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Woman Was Accused of Abuse Before Foster Child's Death

June 23, 2001|EVELYN LARRUBIA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A foster mother charged with killing a 2-year-old girl in her care had been accused of verbally abusing other foster children and using corporal punishment on her own young child before Jasmine Garcia's death, according to a school psychologist who says she reported those problems to authorities.

In an interview, Mary Ellen Zigrang, a staff psychologist at Carson Middle School, said she called social workers for the county and for the foster family agency that hired the woman, Cookie Smith, after a suicidal student complained about Smith in January.

According to Zigrang, the girl, one of two Carson students whom the Bright Future Foster Family Agency placed with Smith, 20, reported that her foster mother had been verbally and emotionally abusive and did not provide sufficient food. The girl also complained that Smith hit her biological son, a toddler, to discipline him, Zigrang said.

Officials with a private foster family agency that hired Smith said they did not receive any complaints about child abuse against her, only one complaint that she used profanity. Anita Bock, head of the county Department of Children and Family Services, said she was unaware of prior child abuse allegations against Smith. On Friday, however, county workers began investigating.

Jasmine died of head injuries a week ago, one day before she was to be reunited with a woman who was adopting her. The district attorney's office charged Smith and her husband, Manuel Garay, with murder. Both have pleaded not guilty. Smith's attorney could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

In the interview, Zigrang said she reported the allegations to the county-assigned social worker and Bright Future social worker. Her focus, she said, was on the corporal punishment of the toddler.

She said the teenage student was removed from Smith's home in January because of the complaints.

"They knew," Zigrang said. "That's what's killing me."

Rafik Philobos, director of Bright Future, confirmed that Zigrang called him but he said she only reported that the student was suicidal and would be hospitalized.

"We don't play games with stuff like this," said Philobos, who added that a social worker had gone to the girl's school to interview Zigrang. "If we knew that, we would have removed everybody from the home immediately."

Philobos said that even the report of profanity was treated as a serious matter. He said he reported it to state licensing authorities, as required. Smith admitted to having used profanity and was placed on a 90-day observation.

After the girl threatened suicide, she was removed from the home and placed under the care of a different agency because, according to Philobos, his organization felt uncomfortable supervising someone who was suicidal.

Bock said the teenager's social worker had noted a complaint about Smith using profanity in a computer file, but didn't indicate other allegations.

She added that another social worker noted that Smith's home was not suitable for a teenager. The social worker was assigned to the other Carson student who had been placed with Smith, then removed last fall. Bock cautioned that the unsuitability could have been for a number of reasons short of abuse.

"All I know from the file review is that there were other children in this home that were removed from this home," Bock said after reviewing the agency's file. "But I don't know all the reasons why."

Bock said her probe will include interviewing employees who assigned children to Smith's home. County and agency officials said Zigrang, as a school psychologist, was required by law to report the allegations of abuse to the county's child abuse hotline, the department's investigative arm. Zigrang said she thought reporting it directly to the child's caseworker would be more effective.

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