Foster Parents Say System Failed Sarah Chavez

ByGREG FISHER

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.

After nothing happened, the two women started to worry that the social workers were not addressing the issues they raised.

All the while, they were bringing Sarah for court-ordered, weekly family visits with her mother, who was often late or didn't show. But her great-aunt and godmother, Frances Abundis, was always there.

"I didn't want her to grow up with people that weren't the family," Frances said.

The foster mothers didn't know it, but at Children's Court, Sarah's family was battling to get her back. Sophia Chavez was particularly angry that her daughter was living with a gay couple.

But Sophia's drug problems and history ruled her out as a fit parent with the court -- so Frances stepped in.

"I was the godmother and when the mother's not able to take that to be the mother, then the godmother steps in to take care of that child. And that's why I fought to get Sarah," she said.

During the months of Children's Court hearings, the foster mothers were never heard from.

According to ABC's review of Sarah Chavez' confidential court record, the social workers documented Dianne and Corri's complaints in reports, but that information was not passed along to court files, as regulations require.

Then there was a slip up on the part of the legal agency that represents foster children, and the standard letter notifying foster parents how to contact their attorney was never sent.

Sarah was one of 165 clients her lawyer represented simultaneously. Although the lawyer represented Sarah in multiple court hearings, she never visited her in person, nor did she call to consult with foster parents Dianne and Corri.

"Sarah's lawyer was her only advocate in court. It was her only voice. And she was virtually silent," Corri said.

Without hearing the foster mothers' concerns, the court looked for a suitable placement within the family. Frances and her husband, Armando, became leading candidates, in spite of the report of black eyes when Sarah last stayed with them.

Before criminal background checks and a home inspection were complete, the judge ordered Sarah back with her great-aunt and uncle -- the same home where four months before a social worker had felt uncomfortable leaving the girl.

That day, Dianne and Corri heard from Sarah's lawyer for the first time, when she called to tell them Sarah has been ordered back with her aunt.

"I answered the phone, and I immediately started to cry, and I was, like, 'How is that possible?'" Dianne said. "That is the person accused of abusing her."

There was precious little time for goodbyes. Even a year later, Dianne and Corri are brought to tears when they remember it.

"We had an hour to start packing up. She started putting her things back in the drawer, saying, 'No!'" Corri said. "She cried and we were trying not to cry so much in front of her. It was the most helpless, terrible feeling. We had no confidence that she was going to a safe place. It was like she ... she knew. We were crazy about this kid, and she was amazing, amazing child. It was heartbreaking."

Corri and Dianne felt the system was blind, and they had a bad feeling about where Sarah was going.

"Corri was really clear," Dianne said. "She always said, 'We're going to read that Sarah was killed one day.' And I just couldn't even allow myself to think that."

At the Abundis home, Sarah was reunited with her cousin, 5-year-old Armando Jr., who was called A.J. The court allowed Sophia unlimited visits with her daughter, but according to Frances Abundis, she rarely showed.

"It was hard the withdrawals and everything," said Sophia, who admits it affected her daughter. "She always told me, 'Mommy, don't lie. You're going to come right?' And I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to come.'"

Too often Sophia did not come, but social workers failed to document this and report it to the court, according to ABC's review of the confidential file. Corri said that the same social worker who saw Sarah doing well at her and Dianne's home saw Sarah deteriorate when living with the Abundises, but took no action.

But there were many things about the Abundis home that the court did not know about. Frances told "Primetime" that Armando had stopped working, and his attitude began to change. Frances, however, did not report this to social workers and the courts, according to the records.

Later according to police, Frances would admit she tried selling marijuana to make ends meet. According to neighbors, Armando "drank beer like it was water."

One neighbor told "Primetime" that Armando had expressed frustration that "Sarah did not listen" and wondered "if it was really worth all the trouble of taking her into their home."

Frances says Armando's behavior began to frighten her -- especially the way he would scream at the children. She says only later did she learn the situation was worse than she knew.

"My son was afraid of his father. There was hitting going on when I wasn't home. My son said that I used to protect him," she said.

Frances claimed she was unaware at the time that her son was witness to much more --- she says A.J. later told police that Armando would take Sarah into their room, and the little boy would hear her screams from behind a closed door.

On Oct. 10, the situation would come to a breaking point. Sarah spent the afternoon with Armando and his son at the apartment. Frances said that when she returned home, something was clearly wrong.

"Sarah was in the room, um, standing there, just standing there. And I remember seeing her arm was twisted in," Frances said.

She asked Armando in Spanish what had happened. Frances said he eventually responded, "She must have fell."

Sarah's arm had been brutally fractured above her elbow, where pieces of jagged bone kept it disconnected and hanging limply at her side.

Although Frances lived walking distance from a hospital, she decided not to go there right away. Instead she picked up her mother and drove to visit a sobadora, or healer, a Mexican woman with no medical license who treated sprained muscles.

"I told the lady, the sobadora, I was scared that I didn't have an answer what happened to Sarah and that they were going to take Sarah away from me," Frances said.

Was Frances more concerned about getting in trouble than getting Sarah medical help? She denied that, saying eventually she did bring Sarah to the hospital.

Frances is seen on a hospital surveillance tape walking Sarah into the hospital, not far from her house. Nurses said she identified herself as the child's mother, which Frances denied doing.

But after more than four hours in the hospital where nurses and doctors made initial evaluations and recommended various tests, the godmother turned foster parent made a controversial decision: She left the hospital, taking Sarah with her.

ABC News obtained medical records showing that Frances signed Sarah out, against medical advice of the doctor. That medical form, signed by Frances, warned that Sarah could have "other injuries" or might "lose limb or life."

Hospital records also indicated that Frances refused a CT scan, blood tests and urine tests for the girl. Abundis said the hospital never made it clear that their tests were critical.

The next morning, when Frances checked on Sarah, she couldn't rouse her.

"She was just kind of like stiff. And I kept on pushing her and I started shaking her and I slapped her," Frances said. "And I got her and I told her, 'Sarah, wake up, please wake up. Sarah, wake up, please wake up.' And she wouldn't wake up."

Police arrived, and Sarah was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. The coroner concluded that Sarah died from internal injuries caused by a beating at the hands of an adult -- injuries that could not have been caused by a fall.

Armando and Frances Abundis were arrested and are still in jail awaiting trial, charged with murder, child abuse and related charges of neglect. Both have pleaded not guilty. According to court records, Frances will also likely face additional charges for two pounds of marijuana found at the home.

The couple's own son, 5-year-old A.J., is now in the foster care of relatives. But his testimony about what happened that day may play a crucial role in his parents' criminal trial.

"Primetime" obtained a copy of the summary of a police interview with the boy.He told police that on the day of the incident "his dad hit Sarah" and "Sarah slapped Armando back." A.J. also said that night "Sarah cried because of her arm, because the bone was pointing out." He also told police that Armando would hit Sarah with a closed fist.

Armando's attorney declined to comment on the case.

With her lawyer Alex Kessel at her side, Frances Abundis told "Primetime" in an exclusive interview that she did not murder Sarah; instead she blamed her husband.

"I'm sitting here, for something I did not do. And he's sitting over there not saying what happened," Frances said.

Frances continued to deny that she presented herself as Sarah's mother, that she refused medical tests for Sarah, or that the doctors warned her not to leave the hospital.

"The only thing I understand that if it was my mistake for leaving the hospital, I accept that," she said. "But if I would have known that she had internal injuries. I wouldn't have left."

And Frances' lawyer Alex Kessel said the videotape at the hospital exonerates his client. Because Sarah is clearly mobile on the tape, it backs up Frances' claim that she was unaware of how serious the injuries were. Kessel pointed out that nurses and a doctor did not detect the internal injuries.

Dianne and Corri, Sarah's former foster mothers, don't buy Frances' story.

"She removed her against medical advice from the hospital the night before," Corri said. "She had another chance to try to, not protect her, but to let her be protected. And she didn't do it."

Dianne added, "Even if Francis didn't deliver the blow, she certainly contributed to her death."

At the preliminary hearing in December 2005, prosecutors alleged that Frances lied about being Sarah's mother to avoid sending red flags at the hospital, which might have triggered notification of child welfare.

In fact, state regulators sanctioned the hospital for numerous mistakes, including failing to diagnose the serious internal injuries that led to Sarah's death.

Investigators also characterized Frances' behavior as "indicators of suspected child abuse" and faulted the doctor, two nurses and the hospital for "failing to recognize" so many signs.

"It's one of the most heartbreaking failures," said Corri Planck. "Because it was her last chance. That was her last chance to be saved."

Dianne Hardy-Garcia calls the failures that led to the little girl's death "maddening.""Sarah was let down by the medical system, by the legal system, and by the child welfare system. And her family. Everybody that should have protected this child let her down," she said.

Sarah's body is buried in a church graveyard in the rough East Los Angeles neighborhood where she lived most of her life. Dianne and Corri don't even know where it is to visit.

They said they desperately want to see change in the Los Angeles foster care system.

"Sarah's whole case is like a textbook on how not to do it. All the way, from the beginning to the end," Corri said.

A final county report investigating the Sarah Chavez's case has not yet been made public, but ABC News has learned that at least nine social workers were faulted for their mistakes in the case.

There is a bill pending in the California Senate that would give foster parents a voice in the court process, which shut Dianne and Corri out of court hearings regarding Sarah.

Rather than wait for results from the system, though, the women have taken matters into their own hands. The couple took two other foster children back into their home -- sisters, who they will officially adopt very soon.

"Sarah showed us we could do it, that we are good parents," said Corri. "And she showed us that there are so many children like her in the system looking for a safe place to land."

ABC News' Erin Laurence contributed to this report.

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