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

By Garrett Therolf, Times Staff Writer

June 6, 2011

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.

Jennifer Dalhover, Tori's 35-year-old mother, could not be reached for comment. An attorney representing Joseph Sandoval, 20, Tori's father, who was arrested on a probation charge after the girl's death, did not respond to messages.

The couple had a tempestuous relationship that included allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse committed by Dalholver against Sandoval when he was a minor, according to Kontis' letter to the court. More recently, Dalhover obtained a restraining order against Sandoval, citing domestic violence, Kontis wrote.

Several months before winning custody of Tori, Dalhover and Sandoval dropped out of contact with county social workers and discontinued court-mandated programs meant to prepare them to reunify with the girl, according to Kontis' account.
In June, they resurfaced in a Pasadena homeless shelter with a newborn child and restarted their efforts to regain their daughter, Kontis wrote. Seventy-seven days later, with their parenting programs still unfinished, they appeared at the September court hearing asking to reunite with Tori, according to Kontis' letter.

"I … have been in many children's courtrooms over the last 20 years, and I have never seen any conducted in the manner in which I witnessed that day," Kontis wrote to the court.

The hearing was closed to the public and the transcript is sealed, as is customary in juvenile cases. State legislation that would open such hearings has been placed on hold until next year, partly because of opposition from the union representing many county social workers. Kontis was among those who attended Tori's hearing.

According to Kontis' letter, the court commissioner who approved the reunification, Marilyn Mackel, "dominated her courtroom with intimidation and anger, to the point that the attorneys present barely spoke above a whisper with simple answers," Kontis wrote.

The commissioner appeared distracted when one of Tori's siblings spoke, and "reams of concerns and pages of documentation" were not acknowledged, Kontis wrote. Tori's court-appointed attorney, Robert Vasquez, told Kontis that "the history of the family does not matter, the goal is to reunify," she wrote.

Mackel did not respond to an email message or calls to her chambers and the court press office or an interview request left at her home. Leslie Starr Heimov, Vasquez's supervisor at the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, which represented Tori, said that she was stunned by Kontis' letter and that it mischaracterized Vasquez's analysis of the case. She said Vasquez had discussed Tori's case with Kontis for 30 minutes in the hallway outside the court hearing and had explained why he felt she would be returning to a safe home.

"At the time she was sent home, was there evidence to suggest that she was being hurt by her parents or that she would not be safe in their care?" Heimov asked. "If not, then the law says that she should be returned."

Heimov echoed staffers at the Edelman Children's Court in Monterey Park, where Tori's case was heard, who said Mackel and Vasquez have reputations for being conscientious. Mackel is said to delve deeply into children's histories for her cases, and Vasquez frequently arrives shortly after dawn to prepare his arguments.

After she was returned to her parents, Tori remained under the oversight of the Department of Children and Family Services until she died and should have received frequent visits from county social workers.

Internal affairs investigators at the children's service agency are looking into whether those mandated assessments were conducted and, if they were, what social workers observed. Meanwhile, Dalhover, according to interviews with county officials and friends of the family, recently became pregnant with her 11th child.