Too little, too late — Part 3

Lyla Blackwood died at the hands of her biological mother's boyfriend, Isaac Ortiz, before caseworkers followed up on claim of abuse



Hannah Schuman is held by her father Grant Schumann at the sentencing of her former boyfriend, Isaac Ortiz, who was sent to prison for 32 years for the death of her 2-year-old daughter Lyla Blackwood. The girl’s father, Preston Blackwood, left, listens to the testimony.



Isaac Ortiz, right, consults with his attorney, Scott Burrill, during court Monday before Mesa County District Judge Thomas Deister. The judge invited Ortiz to speak to the court, but he declined.



Lyla Blackwood



In a four-day series, The Daily Sentinel is delving into the killings of three children who were known to the Mesa County Department of Human Services, as part of a broader examination of the child welfare and foster care systems in the county.

CLICK HERE TO READ PART 1
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 2
CLICK HERE TO READ PART 4
RELATED STORIES:
CHILD KILLERS IN MESA COUNTY: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Q&A WITH MESA COUNTY OFFICIALS
STUDY: COUNTY NEEDS TO REPAIR RELATIONS WITH FOSTER FAMILIES
STATE WATCHDOG MADE RECOMMENDATIONS TO COUNTY


Something didn’t add up for doctors when Lyla Blackwood was brought to them on July 24, 2015.

The waifish 2-year-old wouldn’t use her right arm and cried when others tried to move it for her. Her mother’s boyfriend acted strangely, medical staff noticed, and he seemed impatient to leave.

He told them he had popped her shoulder out when repositioning her.

The doctor’s office reported the incident to child-welfare officials in Mesa County, who determined it was not urgent, and assigned a five working-day response time to the report, with a deadline of July 31.

Five days later, Lyla was dead. An autopsy revealed that multiple blunt-force injuries to her head and neck killed her on July 29, two days before the deadline personnel set to check on the situation. Her mother’s boyfriend, Isaac Ortiz, was arrested on charges of first-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death.

The broken arm incident was the third occasion in which Mesa County’s child welfare department didn’t respond appropriately to reports of child abuse in Lyla’s short life, a state fatality review team determined later.

The 22-year-old Ortiz was sentenced to 32 years in prison last month in a plea agreement. In resolving the criminal matter of Lyla’s death by sentencing her killer, the judge also cautioned her mother, Hannah Schumann, to be careful to protect her second daughter who was still alive. Fourteen-month-old Ariana, who was only a month old when her father killed her half-sister, had been returned to Hannah in May. The same agency that failed to respond appropriately to claims of abuse against her dead sister decided to return her to her mother, despite the fact that her mother had not completed court-ordered domestic violence counseling.

Now, family members who took baby Ariana after her half-sister’s death fear for her safety, and say they want laws mandating a quicker response for injuries like Lyla’s broken arm that happened days before she was killed. And despite their decision to return Ariana to her mother, county officials admit they are concerned about this demographic of parent — the single, young mom with significant others from whom they cannot protect their children.

■ ■ ■

Lyla Blackwood had an impish smile, captivating blue eyes and blonde wisps of hair that had grown barely long enough to gather into perky ponytails atop her head.

The 2-year-old had just become a big sister, and loved the movie “Frozen” and princess dresses. During her killer’s sentencing, she was described as a “defenseless, fragile, health-compromised child” by the judge.

When the report that she had a suspicious broken arm was made, it wasn’t the first time the Department of Human Services investigated the home on reports concerning the well-being of the children living there. They had previously responded to reports that Lyla was malnourished, that she had only gained two pounds since she was born, though she was 10 weeks old. There were other claims that Hannah ran out of diapers and formula, that Lyla’s clothes were filthy and she needed to go to the doctor, that Hannah smoked marijuana daily. Child welfare workers had been in Lyla’s life since she was 7 weeks old, and her father, Preston Blackwood, was arrested for alleged driving under the influence and domestic violence.

All of these situations were assessed, though no cases were opened and Lyla remained in the home. The state found later that on two other occasions, 
Aug. 28 and Oct. 29, 2013, reports of child abuse accepted for assessment weren’t handled within the assigned response time of five working days, and reasonable efforts to make contact weren’t made.

There was a referral waiting to be addressed when Lyla died and her sister was only 5 weeks old. On July 24, child-protection caseworkers received a report that Lyla had a broken arm, according to department records the Sentinel obtained.

A family member took Lyla to the doctor after noticing she wasn’t using her right arm, and a physician reported the injury to officials.

In court documents from October 2015 regarding the protection and placement of Lyla’s younger sister, former Assistant County Attorney Daniella Shively wrote, “Lyla was not using her right arm and cried when people tried to move it for her. She was taken to Docs on Call who did not find fractures. Mr. Ortiz was allegedly repositioning Lyla and popped her right shoulder. Medical personnel were concerned that Mr. Ortiz was acting strange. He was anxious and wanted things done quickly so he could leave.” The case was assigned to case manager Dannie Knutt, but wasn’t followed up on in time for Lyla.

By July 29, Lyla was dead, the result of Ortiz’s physical discipline. Her autopsy report would later acknowledge that a few days before she died, “she was diagnosed with a small proximal right humerus fracture,” and ruled that multiple blunt-force injuries to the head and neck caused her death.

Ortiz admitted to investigators that Lyla was cranky and he “knocked her on the head” using his knuckles, hit her, grabbed her, and told her to knock it off, according to law enforcement records.

“I didn’t think I hit her that hard…” he told sheriff’s investigators, noting that Hannah was at the apartment, but in the other room when this happened. She was at work, waiting tables at Olive Garden when he called 911 later that day, reporting that Lyla was unresponsive.

Human Services caseworkers should not have waited to respond to a credible report of physical injury made by a physician, critics say. And a state review of the county’s actions agrees with them, stating that the department needs to review their rules to better determine when referrals should be considered for high-risk assessment.


■ ■ ■

Ariana went to live with Hannah’s aunt by marriage, Angel Schumann, and her husband within a week of her father’s arrest. A kinship placement is required by state law to be prioritized over foster-home placement, and the Schumanns accepted the responsibility of caring for the baby. Angel was 27 at the time and had been working at a car-rental business, and initially took leave from the job to care for the baby. But as time passed, it became evident that this might be a more permanent arrangement, and she quit her job to care for the child.

Caseworkers asked if the Schumanns would consider adopting Ariana, a common practice because they are charged with considering where the child will live permanently from the beginning a case is opened. The Schumanns agreed and completed the training and classes to become certified kinship parents. But it became apparent that reunifying Ariana with her mother was the top priority. Even as the Schumanns grew closer to Ariana, they knew she would likely be returned to her mother, and that’s what happened.

Ariana was returned to her mother’s custody on May 17, when she was 10 months old, despite documented concerns about Hannah’s parenting abilities and relationship issues.

Court documents indicate there were concerns that Hannah continued to maintain a relationship with Ortiz, and had even placed a photo of him in the baby’s bedroom.

The Family Services Plan, written by caseworker Jeff Sheley, noted that the toddler had been in the agency’s custody for 293 days, or 89 percent of her life, when she was returned to Hannah. At that time, he wrote that the child “is at risk of physical harm (bruises, broken bones, severe head trauma, death) if and when Hannah is unable to identify red flags (controlling, coercion, aggressive/injurious discipline, behavioral changes in child) in relationships with men and is unable to put the needs of protection of her child above her relationships with men.”

The plan also noted that Hannah had not begun domestic violence counseling, though court records state she could have started it in December. Magistrate Stephanie Rubinstein wrote in a March court order that she had serious concerns about the lack of engagement in domestic violence counseling, and, “The concern has been, and continues to be that Mother lacks the ability to recognize when a relationship is dangerous for her or the child.”

The scenario of a single mother with a boyfriend or husband living in the home who is unrelated to her children is a recurring theme in past child-abuse fatalities in Mesa County.

Department of Human Services Executive Director Tracey Garchar said the scenario is on caseworkers’ radar and they’ve talked openly about the risks of the situation, and that the public should be aware that this is a common theme in child-abuse fatalities as well.

“If it’s your niece or your daughter or your sister that has young kids, is a single mom, and has a boyfriend, they God-damned sure better be on the lookout,” he said.

Though the Schumanns requested that his department perform a thorough parenting evaluation on Hannah before returning her daughter, one was never completed.

A policy called the expedited permanency rule requires agency caseworkers to have children age 6 or younger placed permanently no later than one year from the date they are removed from their homes, according to the county’s child-welfare department. Time was running out.

“The entire treatment team (with the exception of the kin foster home) was in support of the return of this child,” the agency wrote in an email.

The agency and Ariana’s court-appointed guardian agreed to reunite the child with her mother, before her father was sentenced in her sibling’s death.

■ ■ ■

During Ortiz’s sentencing, District Judge Thomas Deister heard stories from the defense that Ortiz had been a role model in his own family as the oldest boy, raised by a teen mom without a father. He acknowledged the irony that Ariana would grow up without her father, who was her half-sister’s killer, possibly being exposed to a non-biological step-parent, which puts her at risk for harm.

Deister referred to a statistic that says children are 120 times more likely to be injured or killed by a step-parent, an evidence-based mistreatment of stepchildren referred to as the “Cinderella effect” by researchers. Now Ariana would be subject to her mother’s next boyfriend, as her sister was exposed to Ortiz.

Blackwood, Lyla’s father, came to the sentencing for his daughter’s killer.

He blames many for his daughter’s death, though he admitted he hadn’t seen Lyla for months before her death, as he had taken a job out of town and was not involved in her life. He had split up with Hannah about nine months before Lyla died and didn’t have an official custody agreement.

“If (the county) acted sooner, who knows, she might still be alive. In my mind, that’s obvious,” Blackwood said. “They didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”

Blackwood said he was concerned about his ex’s behavior toward the man who killed their daughter.

“She bought a necklace with Lyla’s ashes and a cross and she bought one for that son-of-a-bitch, too,” he said. “My daughter’s ashes, after he killed her. I don’t know any woman who wouldn’t want to see this dude dead.”

Caseworkers also documented that Hannah kept a photo of Ortiz in Ariana’s bedroom when he was in jail before his sentencing.

Blackwood said he fears the same tragedy is destined to happen again and wishes the Schumanns had been allowed to keep the child longer.

“I feel that (the Schumanns) were very, very fit to raise her,” he said.

“I don’t think she’s safe to be a parent. I don’t think she has that momma bear instinct.”

Hannah Schumann said she feels like she’s been through enough and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Angel Schumann just prays that Lyla’s sister doesn’t share her fate, and that the baby she sheltered is safe and cared for. But she fears that a system that allowed caseworkers to fail to check up on child-abuse reports within five working days on three separate occasions with Lyla before her death will not protect Ariana. The Schumanns worry it’s only a matter of time before the mother who was in the other room when her daughter was fatally injured by a boyfriend will allow something like this to happen again, since she didn’t complete counseling before getting Ariana back.

“We want to change the law,” she said. “This waiting five days to check up on something this serious has got to stop. If there was a previous history, don’t even make it a day. Don’t wait.”

They also want procedures in place that require caseworkers to perform evaluations that determine if the biological parents have the capacity to parent in every case where a child is removed from the home.

“I worry that in six months, we’re going to be burying another baby,” she said.


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STATE FINDS FAULT WITH COUNTY

The Child Fatality Prevention System State Review Team reviews the deaths, near-fatalities and egregious incidents of abuse or neglect in cases where children who have entered the child-welfare system up to three years before the incident happened. This team examines the involvement of the welfare system with the child during this time, and looks at whether human services agencies made mistakes in protecting the child.

The history of the Mesa County Department of Human Services’ interaction with Lyla Blackwood prior to her death was one of 46 fatalities the state board reviewed in 2015. The Daily Sentinel obtained the report about her death using open-records laws.

In their review, the team found:

■ Child-protection workers erred when they considered the doctor’s office’s report of Lyla’s suspicious broken arm and decided to assign a five-working-day response time to a caseworker. “The CFRT felt strongly that a child with a broken bone, when it is unknown how the broken bone occurred, should be assessed as a High Risk Assessment until further information is known.” Five calendar days after the injury was reported, Lyla died as a result of abuse. The team recommended that the agency revise their rules to better determine risk assessment.

■ The review found that the county didn’t handle two prior reports of child abuse about Lyla appropriately. On Aug. 28, 2013, and Oct. 29, 2013, reports of abuse were not addressed in assigned response times and reasonable efforts to make contact weren’t made.

■ Mesa County’s child-protection agency has a “systemic practice issue” of not completing the Colorado Family Risk Assessment Tool, which was a new assessment the state piloted in 2015 and Mesa County began using in 2016. A random sample of assessments reviewed over a nine-month period in 2014-2015 showed it was only completed accurately 34 percent of the time. However, this was during a “transition period” to use this new tool, and the team noted that the training to use the new tool wasn’t available at the time. The state has since provided training to Mesa County.

■ Mesa County’s performance was below-average in completing another assessment, called the Colorado Safety Assessment. However, the review team noted there was no training for that document at the time, either, and that agencies were transitioning to use that new document.


Failure_to_Protect.jpg

In a four-day series, The Daily Sentinel is delving into the killings of three children who were known to the Mesa County Department of Human Services, as part of a broader examination of the child welfare and foster care systems in the county.

The purpose is to inform the public about how the children ended up living with the people who ultimately killed them or are accused of killing them, the warning signs, the fallout that resulted from the deaths, and the changes some want to see happen to try to prevent future killings.

The Sentinel reported this series using law enforcement records, court documents and interviews with Department of Human Services employees, families of children who were abused, foster families and other stakeholders.

Reports and documents not subject to the Colorado Open Records Act were provided by family members or other parties to the cases. You can view some of these documents at GJSentinel.com.

SUNDAY, SEPT. 18, 2016: Instability defined the house in which Bethannie Johnson lived — and died

MONDAY, SEPT. 19, 2016: Angel Place was taken from a loving foster mother and given to an aunt who killed her

TUESDAY, SEPT. 20, 2016: Lyla Blackwood’s death came days after an abuse report was made — and never addressed

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 21, 2016: An examination of kinship placement, the need for more foster families in Mesa County, and potential reform

If you see or suspect child abuse, call 970-242-1211 or 844-CO-4-KIDS.


COMMENTS

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It is horrifying that Mesa County Child Protective services has done such a bad job protecting children in Mesa County.You would think after countless deaths that the agency could see they are failing these poor children. My god, they get reports of abuse and do nothing. Then they take children from safe homes and give them to killers. I also found it ironic yesterday on the story of Court Magistrtate Stephanie Rubinstein was honored for her dedication to children.I can honestly say that it would be hard for me to be honored when so many children are being failed in Mesa County.To me I can’t say that any of these dead children’s needs were put first.

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