What's New/News: Vol. 4, Issue 1
Valerie L -- Murderer?
This week marked the second time in my legal career that one of my clients became connected with that unfathomable word, "murder". The first time, an alcoholic shot and killed a woman in a violent rage. The murder did not come as a surprise. Judith had threatened the lives of others in the past. She had held a gun to the head of a former lover. I had searched for assistance for her, and reported her threats. Alcohol, drug use, leading to a disability, dementia, had finally taken its toll. Prior to the murder, my client had been arrested on a minor charge of making a false police report. During my representation, I asked that her mental state be evaluated because she exhibited signs of mental illness. The doctor for the state who examined Judith reported that she was sane and competent. Within a few months, a woman was dead. What went wrong? Psychiatrists are hired by the State of Texas to examine untold numbers of mentally disturbed individuals. Their backlog is tremendous and their examinations are not as thorough as we would like if the goal is to protect the public.
The second murder, or rather, murders, occurred in late 2006 and early 2007. The front page of the Express-News covered it. A nineteen year old mother of two babies and her boyfriend became the leading suspects in the murder of the babies. The police found the bodies stuffed in plastic bags under the triplex where the couple lived. Were the murders a surprise? No. Were they predictable? Probably. Could something have been done to prevent the tragedy? Absolutely. There was a history and a tragic story of State agencies so caught up in their own rules, regulations and structure that, perhaps, the ending was inevitable.
On Friday, March 9, 2007 at 6:45 a.m., my telephone rang. I had been up a good part of the night revising my closing argument in another case. Reluctantly, I grabbed the phone, ready to bark at my legal assistant, Kassandra for waking me prior to my alarm. I knew it was her. No one else calls me at that hour.
"Did you see the newspaper yet?"
"No. What happened?"
"Valerie. Look at the paper. Is that her?"
"Her? What are you talking about?"
"Is that the Valerie you represented?"
"Her two children were murdered. The children were four and one. Go look and call me back."
"Okay. I'll call you back." I hung up, shook my head in confusion, dressed and walked outside. My mind raced. It couldn't be her. Valerie hadn't had time to have two more children especially not one who is four. Valerie would only be eighteen or nineteen years old now. Besides, there must be dozens of women with the same name in San Antonio. It's a common name. I picked up the newspaper from the end of the driveway and opened it to the front page. The picture looked like her. The picture at the very top, right edge of the newspaper looked like the Valerie I remembered. I tried again to dismiss the thought. It couldn't be her. I sat in my kitchen to read the article. In complete disbelief, I recognized Valerie, the same person whom I first met as a thirteen year old girl, pregnant for the second time and the mother of a toddler. Valerie had been taken from an abusive home by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (Child Protective Services, "CPS").
Now fear gripped me. Had she killed the two children I had grown to know during the three years I worked with Valerie? No. The dead children were four months old and one year old. "Four months?" I asked myself in disbelief. My eyes watered.
"It's time to get to court," I told myself. "Nine o'clock. Closing arguments. Who killed these children--Valerie, her boyfriend, someone else? No. Stop thinking. I became methodical. "Pick up your laptop. Grab the papers off of the printer. Think later."
We completed closing arguments about 11:10 a.m. The jury left to deliberate. I called the office.
"It was her," Kassandra told me. Her other two children, Alexis and Jeovoni, are alright. I spoke to the adoptive family. You need to call them tonight."
"What's happening there?" Kassandra asked. "You need to go to the 290th. You have a client waiting for you."
"The jury's out. I'm going to the 290th and I'll call you later."
I took the elevator to the basement and walked through the tunnel to the Justice Center. My client accepted a plea. I grabbed lunch, took it back to my office and sat down. It was the first time I had a moment to think.
"I sent a copy of the newspaper article to Dina," Kassandra told me.
I thought about the children again. "Good," I responded. "She needs to see that."
Three years with Valerie flooded my mind with thoughts--Dr. xxxxx xxxxx, Southwest I.S.D., caseworkers from CPS, foster parents, and a court system that tried to function with one judge, a tiny courtroom and low-paid, court appointed attorneys. Judge Peter Sakai ran the Children's Court back then and all of the attorneys worked together fairly well for professionals trained to be adversaries. I admired the attorneys so much that I eventually joined them fighting for the rights of whatever client we were handed--the child(ren), the father(s) or the mother. The children, abused and neglected, needed foster care. Sometimes the parents seemed evil but, at other times, lost. The lost ones were doing their best with the few resources they had. The parents of the abusive parents had not offered this next generation guidance. Poverty played a role. Ignorance contributed. So did drugs and mental illness. It was easiest working for the fathers. More often than not, they could not be found or wanted nothing to do with the child support, the CPS plan to reunite the children with the parent or, for that matter, the children. Occasionally, we ran into a responsible father who really wanted his child back. The mothers almost almost always wanted their children returned to them but frequently just could not get their act together. Illegal drugs, prostitution, crushed lives and broken bodies permeated this world.
It was 2002 when I became the guardian ad litem and the attorney ad litem for Valerie, the child, and Valerie, the mother. There were actually two court cases-- In the Interest of Valerie L and In the Interest of Alexis R. ( later In the Interest of Alexis R. and Jeovoni R.) The first case addressed Valerie as a child and the second focused on Valerie's children . This case was my first major CPS case since graduating from law school. Valerie had been physically and sexually abused for many years.. She had her first child at age thirteen. Her second was on the way. The young mother had dark brown hair, big brown eyes and just enough baby fat to give her the overall appearance of an innocent child. Valerie could not or would not identify the father of her children. She had the street wisdom of someone much older. Valerie's parents were divorced. Her mother was mentally ill and her father, although interested in keeping Valerie, was neglectful and possibly involved in the sexual abuse, although no formal allegations were made. Valerie's siblings wanted nothing to do with her. They reported that Valerie injured her daughter and gave graphic descriptions of the abuse.
Foster parents took Alexis and Jeovoni and the two children began to flourish immediately. Valerie did not do well at her initial placements. Eventually, she was placed in the same home as her children where she showed improvement. I grew to know the foster parents well. The foster family loved all three children. They were an older couple with grown children who wanted to be helpful. If there had been a more perfect placement for those children (including Valerie), I cannot imagine what it would be.
Within a few months, I began to receive some disturbing reports from the foster parents. Valerie did not seem bonded with her children. The foster parents saw no emotional attachment. In fact, they reported that Valerie would not acknowledge her children at all unless they reminded the mother to say hello, play with the children and take care of the two. Valerie would do as she was told but the foster parents saw what they perceived to be a serious problem. Valerie was emotionally detached. She also knew how to say the right things to manipulate her caretakers. The foster parents always tried to say positive things about Valerie but the darker side of this girl worried them.
Valerie had a great team working with her. The CPS caseworkers seemed to care. The foster parents could not have been better. With their help, we managed to obtain the names of a couple of the alleged (or putative) fathers. We filed paternity cases and tested one; he did not have the right DNA. Valerie had been sexually active for so long with so many men, for money or not, that she had no idea of who the father might be.
Valerie attended several different schools. She had been at McAuliffe Middle School. There she was constantly truant. Valerie complained that she had no one to babysit her daughter who was still an infant. Southwest ISD knew where Valerie lived, knew she was not attending school and chose to do nothing. When CPS became involved, the removing caseworker placed Valerie in a home in the Pearsall School District. She didn't last long in Pearsall. Soon, CPS sought another placement. That's when CPS decided to place Valerie with the foster family that had her children. She was back in Southwest I.S.D. At about the same time, the CPS caseworkers, the foster parents and I realized that Valerie had fallen several years behind her peers academically. The psychological exam performed by CPS depicted a profile of an individual with bipolar disorder and other psychological problems. The school district disagreed. They blamed her academic performance on the student's past history of truancy and dismissed the concerns of Valerie's supportive team.
As Valerie continued to fall behind, I spoke with the caseworkers and the foster family and we filed a Request for a Due Process Hearing. We all agreed that we needed to be proactive, have the district identify the student as a child with special needs (Special Education) and force the district into providing necessary services to the student. I filed for the Due Process Hearing and the case was heard before a Special Education Hearing Officer on May 2, 2003.
Two things went wrong. See http://www.tea.state.tx.us/special.ed/hearings/pdf/1690203.pdf for the decision of the hearing officer.
First, Dr. xxxxx xxxx, hired by Southwest ISD, tested Valerie on March 11, 2003 and, to the team's amazement, found nothing psychologically wrong with Valerie. I, on the other hand, was not surprised. I knew the district and I had anticipated the results. (I had been a special education supervisor for that district for three years prior to law school.) Valerie did qualify as a child with a "mild learning disability in written expression" and we still had the CPS assessment showing that the student had psychological problems. What we wanted was instruction on parenting skills, anger management and how to cope with the stress of caring for young children. Valerie was not emotionally in touch with her children. She had to learn the skills that would assist her with dealing with life on a day to day basis despite her psychological disabilities related to years of abuse.
The second thing that went wrong was not anticipated by me. The day before the hearing, the CPS caseworkers who had indicated that they would testify regarding Valerie's emotional instability called to tell me that their supervisors would not allow them to testify. It seems that there is an unwritten (or maybe written) rule that state agencies cannot testify against each other. I had no reliable witnesses. Every professional with personal knowledge of Valerie abandoned her at the hearing. The foster dad would testify but his limited knowledge of special education and that system would be a barrier, at best. Additionally, at the time of the hearing, Valerie had lived with the foster family for only a few months.
The day of the hearing, Dr. xxxx xxxxx testified glowingly of the progress Valerie was making. She stated that Valerie would be just fine in another year or so. She sounded confident of her diagnosis. Despite the volume of evidence, never reviewed by the psychologist, of mental problems documented by me from the caseworkers and foster parents, Valerie was deemed to be making significant improvements according to Dr. xxxxx's sworn testimony. Dr. xxxxx never addressed the abuse and neglect that Valerie had experienced as a child from being molested and prostituted. She did not speak with the foster families who had asked CPS to remove the child from her home. Dr. xxxxx did not discuss those parts of Valerie’s life when she testified about Valerie's psychological needs and what the school should do to address these issues in order to help this child to become a productive and stable member of society.
Although we lost at the hearing, Valerie's entire team was determined to stay involved and to push the ARD committee into developing an appropriate educational plan. We all attended the next ARD meeting. Unfortunately, without the appropriate diagnosis, Valerie's serious emotional problems would not be addressed. With only the diagnosis of a mild disorder in written expression, Valerie would not receive the counseling and other necessary services to assist her. Valerie had no academic (i.e. educational) need, according to the school staff. She was making academic progress. It was Valerie’s serious emotional and psychological needs that were being ignored. How could anyone hope for a positive outcome without addressing Valerie’s psychological needs? CPS could provide counseling but not day to day intensive educational intervention that Valerie appeared to require.
The foster family moved the following year to the Northside ISD. At John Jay High School, the staff recognized Valerie's problems and began taking steps to assist the student. I attended ARD meetings at John Jay. I took Valerie to lunch from time to time and provided as much positive reinforcement as I could. Maybe it was too late. Although Valerie continued to make some progress and even entered the ROTC with the encouragement of the staff, Valerie ran away in the Spring of 2005 from the John Jay campus (and her children and foster parents) just a few months short of her eighteenth birthday.
After that, Valerie would call me from time to time. She would always call me at home in the evening. She asked about her children. I would tell her how everyone was doing and ask her where she was and how she was. She would tell me very little and would not reveal where she lived. Once she called after her parental rights were terminated. We talked about it. At some point, I realized that Valerie was pregnant again. I am not sure what Valerie might have said that made me come to that realization. I informed CPS. I even drove around in the area where Valerie used to live looking for her. The last time Valerie called, I heard a baby crying in the background. I knew it was hers. Once again, I called CPS. They were not responsive.
The following year, the foster parents adopted Valerie's two oldest children, Alexis and Jeovoni. I slowly stopped thinking so much about t Valerie and her problems--until now.
Tonight, I learned that the police had arrested Valerie and her boyfriend and charged Valerie with murder. Valerie confessed to killing her daughter on Christmas Eve. Her son died a short time later when, according to Valerie, she rolled over on him. Worse, the next story I read actually preceded this evening's news. CPS had found Valerie in the past year. They suspected she was abusing the daughter. CPS had the authority to remove the children based upon the previous court order terminating Valerie's parental rights more than a year earlier. They chose to do nothing.
Valerie's story is a tragic tale of government systems going awry. In my thirty years with the system, I have concluded that special education at Southwest ISD and throughout Texas is dysfunctional and the only way to fix it is through legislative action at the state and national level. Special education law is federal law regulated by the states. Some states, and some districts, take their mandates more seriously than others. In Texas, the hearing officers are trained by and paid by the Texas Education Agency, an agency full of previous administrators and others who are closely tied to the school districts. The chance of prevailing at a due process hearing is about 15% and it takes expert witnesses of greater stature than the school's experts to prevail. There are also no baseline standards from which to begin. In other words, the burden remains on the parents, at all times, to prove that the school district is not doing its job. The deck is stacked against the parents or guardians of the child.
The system failed these deceased children and Valerie. CPS does not offer foster parents an in-depth guide to the special education process despite the fact that many of the children removed from their homes by CPS are children with special needs. Valerie’s foster parents, while exemplary in so many ways, were not equipped to act as Valerie’s advocates. CPS also failed Valerie because her caseworkers could not testify on Valerie’s behalf. It is inconceivable that a state agency that has caseworkers testify daily before a state district court can refuse to allow the same caseworkers to honestly and openly testify in an administrative hearing about the needs of a child in their care and custody. More tragic is the fact that CPS had found Valerie and took no action to immediately remove her two youngest children. That fact is beyond my ability to grasp. CPS had the file. CPS knew the diagnosis. Were the current caseworkers also depending on Dr. xxxx xxxx’s and Southwest ISD’s testing? We will never know and two children are dead.
Unfortunately, long before the system failed these children, the system failed Valerie as a child. She had an opportunity to turn her life around, be part of the family that sheltered her children and receive counseling and a "free and appropriate" education. Southwest ISD, with the support of their hired expert, Dr. xxxxx xxxxx, decided that Valerie was not in need of these services. In their bottom line, Southwest saved the cost of counseling, education and psychological treatment that could have cemented Valerie’s new life. Tragically, Valerie’s children, Sariyah and Sebastian, paid the price.
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