Red flags unheeded before foster child died

Published: Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2011 - 3:17 pm

Part one in a three-part series.

Four hours before sunrise on a foggy Sacramento night, a woman's wail pierced the silence of a suburban street. Flames crackled to life. Neighbors awakened, and some rushed outside. Others watched from their windows.

"My baby, my baby," the woman howled in the darkness.

At 3:27 a.m. on Jan. 11, 2008 – seven minutes after the first emergency call – Engine 15 from the Sacramento Fire Department was first to arrive at the stucco home on Sweet Pea Way. There, a neighbor with a garden hose already had made the sickening discovery.

A 4 1/2-year-old child lay dead on the living room floor, her tiny body grotesquely burned.

This was where Amariana Antoinette Crenshaw, a little girl with big brown eyes who loved to dance, ended her journey through the child welfare system. She had spent more than half of her short life being protected by Sacramento County, taken from her biological parents and placed into foster care.

Now she was dead, the victim of what a deputy county attorney would later describe as a "random act of violence" and an "unforeseeable, unpreventable tragedy."

On the second anniversary of Amariana's death, police still have no suspects, and a spokesman says their criminal investigation has stalled. But a Bee investigation raises new questions about how the child wound up in harm's way, despite being surrounded by legal protectors from the county, the state, the juvenile court, her foster-family agency and, of course, her foster mom.

The official story is this: Around 3:20 a.m., a Molotov cocktail – possibly two – ignited on or near the little girl as she lay sleeping on the first floor of her foster mother's vacant rental property. Sacramento police and federal arson investigators say they are confident that the homemade devices came in from outside.

Within 24 hours of the fire, the 39-year-old foster mother, Tracy Dossman, was cleared as a suspect. Dossman remains a certified foster provider and currently has five children in her care, ages 10 to 18. She has adopted Amariana's older half sister.

There is, however, much more to the story.

Amariana Crenshaw's short life and terrible death produced thousands of pages of investigative reports, government records and court transcripts. Yet no single agency, it seems, had a complete view of the girl's life and the red flags that littered her pathway. Often, one agency seemed unaware of another agency's concerns.

When The Bee followed the paper trail through 16 agencies – local, state and federal – a complex picture emerged.

Before her death, Amariana suffered a series of injuries in foster care. She was placed with a foster mother whose ex-boyfriend, a convicted cocaine dealer, listed both the foster home and the rental property as addresses in court and other public records.

Acrimony and public feuding dominated the relationship between Amariana's biological parents and her foster mother. Meanwhile, the foster mother – with a history of violations against her home – had a close relationship with Sacramento County Child Protective Services. In fact, a CPS supervisor was buying the Sweet Pea Way house at the time of the arson fire.

In death, Amariana herself left a tangle of unanswered questions. Even her autopsy report turns out to be anything but clear-cut.

The evening after the fire, Curtis Crenshaw was returning to Sacramento after celebrating his son's 21st birthday in the Bay Area.

Crenshaw, Amariana's biological father, said he adored his only daughter. He still refers to her as his "angel" and his "little princess." He remembers how she loved the Barbie doll he gave her.

The child's biological mother, Anisha Hill, had called the girl "Ana" since birth. Hill considered Ana a happy and playful child, though somewhat quiet – except around music, when she would break into gleeful dance, especially to her favorite song: "Tell Me When To Go," by E-40.

Hill and Crenshaw no longer were together. Yet here she was, calling him on a Friday on his cell phone.

Police already had reached Hill at her apartment in the North Sacramento area with the shocking news. Now she was delivering the same news to Amariana's father.

"I almost drove off the road," said Crenshaw, 48, a sturdy, 6-foot-2 man.

Amariana had been in foster care for 30 months by then while the couple fought the county to get her back. Both parents remained bitter over how CPS and the juvenile court had decided 2 1/2 years earlier that Amariana was not safe with either of them.

Now their little girl was dead.

"I was just out of my mind," said Crenshaw, who sped to Sacramento and headed to the police station.

To this day, Crenshaw insists he warned anyone who would listen – and some who would not – that Amariana was not safe in foster care.

For months after Amariana was placed in Dossman's home in mid-2005, Crenshaw and Hill complained repeatedly to CPS and to the juvenile court about facial injuries the child seemed to be chronically suffering. Once, Crenshaw said, Amariana's teeth had nearly broken through her lip, and the swelling was so severe it seemed more like a boxer's injury.

"I couldn't do nothing but cry," he said.

Their complaints are documented in both state and county case files and in court transcripts. But neither the county nor the court was receptive.

In one internal CPS document, a county social worker scolded Crenshaw for being "unreasonable" and overreacting to his daughter's "minor injuries."

Amariana's biological parents admit they had problems – including their stormy on-again, off-again relationship.

When they met, Crenshaw was already married with three stepchildren and three older biological sons. Hill was addicted to drugs and getting into trouble with the law.

By the time Amariana was born at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento on May 29, 2003, the couple were fighting constantly, Hill recalled.

In August 2004, Hill and her three children – Amariana, an older daughter and a teenage son – had come under county scrutiny after one of the couple's violent arguments in which they reportedly struck each other in front of the children.

Child Protective Services opened a case.

Hill struggled with her commitment to the plan – missing parenting classes and failing drug screens, testing positive seven times in six months for marijuana, amphetamine and methamphetamine, according to county documents. Crenshaw had spent five years in prison for drug sales, but he went on to complete a substance abuse treatment plan in 2005 under California's Proposition 36.

By mid-2005, the agency determined that the three children – ages 2, 5 and 13 – should be placed in protective custody because of their mother's "chronic substance abuse," according to a CPS report.

Hill said initially she was in favor of her children's placement with Dossman in July 2005 while she did some jail time. The two women knew each other; Hill's younger sister has children by Dossman's half brother. Hill said she had considered Tracy Dossman "a friend."

Later, when Hill got out of jail, their relationship deteriorated, with Hill claiming that Dossman wouldn't let her see the children.

"When I got out, she was just transformed," Hill said.

Court records show that Dossman got a restraining order against Hill in 2006, telling the court the biological mother was hounding and threatening her.

Dossman, now 41, initially agreed to be interviewed for these stories but did not keep an appointment with The Bee. Reached later by phone, she declined to comment, and has not responded to letters mailed to her residence or left on the doorstep.

"I don't have anything to say to you guys, because you don't tell the truth about me," she said.

On Jan. 3, 2007, the juvenile court agreed with the county's recommendation and terminated the parental rights of Curtis Crenshaw and Anisha Hill.

Crenshaw vowed to file an appeal.

"It's filed as soon as I walk out this door," he told the juvenile court referee after his ruling. "I'm not going to give up. I'm going to work myself in the dirt."

"OK," responded the referee, Scott P. Harman. "Good luck to both of you."

Amariana Crenshaw would live one more year.

Sweet Pea Way is a short street, bending through a pleasant pocket of the city south of West El Camino Avenue. The mixture of one- and two-story homes, built in the late 1990s between Interstate 80 and Interstate 5, are well kept, with colorful splashes of flowers and garden ornaments in their front yards.

This is where 4 1/2-year-old Amariana Crenshaw would suffer a "very horrific death," catching on fire and burning to death from a Molotov cocktail, according to a police spokesman.

The rental home, which Dossman bought for about $250,000 in 2002, had been an ongoing source of problems. State records would later reveal that Dossman's foster family agency didn't even know about the rental property until after Amariana's death.

Dossman had turned the 2,300-square-foot home into Section 8 housing for low-income residents, and had evicted at least two tenants since 2004, including one woman just before the fire, court records show.

The rental property was about seven miles south of an even larger five-bedroom home in North Natomas that Dossman also owned and shared with her foster children and others. She had paid $450,000 for that 3,300-square-foot home in 2006, though records show she actually lived in the property earlier.

By January 2008, Dossman had a full house, and the large family had just gotten through a difficult Christmas. At the time, the household included Dossman's two biological children, 9 and 19, an 18-year-old nephew and six foster children. The foster kids, including Amariana and her older sister, were 4, 8, 15, 15, 16 and 17. Four were girls; two were boys.

The children provided solid income. In a civil suit filed by Dossman in 2008, her attorney states that she earned about $800 a month for each of the foster children – an amount that corresponds with the state's rates that year for older children with higher needs.

During the 2007 Christmas holiday season, Dossman, who is unmarried, worked part time at Sam's Club and left the older children in charge, according to documents from the state's Community Care Licensing Division.

In California, foster parents are allowed to work as long as they don't have children with special needs requiring a parent to be at home full time. But, in this case, a CPS supervisor told the state that the home was in "chaos" because "the younger children didn't know who was in charge."

Between Christmas and New Year's, the report states, a bicycle lock was found on the refrigerator – the second time in 10 months that Dossman had been cited for sealing off the children's access to food, a state licensing violation.

On the evening of Jan. 10, 2008, Dossman took Amariana and four teenagers to the rental property to clean up after the recently evicted tenant.

Why Dossman brought along the youngest child is never explained in documents. By then, a contradictory picture had emerged in the records of Amariana's personality, with one agency social worker suggesting the little girl might be getting picked on while other entries portrayed her as an erratic aggressor prone to outbursts.

For most of the children, the excursion to Sweet Pea Way fell on a school night – a Thursday going on Friday.

The rental house had been emptied of furniture. The night was overcast, and the temperature dipped to about 49 degrees by 3:15 a.m. Friday.

As a police sergeant later explained it, Amariana, the youngest of the children, was sleeping on the floor at the front of the house while the older children had dozed off on a rug in another room, state records show.

In her statement to CPS, Dossman explained that she lay down with Amariana and slept for a while, then woke up and resumed cleaning in the kitchen. About 3 a.m., she reportedly said, she heard a "big exploding noise" and the living room was engulfed in flames, a CPS document states.

The foster mom "instinctively ran outside and yelled for help," then returned to the house but was unable to locate the children in the smoke, the CPS report says.

"She had to go back outside where she (was) joined with everyone except Amariana," according to her statement to CPS.

Next door, Maty Fernandes, her husband and their daughter were sleeping when they were rattled awake by the screams. Fernandes' husband raced outside in his shorts.

"There's a fire, and the baby's trapped inside!" he came back and told her. He grabbed a water hose. Fernandes said her husband later described how he spotted a body in the living room, but "everything was in flames."

"He knew he was too late," said Fernandes, 49, shaking her head.

Outside, Fernandes could hear Dossman howling, "My baby, my baby, my baby."

"She was crazy, she was mad crazy," said Fernandes, recalling how Dossman was held back by bystanders as she tried to re-enter the burning home.

Sacramento firefighters finished extinguishing the blaze, but it was, in fact, too late. Dossman and the older kids had escaped unharmed. Not Amariana.

The girl, who had been lying in the living room, which faced the street, was pronounced dead at 3:29 a.m.

A firefighter from Engine 15 pulled her from the house and laid her on the front lawn, covering her body, said Sacramento Fire Capt. Jim Doucette.

Amariana had been severely burned, with third- and fourth-degree burns over about 95 percent of her body. The pathologist later found tiny, charred fragments of what appeared to be sequined pajamas stuck to her remains.

Doucette remembered how small and confined the fire turned out to be.

"There was not a lot of fire at all. It was mainly on the floor," he said. "Unfortunately, it looked like it landed right on top of her."

The fire was a jolt for the neighborhood, including the small street directly behind the burning home. The nine homes along Cool Fountain Court had their own neighborhood watch, and resident Randy Rangel – now a 42-year-old father of six – watched the scene in disbelief from his second-story bathroom window.

He also had heard the wailing. He remembered seeing the headlights of a car turn around in front of the rental home and drive away shortly before the firetrucks arrived.

"The smoke was just billowing out the back," said Rangel, one of several to call 911.

Amid puffs of black smoke, Rangel remembered seeing a figure – possibly male – step out the sliding back door.

Amariana Crenshaw's autopsy began at 1:30 p.m. that Friday, 10 hours after she had been pronounced dead.

The Sacramento County Coroner's Office determined the cause of death to be "thermal burns" from two Molotov cocktails hurled through the front living-room window. Among the findings was a "contusion of left upper lung lobe consistent with blast injury."

In the Sacramento pathologist's opinion, the devices "exploded very near, and possibly even on the decedent," causing her death within seconds.

But Chief Forensic Pathologist Mark A. Super also expressed ambiguity about some of his findings. The Bee asked six other forensic pathologists and fire experts to give a second opinion, providing them Super's full autopsy report.

While two experts agreed with Super's assessment, three others did not – and another was undecided.

In his report, Super notes a lack of carboxyhemoglobin in the girl's blood, acknowledging, "I cannot completely rule out that the decedent was not breathing when the firebombs exploded."

Carboxyhemoglobin is formed in carbon monoxide poisoning; its sources include smoke from a fire and vehicle exhaust.

Coroner's spokesman Ed Smith, speaking on Super's behalf, said that the pathologist "has no explanation" for the absence of carbon monoxide in Amariana's blood, nor for the lack of soot in her airway and lungs.

Others offered a possible explanation.

Two forensic pathologists who have worked on some of the country's highest-profile cases said the evidence shows that Amariana did not die in the fire. Both said the lack of soot and carbon monoxide point to a different scenario: Amariana wasn't breathing when the fire started.

"Case is a homicide," said Dr. Vincent DiMaio, the former chief medical examiner for Bexar County in San Antonio, and editor in chief of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. "The child was dead before the fire."

Dr. Cyril Wecht, who has reviewed the deaths of numerous public figures, said he believes that "something is very, very wrong here."

"The autopsy was not bad, but the conclusions are quite incorrect," Wecht said. "There is no question in my mind that this child was already dead."

The killing power of a Molotov cocktail also came into question among experts.

DiMaio and Wecht said that a Molotov cocktail – basically, a breakable bottle filled with flammable liquid and a wick – does not generate enough blast force or pressure to instantly kill. The victim most certainly would have drawn some breaths, thus inhaling soot and carbon monoxide, said the two pathologists.

John DeHaan, an internationally recognized fire investigator based in Vallejo, said his numerous experiments with Molotov cocktails demonstrate that the weapon lacks the concussive force to produce fatal blast injuries.

Unlike a hand grenade, which causes the greatest damage to anything or anyone close by, a Molotov cocktail generates more energy as it moves away from the contact point. Energy builds as the flammable mist in the room disperses and ignites, sometimes with enough force to blow out windows, DeHaan said.

"But if you're close to the device, all you're going to do is get burned," he said.

DeHaan, president of Fire-Ex Forensics consulting firm, also was troubled by the lack of inflammation or scorching in the girl's air passages noted in the autopsy. In the kind of hot, fast fire envisioned by Sacramento police investigators, the victim almost certainly would have inhaled hot gases, he said.

Wecht even challenged Amariana's official time of death.

The Sacramento pathologist found that the girl's stomach contained about 225 milliliters of food, or approximately 7 1/2 ounces, indicating Amariana died about two hours after eating, Smith said. Wecht said that would have meant the child ate a full meal sometime after 1 a.m.

For one noted pathologist, though, the Sacramento coroner's findings were consistent with a "homemade bomb."

"Blast injuries can kill from the force of the blast, and there should be no surprise that carbon monoxide levels would be low," said Dr. Joye M. Carter, chief forensic pathologist with the Marion County Coroner's Office in Indianapolis.

Another expert said a victim could die quickly in a blast if the event dramatically affected heart and lung function. Dr. Karen Griest, a forensic pathologist in New Mexico, also said that heat from hot, quick fires can cause the top of the windpipe to reflexively close, preventing inhalation of carbon monoxide or soot.

"This is not inconsistent with an accelerant fire," she said.

However, Griest said she was troubled by the presence in Amariana's blood of naproxen, a drug used to manage pain, fever and inflammation.

In adults, common side effects of naproxen – sold as Aleve and more potent prescription products – include drowsiness, dizziness, upset stomach and bowel problems.

"That's pretty powerful stuff," said Griest, editor of the Pediatric Trauma and Forensic Newsletter.

Super, the Sacramento pathologist, notes in his report that naproxen "has not been adequately studied in children less than 5 years of age, and is not recommended in this age group."

And there was something else. The little girl who had been nicknamed "Tank" by her biological parents was no longer chunky at all.

At 36 inches and 29 pounds, the autopsy notes, she was "below expected normal range in weight and stature." The fire would not have significantly altered the measurements, the Sacramento coroner's spokesman said.

If the postmortem height and weight measurements accurately reflect her size in life, that means Amariana Crenshaw grew 3 inches but gained only 1 pound in the three years following her 20-month checkup, based on early childhood medical records obtained by The Bee.

Most of that time was spent in foster care, in a home cited twice by the state for its locked refrigerator.

Amariana Crenshaw's memorial service was held two years ago today, a rainy Thursday nearly two weeks after her death. A tiny white coffin sat on a table at the front of the chapel, a spray of flowers on top and a stuffed Pooh bear resting nearby.

From the back of the Morgan Jones Funeral Home on Broadway, Jeannette Flowers Kimmons – a community activist with her own Christian ministry – could clearly see the physical chasm that divided the mourners.

On one side of the chapel: Dossman and her family and friends.

On the other: Crenshaw and Hill and their supporters.

It was almost like the ritual of a wedding, with brides' and grooms' families formally separated by an aisle.

But there was no joy here. They all had gathered in Oak Park to say goodbye to the 4 1/2-year-old girl whose badly burned body had been recovered two weeks earlier from her foster mother's rental property.

The biological family was clearly outnumbered. A group of Hill's relatives from the Bay Area had gotten lost and missed the service.

A few county Child Protective Services workers slipped into seats at the back.

Anisha Hill was visibly agitated. Her family was so upset by the memorial service program prepared by Dossman and the county that a relative later paid to have another bulletin made. Antoinette Hill, Anisha's mother, was among the biological family left off the survivors' list in the official program.

The county had helped the foster mother plan the service, and a social worker signed the order for Amariana's body to be cremated – against the biological parents' wishes.

Their parental rights had been terminated a year earlier and, even in death, Hill and Crenshaw were never getting their daughter back.

Amariana Crenshaw's remains were given to Tracy Dossman.

COMING MONDAY

Amariana's brief, tragic life in foster care.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Marjie Lundstrom



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