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Boy's Death Casts Cloud on System of Foster Homes

July 06, 1986|LOIS TIMNICK | Times Staff Writer

The worst should have been over for 18-month-old Carlos Salas.

Early last month, Los Angeles County child protective services workers took him from his Whittier parents, who they say had physically abused him, and placed him in a Pomona foster care home.

But the toddler died last week--after a severe beating in the new home that was supposed to protect and care for him temporarily.

Betty Loretta White, 20, daughter of Carlos' foster mother, has been charged with child abuse and assault with a deadly weapon; pending results from the coroner's office, she may be charged with murder as well, Pomona police said. She is being held at Sybil Brand Institute for Women.

Admits Striking Boy

White "admitted striking the boy numerous times with a sandal over an extended period of time," said Pomona Police Detective Ronald Windell, adding that she apparently became impatient with the child's behavior and lost control. Early Tuesday, paramedics rushed the injured child to Pomona Valley Hospital, where he died 90 minutes later.

An autopsy showed that the child died from "multiple blunt force head trauma," the coroner's office reported Saturday.

The violent death is likely to raise more questions about the county's already troubled foster care system, which has been criticized for several years as inadequate to meet the heavy demand for substitute homes that are safe and caring.

Carlos Sosa, assistant director of the Department of Children's Services (the county agency responsible for foster care) and director of its bureau of protective services, said two other children in the home of foster parent Thelma White, the suspect's mother, have been placed elsewhere. Her home has been put on "do not use" status, Sosa said, "and once we have all the facts we will probably report her to the state for (license) revocation."

Sosa said White had been a foster parent for several years, providing emergency shelter for children at all hours of the day and night. Foster parents for emergency care are selected with special care, he said, and police noted that when White applied for her license, she and her husband were the only adults living in the home.

Their daughter had moved back in about two months ago, just before Thelma White was temporarily incapacitated by surgery. The elder White was in the home when the fatal beatings took place, police said.

'Somewhat of a Problem'

Detective Windell said the boy had become "somewhat of a problem" during Thelma White's illness, and Sosa confirmed that less than a week before the youngster's death the foster mother had complained that he was fussy and spitting up and said that she "wanted him replaced."

Neither White nor the boy's natural parents could be reached for comment Saturday.

Windell said he had talked with the parents through an interpreter shortly after Whittier police notified them of their child's death. "They looked sad and dejected. . . . They wanted to know what had happened. . . . They were in shock."

Sosa said that the renewed abuse of children who have been removed from abusive homes and placed in foster care does happen occasionally, but that murder of children in foster care, especially those in emergency shelter care, is "extremely rare--not more than two or three in the last five years."

Small Girl Killed

In 1982, a 21-month-old girl was sodomized and choked to death by her foster father, also in Pomona. Her parents won a $75,000 settlement in a wrongful death suit against Orange County for its role in placing the girl; the foster father was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

More than 10,000 children in Los Angeles County are currently in foster care, at least 75% of them in individual homes. They have been removed from their parents because of physical or emotional abuse, neglect or molestation, and are placed in foster care--with families who are reimbursed by the government for providing temporary substitute homes or in group homes or institutions--until they can be safely returned home or freed for adoption.

But the increasing number of children needing such placement continues to outstrip efforts to recruit new foster families and to retain those who become disillusioned and drop out of the program. And children's services workers' heavy caseloads keep visits and contact between the county and foster families at a minimum.

Not Held Responsible

Sosa said his department considered White to be a good foster parent and does not hold her responsible for the murder.

"At this point I don't know exactly what took place in that home. . . . Any child who dies while in our care is an extremely serious situation and indicates that the system didn't work for that particular child," he said.

"To the best of our knowledge, this was a foster home with a good reputation. I think this is a freak occurrence and is not related to our desperation to find foster homes."

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