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Warning signs are missed by social workers, and two children die at home

The parents of one have been charged with murder. The mother of the other is in prison.

December 13, 2009|By Kim Christensen and Garrett Therolf

Angel was "a loner" who never fit in, Garcia said, and neither he nor Montiel warmed up to him. It didn't help, he said, that the boy was close to Pruitt.

"He looked at us like, 'Who the hell are you guys?' " he said.

Whenever Angel got hurt while alone with Montiel, Garcia said, she always had an explanation: He'd fallen, or hit his head on a crib, or lost his teeth to a rocking horse.

It wasn't that social workers missed the injuries, said a child welfare expert who reviewed the file at The Times' request. But they might have interpreted them differently had they been better trained, and department policy did not require them to probe further.

"When we teach risk assessment, these are exactly the kind of phrases we look for," said Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor of social welfare at UCLA. "Children do not fall this way, children do not lose teeth this way."

Garcia kept his suspicions to himself, he said, because he feared the county would again take his other children.

Then one night in April 2007, Montiel called him at work and said Angel wasn't breathing.

She and her father took him to a nearby hospital, where doctors determined he'd been dead for hours, records show. An autopsy found dozens of injuries, some fresh and some healed, including broken bones and burns.

Originally charged with murder, Montiel pleaded no contest to manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Garcia said he is estranged from her and hopes to get their other children back. But he said county officials have given him little hope, noting his failure to protect Angel -- a point he didn't argue.

"Like I said, if I would have done something about it, maybe my son would still be alive."

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