Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The state Children, Youth and Families Department has received a report from Small Steps Visitation in Los Lunas, saying that the biological father of a child found dead Sunday morning expressed concern two days earlier for the health and well-being of his children, the head of CYFD confirmed Thursday.
The children had been brought to Small Steps so they could visit their biological parents, and their father expressed his worry about their condition at that time.
Monique Jacobson, CYFD cabinet secretary, said the department contacted Small Steps on Tuesday and asked for and received a copy of the report and the father’s concerns, which CYFD had not been aware of before then.
Small Steps provides a safe and neutral place in which court ordered and other types of supervised visitations can be overseen.
In the meantime, CYFD is conducting two investigations into the child’s death – one looking into the allegations of abuse and neglect against caregiver Stephanie Crownover, and a second internal review looking at the steps and actions that CYFD took in this case, including whether that report should have been passed on to CYFD earlier.
“Having this happen to one kid is one kid too many,” Jacobson said. “We owe it to that child and to the state to look at this and do a thorough review of how this happened and then based on what we find to improve the agency and the system accordingly.”
The dead child, 11-month-old Ariza Barreras, and two siblings, ages 3 and 2, were in the custody of CYFD and in foster care. Last Thursday, the children were placed in the Belen home of Crownover, the respite foster caregiver, after the full-time foster care mother had to leave town for the weekend.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Valencia County Magistrate Court, Crownover took the children to Small Steps Visitation on Friday for a visit with their biological parents, Alicia Patterson and Richard Barreras.
At that time, the father told the Small Steps facilitator that Crownover, who was an hour late bringing the children for their weekly visit, did not appear to be caring well for his children.
The children were unbathed and were not wearing shoes or socks, he said. Ariza had a soiled diaper, and when he went to change it, he noticed she had a severe diaper rash and her vagina was red and swollen.
“Richard stated he reported this to the facilitator, who told him that he would report the issue,” the criminal complaint says.
Patterson declined to comment when contacted by the Journal on Thursday and instead referred questions to her lawyer, Brian Williams. A voice message seeking comment was not returned.
About 6 a.m. on Sunday, Crownover called for emergency rescue services when she found Ariza, lying in a car seat, limp and unresponsive.
A car seat being used as a bed “is absolutely not normal,” Jacobson said. “It is expected that our foster parents have age-appropriate sleeping arrangements for each child in their care, and a car seat would definitely not qualify as appropriate.”
Also disconcerting was the condition of the Crownover’s home, as described by Valencia County sheriff’s deputies, Jacobson said.
Deputies described a home that had an overpowering odor. The floors were dirty and soiled with animal urine and feces. The bathroom was equally unsanitary, with fecal matter sitting in the stained toilet bowl.
Litter boxes were full, the refrigerator had an odor of rotting food, and dirty pet food bowls and plates with dried human food were scattered throughout. A ceiling in a closet was missing, exposing the underside of the roof, and the house’s temperature was cold, according to deputies.
Crownover told investigators that all three children had severe diarrhea, runny noses and sounded congested, but she did not take them to a doctor because “it was too cold outside” and she did not want to subject the kids to harsh weather.
Investigators also interviewed a man identified as the children’s regular foster father, who said that the week prior to dropping the children off with the respite caregiver, they had been taken to see a doctor because of ear aches. At that time, Ariza was diagnosed with a respiratory virus and was given antibiotics.
The criminal complaint states that an autopsy was performed on Ariza. The pathologist found “no signs of trauma and no signs of natural diseases,” as well as no signs of acute dehydration. The results of further lab tests are pending.
Crownover has been charged with abuse of a child resulting in death and child abuse for placing children in a dangerous situation.
Ariza’s siblings were removed from the home and remain in CYFD foster care custody, Jacobson said.
Licensing requirements are the same for foster parents and people providing respite foster care, Jacobson said. Crownover had been a licensed foster care provider since October 2016, she said.
At the beginning of December 2017, less than a month before Ariza was found dead, Crownover provided an emergency 48-hour hold for a different child. At that time, Jacobson said, a CYFD caseworker went inside the house but did not report any concerns regarding the home environment.
Part of the investigation will be to determine if anything was missed in the prior visit, she said, or how and why things in the home changed so quickly.
There were 2,668 children in CYFD foster care at the end of November and 441 CYFD field workers, up from 340 in January 2015.