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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Baby's Death Prompts a Look at Ways to Better Protect Children

November 05, 2000|TIMOTHY HUGHES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The recent death of a 14-month-old Oxnard boy from suspected abuse and neglect has prompted authorities to again look at what more can be done within the county justice and social service system to prevent such cases.

Ion Demitri Robledo died last month while in the care of 20-year-old Oxnard resident Teresa Rodriguez, who has been charged with murder and child neglect. An arraignment hearing is scheduled Monday.

County doctors, social workers, prosecutors and law enforcement officials involved in child-abuse cases say the boy's death only hardens their resolve to work at better tracking and intervening in such cases whenever possible.

They are all key elements in a wide web of social service workers who spend their days following troubled families, applying for grants and trying to protect those who can't protect themselves.

"No one speaks for the children," said Dr. Chris Landon, head of the Ventura-based Landon Pediatric Foundation and a past member of the Ventura County Child Death Review Team. "We are responsible for kids whose monsters are real."

The review team, which includes representatives from the district attorney's office, county Human Services Department and the Ventura County Medical Center, meets quarterly to go over any new child-death cases in the county.

The team plans to take a hard look at all aspects of the Oxnard case to determine whether there were any opportunities for intervention, and if the child had ever had contact with the county's social or medical services network.

On the night he died, the infant had lesions on his mouth, ears, wrists and both ankles as well as bruises from head to toe, according to police and court records. The child also had symptoms that he had recently ingested illegal narcotics.

Autopsy results showed the child had severe constipation, which police said is consistent with heroin use. During a search of Rodriguez's apartment, investigators found syringes and spoons that police said were most likely used for cooking drugs.

Laela Henke-Dobroth, a 20-year prosecutor who heads the county team, said the group's goal is to take "a systemwide approach and see if anyone has seen this child before."

She said the main question asked in any case is simple: "Could we have in some way assisted so this death had not occurred?"

Scant information is available on whether the infant, Rodriguez or the child's birth mother, Yvette Robledo, had any contact with county officials before his death.

And even if county officials had intervened--and so far there is no indication they had--detectives close to the investigation doubt much could have been accomplished.

"There is no doubt in my mind this child's death could have been prevented, but I don't know if there is anything the county could have done to prevent it," said Sgt. Jim Seitz of the Oxnard Police Department. The infant died Oct. 22 after Rodriguez took him to St. John's Medical Center in Oxnard when he stopped breathing during a trip to a Port Hueneme fast-food restaurant.

A day after Ion's death Rodriguez was rushed to Ventura County Medical Center, where she gave birth to a boy. Police questioned Rodriguez before arresting her on Oct. 25.

She was charged in the boy's death after detectives found the infant had open lesions on his mouth and was covered with bruises.

Rodriguez had been caring for the infant for two months. She had agreed to take care of him while his mother, Yvette Robledo, served time in Ventura County Jail on a drug conviction. Along with her live-in boyfriend, Patrick Santanillo, Rodriguez cared for the 14-month-old and her 3-year-old daughter.

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According to figures available for 1999, the county's Children and Family Services agency received 6,476 referrals--cases where a doctor, nurse, police officer or other public official suspected child abuse.

Physical abuse accounted for 2,594 of the referrals while 1,329 were based on suspicion of sexual abuse. Emotional abuse accounted for 796 referrals and 374 reports noted the absence of a parent or caretaker in the home. The remaining referrals in 1999 included 26 for severe neglect and 15 for exploitation.

This year, the county coroner's office has investigated the deaths of 11 children age 3 and under, said James Baroni, a senior deputy medical examiner. The cases ranged from a drowning to an accidental shooting to a 6-month-old fetus found in a toilet in an Oxnard medical building.

Frank Ferratta, the county's director of children and family services, said he plans to submit a proposal to the Children and Families First Commission this month for a piece of the $11.7-million Proposition 10 money set aside for Ventura County.

The 1998 statewide ballot initiative levied a 50-cent-per-pack cigarette tax for child development programs. Ferratta didn't say how much money he is seeking in the latest grant application.

He said the money would go toward increasing access to medical care for children up to age 5.

"It would make sure they get adequate medical services," said Ferratta, who also is a member of the county's child death review team. "When we bring those kids in for care, we find these kids have never seen a doctor or a dentist."

Ferratta and others in the county are also pushing for two facilities--one in the east end of the county and another in the west--that would allow investigators, doctors and social workers to interview and examine a child in only a few meetings.

"The hope is to prevent the need to service the kids that have been abused, but the ultimate goal is prevention," said Dr. Michelle Laba, medical director for the Mandalay Bay Children's Center, one of two county clinics specializing in pediatric medicine.

"We are realizing that more and more we need to service these children better and to decrease the number of times the child has to be interviewed. Put it all under one roof."

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