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Child dies after being sent from foster care to her parents, renewing questions about L.A. County's troubled children's services agency

Toddler Tori Sandoval was released from foster care to her biological parents and died months later, her body bruised. Police and county social workers say the parents are suspects.

June 06, 2011|By Garrett Therolf, Times Staff Writer
  • This photograph of Tori Sandoval was taken shortly before she was sent from foster care to live with her biological parents.
This photograph of Tori Sandoval was taken shortly before she was sent from…

The two-page letter landed in the judge's chambers at the Los Angeles County Children's Court last fall, registering "grave concern" for the well-being of 17-month-old Vyctorya Sandoval.

Linda Kontis, co-founder of a foster family agency that contracted with the county to provide care to the girl, complained that the court system hadn't properly considered the risks of returning the saucer-eyed toddler known as Tori to her long-troubled biological parents.

Months after the letter was written, Tori was dead. Healing bruises covered her body, according to a court document that children's services officials filed. A rib was fractured. Blood tests suggested she died thirsty and hungry. For six hours, doctors tried to save her after she was rushed to an emergency room.

No charges have been filed, but police and county social workers say the parents are suspects in the investigation of Tori's death on April 24. She had turned 2 the month before.

Her case has sent fresh shock waves through the county's child protection bureaucracy, still struggling to implement reforms after more than 70 maltreatment deaths over the last three years of children who had been under the system's supervision.

Investigators are awaiting a final autopsy report, and details of Tori's life and health have not been disclosed. But Kontis' letter has called into question whether the court system and the Department of Children and Family Services did all they could to safeguard the girl. Kontis declined to comment.

Kontis' letter was one of two warnings officials received about Tori's welfare in the months before she died, according to sources familiar with the case. A friend of Tori's former foster parents, Jennifer Nichols, said the couple phoned in a report to the children services department after hearing from the girl's relatives that Tori's condition was worsening.

Document: Read Linda Kontis' complete letter

Elise Esparza, a friend of Tori's relatives, said she barely recognized the once-boisterous girl when she saw her the month before she died. "She was very pale looking and gaunt in the face. I said. 'Something is wrong.'" After Tori's death, Esparza said she was present when the girl's mother described Tori pulling out her own hair and pinching herself.

Despite concerns among those who knew Tori, the court and the county left the girl with her parents, who lived in a Pomona apartment before their daughter died. Social worker visits were ordered, but interviews and records indicate that during the period she was with her parents, Tori's weight dropped from the 50th percentile to below the fifth percentile for children her age.

Jackie Contreras, the county's interim children's services director, said one department worker has been placed on desk duty because of possible lapses in monitoring Tori. Confidentiality rules bar her from discussing the case, she said.

County officials have labored to correct recurring, systemic problems in child protective services. Last year, frustrated county supervisors complained of slow progress before the former children's services director, Trish Ploehn, was ousted.

The county has touted its success in cutting foster care rolls by nearly two-thirds since 1997, to fewer than 20,000 children. Nearly nine of 10 children returned to their parents do not have a substantiated maltreatment incident in the first year. But critics point out that the rate of unsuccessful reunifications has nearly doubled as the county has allowed increasingly troubled families to reunify.

And three years ago a state Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care reported that court hearings for foster children average just 10 to 15 minutes, providing children no meaningful voice. The panel's recommendations to reduce court caseloads have been stalled by budget problems.

Kontis wrote that hasty reunification efforts and a poorly conducted court hearing in September potentially put Tori at risk.

"I know that reunification is primary and always work toward that goal. However, there are cases where common sense must prevail and history is relevant," said Kontis' letter, which was written shortly after the September hearing. A copy was obtained by The Times.

Michael Nash, the presiding judge in Los Angeles Juvenile Court who supervises the commissioner who handled Tori's case, said he received and answered Kontis' letter. But the correspondence is confidential because of state rules, he said.

Tori was removed from her parents after her birth and joined eight older siblings in foster care, according to the letter sent by Kontis, who had access to extensive files on Tori. The family has had 11 referrals to child protective services for alleged domestic violence, child abuse and other issues, according to other sources with access to the family's files.

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