chair, too young to ask for the protection she needed. Her upper arm had been broken and dangled limply at her side -- the result of a savage beating inflicted by an adult.

What nobody knew was the extent of her brutal internal injuries. The blows had severed her intestine from its connection to her stomach, threatening her life.

Sarah's short life had already been a case study in neglect and mistakes at the hands of her family and the foster care system, and the hospital was Sarah's last chance for someone to intervene.

The woman who brought Sarah to the hospital was not Sarah's mother, and later, questions about the woman's conduct that night would have severe repercussions for the 2-year-old's story. Sarah's real mother was struggling with drug addiction -- a common theme in many foster care cases.

"I got a little bit addicted to Vicodin, because I was taking so much. I got addicted. That's what happened," said Sophia Chavez.

Sophia was taking the powerful narcotic for a medical condition while pregnant with another child. On New Year's Eve 2005, Sophia had a miscarriage at home. Sophia said she called 911, and when paramedics arrived, they found the stillborn baby in the toilet.

Concerned for Sophia's daughter, Sarah, social workers tracked down the toddler, who was staying with a great-aunt, Frances Abundis. When social workers visited the home, they reported the little girl had two black eyes and a cut on her nose.

Frances downplayed the injury to ABC News. "Sarah was running and she went right into the fire engine truck," she said. "They were playing, and I remember you know, she got up and she had a scratch."

After Sofia was deemed an unfit mother, the social worker was also uncomfortable leaving the child with Frances and ordered Sarah taken into protective custody.

It wasn't Sarah's first encounter with the Los Angeles' Department of Children and Family Services. She was born with Vicodin in her system, and another social worker had opened a file on the infant at 2 days old but failed to properly follow up on the case.

That failure will later be remembered as the first in a staggering list of mistakes by social workers in the department.

In the meantime, Sarah became one of 30,000 children in the Los Angeles foster care system -- the largest in the country. That system soon dealt her a break that might have changed her life.

Dianne Hardy-Garcia and her partner, Corri Planck, had been living together for two years and wanted to adopt a child through foster care. It took them nearly a year to qualify -- taking home classes, undergoing rigorous background checks and a detailed home inspection.

Dianne remembers going to pick up Sarah. "She had chocolate all over her face, and she had a candy cane in her mouth, and I brought her a little teddy bear and she jumped in my arms," she said. "It was love at first sight, I think, for both of us."

Corri called Sarah "so charming, and so friendly and engaging with other people."

In her new home, Sarah had her own room, new bed covers, a life filled with toys and books. She loved to watch "Mary Poppins," and she bonded instantly with the pet schnauzer, who would sleep outside Sarah's door.

Dianne and Corri enrolled her in a West Hollywood day care center and proudly hung the artwork she brought home in her room.

But there were also signs of trouble.

"You could tell that Sarah had been exposed to explosive violence," Dianne said. "The first thing that alarmed us was that she knew how to choke with both hands. And she had terrible nightmares that showed us that she had been through trauma. ... She knew how to curse."

And Dianne and Corri said, even more troubling, were signs of sexual abuse. Suspecting serious abuse, they reported their concerns to the social worker.

Week after week, Dianne said she asked the social worker to arrange a specific medical exam designed to detect evidence of abuse.