Sunday, March 16, 2008

State fails to heed warning

By Randy Ellis
Staff Writer
© Copyright 2008, The Oklahoman

POTEAU — DHS was warned.

"I called them crying several times. I begged them not to put my children with those people,” said Melissa Castillo, 26, of Fort Smith, Ark.

"They're both awful people.”

DHS ignored the warnings.

Castillo's 4-year-old son, JaJuan Flowers, is now dead.

The boy's stepmother, Maria Torres-Vasquez, is charged with second-degree murder in his death.

His father, Beltan Vasquez, is serving a 12-year prison sentence for molesting another child in the home.

The Oklahoman looked into JaJuan's Dec. 11, 2006, death as part of its continuing investigation into children who have died or been abused in Oklahoma Department of Human Services custody. DHS spokesman George Johnson said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on why employees made the decisions they did in JaJuan's case.

‘What did DHS know?'
The cries of an anguished mother were not the only warnings Oklahoma Department of Human Services workers ignored when they placed Castillo's two children in the Vasquez home in 2006, records reveal.

They weren't even the strongest.

Because the Vasquez home was located across the eastern Oklahoma border in Arkansas, Oklahoma DHS workers had to ask their Arkansas counterparts to do a foster care home study.

Arkansas workers rejected the home.

Vasquez, 39, was an illegal immigrant, had been unemployed for more than a year and already had seven children in his home, Oklahoma child welfare workers were told.

Vasquez did not have a Social Security number, so a nationwide criminal background check could not be obtained, the report said.

The Arkansas officials also reported that Vasquez had been arrested on a domestic battery allegation in Arkansas two years earlier.

Oklahoma DHS workers already knew that. In 2004, an Arkansas police detective had called to inform them Vasquez had been arrested on a complaint of domestic violence against his then-girlfriend. The detective made the call because the girlfriend said Vasquez had "threatened to kill JaJuan's Oklahoma child welfare worker.”

Stepmom also a risk
Vasquez's 34-year-old wife also posed a risk.

Torres-Vasquez had a 1996 misdemeanor assault conviction out of Newport News, Va., records show.

It is unclear whether Oklahoma DHS workers knew about that conviction.

DHS workers knew something else, however.

Castillo's two children were taken away from her in 2002 because of injuries that JaJuan's half-sister, Jonesia Youngblood, allegedly suffered while in Torres-Vasquez's care, records show.

Jonesia came home with bruises on the side of her face and the back of one leg after Torres-Vasquez had been baby-sitting the two children, Castillo said.

Castillo said her sister, who lived in Oklahoma, then came to pick the children up for the weekend.

"I told her what happened, and she acted like it was no big deal,” Castillo said.

However, after her sister crossed the border back into Le Flore County, she took the children to an Oklahoma hospital and told doctors she thought the 21-month-old girl had been abused.

DHS was contacted and did an investigation.

Castillo and several other witnesses told DHS workers the bruises were sustained while Jonesia was in Torres-Vasquez's care, records reveal.

DHS then interviewed Torres-Vasquez, who "confirmed that three of the child's injuries had occurred while the children were in her home,” according to a child death review report prepared at The Oklahoman's request by the Oklahoma Commission on Children and Youth.

DHS made a "confirmed finding of physical abuse,” and stated the identity of the alleged perpetrator was "unknown.”

The children were taken away from their mother for "failure to protect” and "threat of harm.”

The children spent most of the next three years in the foster care of Castillo's Oklahoma sister, who wanted to adopt them.

Records show the sister spent those years on an emotional roller coaster as DHS vacillated between efforts to help her adopt the children and efforts to reunite the children with their biological parents.

In March 2006, the sister gave up, declaring, "(I) can't do this anymore,” records reveal. She turned the children back over to DHS.

DHS child welfare workers then focused their efforts on placing the children in the Vasquez home.

When Arkansas rejected the home as unsuitable, Oklahoma child welfare workers could have let the matter drop.

Instead, they worked out an arrangement.

Vasquez moved his family across the border from Arkansas to Arkoma, OK, and DHS placed JaJuan and Jonesia in his home.

Three months later, JaJuan was killed after the family had secretly moved back to Arkansas. He died from nonaccidental blunt force trauma to the head, the autopsy revealed.

Torres-Vasquez's second-degree murder trial is set for April 7 in Fort Smith, Ark.

‘Beyond negligence'
Castillo said she blames DHS "100 percent” for JaJuan's death.

Placing the children in the Vasquez home was a bizarre decision that "goes beyond negligence,” said Gary Buckles, Castillo's Poteau attorney.

DHS took Castillo's children away from her because she failed to protect them from her baby-sitter, then turned around and placed the children in the home of the baby sitter, he said.

Buckles said he tried to obtain a tape recording of the court hearing where the decision was approved, but the recording had "mysteriously disappeared.”

No DHS employees have been disciplined over the matter, he said.

In August, Buckles filed a wrongful death claim with DHS in which he asked the state for $20 million.

DHS rejected the claim by failing to respond.

Buckles said he expects to file a state lawsuit against the agency within the next few days and may file a federal lawsuit later.

Castillo, who is now married and lives with her husband and a 4-year-old son, said she is still pursuing efforts to get her daughter back.

In June, Arkansas child welfare workers did a home study on her Fort Smith home and rejected her, citing the earlier incident in which her children were taken away and her parental rights to JaJuan were terminated.

They said she was listed on "Arkansas criminal and central registries for several counts of failure to protect and neglect,” so placement of her daughter in her home would be inappropriate.

Castillo said Oklahoma DHS officials recently told her that if she would move to Oklahoma, she and her daughter might be reunited.

"I don't know who to trust,” she said. "I can't trust anybody. ... DHS has ruined my life and my children's lives. It ended the life of one of my children. It's a big nightmare I'll probably never wake up from.”

Contributing: Staff Writer Nolan Clay