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Orange County

Dead Girl Was Part of Legal Squabble

Tragedy: Parents faced conditions to regain children, including 3-year-old left in a hot SUV by foster mother.

July 03, 2001|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 3-year-old Orange County girl who died after being left in a hot sports-utility vehicle by a Rialto foster mother had been at the center of a legal squabble, along with her three siblings, over when they could be returned to their estranged parents.

The victim, Maryah Che Ponce, had been overlooked last Friday when the foster mother and other children left the vehicle in the family driveway after running errands. The temperature inside the closed SUV rose to between 120 and 150 degrees, fire officials said, causing the girl to die of hyperthermia. The girl had been left strapped into a car seat for at least 15 minutes when the foster mother, Linda Montano, discovered her missing.

Though a police investigation is pending, Orange County Social Services Agency director Larry Leaman said Montano and her husband, first-time foster parents, will not be assigned any future children.

"It's a tragic incident that we're all just sick about," Leaman said. "But it's still a case of oversight."

The four children had been taken away from their mother, Tiana Alvarado, in Tustin last November after the police had been called to settle a dispute. Alvarado shared joint custody of three of the children with her estranged husband, James Ponce of Orange.

At a Juvenile Court hearing soon after police took the children, a judge ordered that the four be sent to foster care until both parents met conditions of a "one-year reunification plan." The court action was based on recommendations from Social Services and the children's court-appointed attorney, Harold LaFlamme.

Earlier this year, Ponce began writing letters trying to get his three children back. He alleged two instances of child abuse at the Montano home. But Leaman said both incidents were minor and did not amount to abuse. After observing the home environment and interviewing the children on numerous visits, Leaman said, his staff was satisfied with their care.

Despite Ponce's allegations, a judge ruled at a court hearing a month ago that the one-year reunification plan should remain as scheduled. Because juvenile records are closed, the name of the judge was not revealed, nor were any details about why the children were initially taken from their mother.

LaFlamme said his office agreed with Social Services at the most recent hearing that the parents were not ready to take the children back.

"You can't predict something like this," LaFlamme said. "We'd been out to [Rialto] ourselves three times since the children were sent there to make sure they were all right. We had every reason to believe they were receiving good care."

But good caregivers can make mistakes, said State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) who is sponsoring a bill to strengthen laws against leaving children in vehicles.

"We already have child endangerment laws," Speier said. "But we need to address this issue specifically, to educate the public that leaving a child in a car, even for a few minutes, can be extremely dangerous."

Montano told police that she had been distracted by having to shoo away a dog when she parked and thought the other children had helped the 3-year-old out.

The other three children remain at the Orangewood Children's Home, where they have been since their sister's death. Officials said they cannot comment yet on where the three will be sent.

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