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Sun Aug 18, 2013, 09:08 AM

Death of 2-year-old points to lack of accountability [View all]





http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/death-of-2-year-old-points-to-lack-of-accountabili/nZRkN/?icmp=statesman_internallink_textlink_apr2013_statesmanstubtomystatesman_launch

Another civil function that should not be privatized.

By Andrea Ball - American-Statesman Staff

Sherill Small was headed to criminal court for passing a bad check when a state-hired company approved her to care for foster children.

Her husband has two convictions for delivery of marijuana, court records show. Her two adult daughters, who live in the area and visit the Small house, had legal problems of their own. One served prison time for robbery. Court records show the other has an unresolved drug charge.

Still, Texas Mentor, the child placing agency, approved the Smalls as foster parents, and it continued to send them children even when the home showed more signs of trouble.

Now Small is charged with murder in the death of Alexandria Hill, a 2-year-old girl in her care. Police say the 54-year-old Rockdale woman slammed Alex’s head on the floor, causing a traumatic brain injury that killed the toddler two days later.

It is unclear how many warning signs Texas Mentor saw when it licensed the Smalls as foster parents last fall, but the case illustrates the kind of judgment calls that child placing agencies have to make when choosing caretakers. And it underscores weaknesses in a fragmented system that spreads the responsibility for 11,500 children among more than 200 private vendors.

The state takes custody of children. Private organizations find them homes. Subcontractors often study homes for eligibility. That splintered process makes it much more complicated to deconstruct why warning signs were missed, parent advocates say.

Officials with Child Protective Services say the state shoulders the blame for Alex’s death. But the current system makes it nearly impossible for the state to know what’s going on with the children, said Johana Scot with the Parent Guidance Center, which advocates for parents of minors in the foster system.

“They’re trusting that people like Texas Mentor do what they’re supposed to do,” Scot said. “But do they really have capacity to monitor those contracts? Probably not.”

<snip>

In October 2012, the Smalls started taking in foster children. Over the next 10 months, they would house seven children, all between the ages of 6 weeks and 13 years old.

Because Texas Mentor is refusing to release any details about its decision, it’s unclear what the company knew about the Smalls before licensing them.

Court records show that Sherill Small was accused of theft by passing a hot check in February 2012 for $41.81 at a Speedy Stop in Southeast Austin. A judge signed a warrant for her arrest in August 2012, two months before she was approved as a foster parent.

Small’s husband, Clemon, had at least four misdemeanor convictions, all of which had occurred more than a decade earlier. Two of them were for delivery of marijuana, two for driving with a suspended license.

Court records show that one of Sherill Small’s adult daughters, Tracy Forester, had an unresolved misdemeanor drug possession charge at the time the Smalls were approved for foster care.

A second daughter, Amber Forester, was convicted in 2002 of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery, according to court documents. Police said she and a man staged a robbery at a gas station where she worked, taking one of her co-workers hostage before letting her go and making off with cash, lottery tickets and money orders.

Forester pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison.

<snip>

On July 29th, Sherill Small was upset that Alex woke up too early, and she made the toddler stand in time-out for two hours, Newlin said.

At 7:06 p.m., Sherill Small called 911 and said Alex wasn’t breathing, Newlin said. The child was flown to McLane Children’s Hospital at Scott & White in Temple, where she was put on life support. Doctors said the toddler had sustained a traumatic brain injury.

“I stood looking at her and knew in my heart she wasn’t going to make it,” Sweeney said.

On July 31, Alex’s parents took her off life support.

Small was arrested Aug. 1 after telling police that Alex’s injury was an accident that occurred while she was swinging the child over her head as they played, an affidavit says. The police say they charged her based on inconsistent details in her statement, interviews with family members and a medical examiner’s report that ruled Alex’s death a homicide.

A grand jury indicted Small on a capital murder charge last week, meaning Small could face life in prison or the death penalty if she is convicted.

“Texas Mentor should never have allowed her anywhere near that child,” Cirkiel said.

Since Alex’s death, Sweeney has created a little memorial to her daughter at home, a purple shelf decorated with Alex’s stuffed animals, pictures, sneakers and other personal items.

In the center of the display, in a box made of wood and stained glass, rest Alex’s ashes.

EXPERT REPORTING

Andrea Ball has covered social services for the American-Statesman since 2002. Recently, her work prompted a federal investigation that concluded poor health care killed a patient at Terrell State Hospital. She has also reported about sluggish efforts to find affordable housing for homeless people and complaints about adult guardianship services in Texas.

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Reply Death of 2-year-old points to lack of accountability [View all]
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