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'Someone Beat the Hell Out of This Kid'

VICTIM: Ricky Aragon Jr., age 2, taken into state custody after mother found sniffing paint.
INJURY: Beaten to death in grandmother's foster care home.
OUTCOME: Grandmother, Josefita Romero, is sentenced to 15 years in prison; state pays child's estate $599,469.

Rosalie Montoya listened as the baby next door screamed, just like he'd been screaming every day for the past two weeks.
Montoya, who was doing yard work, noticed her neighbor's mobile home vibrate, "as if something very large, like a piece of furniture, had been hurled against the wall."
Inside, 52-year-old Josefita Romero demanded, "shut up."
There was the sound of water splashing. "Oh my God," the neighbor heard Romero cry out. "Mi hijito, breathe."
Then only silence.
* * *
Neighbors heard the warning sounds. Social workers weren't around to see the warning signs.
Two-year-old Ricky Aragon Jr. lost his life at the hands of his maternal grandmother -- a state-authorized relative foster parent.
Ricky Aragon Jr. is pictured in a family photo. His death led to the state paying almost $600,000 to settle a civil lawsuit.
When he died of head injuries April 12, 1993, human teeth marks were visible on his face, left knee and right elbow.
"Someone beat the hell out of this kid," a physician at the state Office of the Medical Investigator told investigators at the time.
Romero, now 52, pleaded guilty in late 1993 to child abuse causing death and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Last year, the state paid $599,496 to settle a lawsuit alleging that mistakes and omissions by state social workers led to Ricky's death.
The settlement came after lawyers for the boy's estate discovered Romero had once been investigated for hitting one of her own daughters, said Albuquerque lawyer Mary Han, one of the attorneys for the child's estate.
Timothy Flynn-O'Brien, an Albuquerque lawyer who represented the social workers, said confidentiality laws bar him from commenting.
Social workers maintained Romero's home appeared safe.
The case -- the first reported death of a child in New Mexico foster care in recent years -- underscores all that can go wrong in the foster care system.
From early 1989 to 1991, state child protective services had received a half-dozen complaints that Ricky's mother was sniffing paint and jeopardizing the safety of her children.
In July 1989, Ricky's older sister went to foster care after police arrested the mother for child abuse and drug abuse.
Ricky was eight months old when the state took him into custody in 1991. Social workers believed his mother was still sniffing paint, court records show.
Ricky's older sister was placed with his great-grandmother. So the state placed Ricky with his maternal grandmother, Romero -- a divorcee with a history of alcoholism.
Court records show the social worker who placed the child in Romero's care never formally looked into the woman's background, what is called a "home study."
The social worker said a supervisor told her simply to "eyeball" the residence.
Lawyers for the child's estate said that violated agency policy.
Court records show Romero never attended foster-home training and wasn't even licensed to provide foster care.
The agency turned over a number of the social workers' responsibilities to Romero, such as regulating and monitoring visits from Ricky's mother.
The state paid her from $280 to $300 a month.
Ricky was considered a drug-exposed baby and needed physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech/language therapy. But court records show Romero didn't take him.
The initial social worker on the case said she may have visited the home once during the child's first four months with Romero.
The case was reassigned to social worker Catherine Culver White on Oct. 26, 1992, who had been on the job a month.
In court documents, White said she assumed Romero was licensed.
Social workers, by internal policy, are supposed to visit foster homes at least monthly. White visited once the six months before Ricky died.
White said in court records that her supervisor never told her about the monthly visits.
In court documents, her lawyer said White "had limited time (resources) so she prioritized her work and focused on the cases she felt presented the greatest need."
"No one disagrees that it would be nice if there were sufficient resources to do everything. (The social worker) did not have sufficient time to visit every child in foster care on a monthly basis and perform all her duties," O'Brien said in a court document.
She happened to visit the home about two weeks before the child was killed.
It was the same day police responded to a report of suspected child abuse at the mobile home -- but White said she hadn't been notified of the call.
Neighbors called police after hearing a baby screaming on March 26, 1993.
"It sounded like the child was put in a closet, because I heard a door slam. I heard the child crying and kicking at a door," stated Rosalie Montoya in a statement introduced in the civil lawsuit by the plaintiffs.
Albuquerque police said they found no evidence of child abuse.
Montoya stopped one of the officers as he left Romero's trailer.
"I told him, 'What does it take, for him (Ricky) to physically end up in the hospital before something is done?' '' Montoya said in a court deposition.
A CYFD investigation later concluded social workers should make more frequent visits of relative foster homes and conduct "home studies" when placing such children.
The $599,496 settlement is in a trust. Ricky's mother is the beneficiary, but is limited in the amount of money she can receive at any one time and must maintain a lawful lifestyle. A community organization involved with children will receive a portion of any money remaining at her death.

Copyright © 1997 Albuquerque Journal