ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The state Children, Youth and Families Department and several of its employees, supervisors and an approved foster parent have been named in a lawsuit alleging, among other things, the wrongful death of a child in December 2017.
The lawsuit also alleges negligence and causing the “physical injury, pain and severe emotional distress” of the deceased child’s two siblings.
According to the lawsuit, the child, 11-month-old Ariza Barreras, and her two siblings, identified only as 2-year-old T.B. and 1-year-old F.B., were placed in one foster home with a couple that an independent home study said should not have been granted a license – an assessment with which CYFD officials disagreed.
The children were also placed from time to time in a “respite” foster home that did not have adequate bedding for the children, was dirty and in disrepair, and where the homeowner had a history of criminal activity and alcohol and drug abuse.
It was in that respite home in Valencia County that the child was found dead.
An amended version of the lawsuit was filed in state District Court in Bernalillo County on Monday by three law firms: Martinez, Hart, Thompson and Sanchez; Rodey, Dickason, Sloan, Akin and Robb; and Williams Injury Law.
Plaintiffs are Lee Hunt, the personal representative of Ariza Barreras, and Gabrielle Valdez, guardian ad litem for Ariza’s two siblings.
Named as defendants are Stephanie Crownover, of Belen, the respite foster care provider, as well as CYFD and two of its social workers and three supervisors.
CYFD spokesman Charlie Pabst-Moore said Wednesday that he can’t comment on pending litigation. While he did confirm that the two social workers have resigned, he said the state Children’s Code prohibits him from saying if foster parents mentioned in the lawsuit are still licensed.
The Journal tried unsuccessfully to reach Crownover for comment.
According to the lawsuit, Ariza Barreras and her siblings were removed from their biological parents in May 2017 and taken into CYFD custody because the parents were homeless and drug users. The children on May 8 were placed in the foster home of Vanessa Dominguez and Justin Romero, who were licensed by CYFD to provide “respite” care only, meaning short-term care for children when the child’s original foster parents are unable to provide care or need a break.
They are not named as defendants in the lawsuit.
An 18-page home study on Dominguez and Romero was compiled by a licensed independent social worker with La Familia Inc. on behalf of CYFD. Citing a variety of reasons, La Familia recommended that Dominguez and Romero be denied a foster parent license, the lawsuit says.
However, CYFD supervisors prepared a one-page addendum in which “they disagreed with the findings of the home study investigator.” As a result, in July 2016 Dominguez and Romero were issued a license to provide respite foster care. Sometime before May 2017, the couple began serving as full-time foster parents, despite a lack of documentation saying they had been approved for this, the lawsuit claims.
Within weeks, Dominguez and Romero sought respite care for the three children. Initially a CYFD social worker arranged for the children to be temporarily placed with Crownover, who lived nearby. Subsequently, when Dominguez and Romero needed respite care for the children, they contacted Crownover directly and filed paperwork with CYFD later so Crownover could receive payment – a violation of established CYFD procedure.
According to the lawsuit, Crownover “had an extensive criminal history,” including aggravated battery. Further, “Crownover related a history of alcohol and drug abuse and associating with dangerous social groups who were involved in criminal activity.”
The Barreras children were dropped off with Crownover for the last time on Dec. 28, 2017. The home apparently lacked adequate bedding for the children. During each of the nights she provided care, Ariza Barreras slept strapped into a car seat that was set on the floor, the lawsuit says. When Crownover awoke on the morning of Dec. 31, she found the child cold, not breathing, and unresponsive, with her head “slumped forward and her left arm caught in the shoulder strap.”
Authorities described the house as being in disrepair and dirty, and they said it had a foul odor. That description is in contrast to the last documented visit to Crownover’s home by CYFD in late August 2017, in which an investigation concluded that “no safety threats” were identified, the lawsuit says.
Four days after the death of Ariza Barreras, the primary CYFD social worker assigned to the case updated the CYFD’s computerized logs, making about 25 separate entries “documenting her contacts and observations from the previous 13 months.”
Eighteen days after the child’s death, a supervisor made about 10 separate entries, documenting her contacts and observations from the previous year. The supervisor “repeatedly wrote throughout 2017, ‘No concerns noted with the Crownover home,’ ” according to the lawsuit.
Crownover was arrested and charged with one count of abuse of a child resulting in death, but the charges were eventually dropped. In the court filing dismissing the charges, a prosecutor with the 13th District Attorney’s Office wrote that the case would be presented to a grand jury. It appears no subsequent charges or indictment has been filed.
The lawsuit asks for compensatory damages to be determined, punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to punish defendants for their intentional, reckless and indifferent conduct,” and reasonable fees for attorneys and related costs.